“Oh, I don’t know anything about wine” or “I just like the kind that gets me drunk” I hear these phrases all the time from my peers, even my most food and flavor obsessed friends. Yet, despite happily dropping $50 on a dinner and another $40 on cocktails in a night, it seems that people my age don’t seem to attend wine dinners. Brian Otis, the representative of Matthews Estate and I mulled over this. It strikes us both as disappointing that these opportunities for great food, amazing wines and education are dismissed. I had chosen to accept the free media pass to Monsoon East’s Matthews Estate wine dinner to discern if there was truly value in attending such a dinner. Yes, I do see the irony. I began a mental tally of how many things went above and beyond my average $45 a person night out with friends–that’s figuring splitting an appetizer, my own entree and one glass of wine. This meal was 5 courses, plus an amuse bouche and a dessert (with cocktail), 6 glasses of wine (refilled, so really more like 8 or 9), and coffee. Tip and tax all included.
Before the food was served I struck up a conversation with Mr. Otis and we discussed the donated Veuve Clicquot. He explained to us the origin of the wine’s name, the widow who basically invented the modern champagne. I asked a few more questions about various champagne type wines, cavas and proseccos. It was a little like having a private wine encyclopedia. Chalk up one point for being very worth while.
Unfortunately, that point is counteracted when the first course is served. Our beautiful Kusshi oysters must have been plated a while ago, as the oyster is warm and the smoked dill cucumbers overwhelm the oyster with smokiness. A beautiful presentation, matched well with the champagne, but an unfortunate bite.
I began to worry as we started the next course. One look at my scallop told me the sous-vide then searing around (as oppose to the top and bottom) of the scallop had somehow overcooked the scallop. I heard someone remark the texture reminded them of chicken. That’s not a good thing. However, there were two saving graces to this course. The first was a marvelous yuzu curd which lifted the muted flavor of overcooked scallop and lent it the luxurious feel of a curd and bright flavors of a citrus. The second saving grace of the course was the wine. The Champagne matched up perfectly and kept the weight of the dish from pulling down the palate. Ups and downs even out this dish on the points scale.
I could detect the crispiness of my Idaho trout from across the room, and while it was a well cooked piece of fish, the start of the show was the roasted sweet corn with smoked bacon vinaigrette. This was like bacon popped popcorn, that crisp flavor of popcorn, with a this time not overly smokey flavor. A Sauvignon Blanc from Matthews Estate which was much inquired about but not actually available for sale, as it has been sold out was our wine. The wine was bright and matched well with the fish, yet finished with a crisp flavor that was caramel, but without the sweetness. This was a trend, these wonderful wines with absolutely beautiful finishes. Definitely a point here for the wine pairing and for the bacon popped corn flavor–which reminds me to pop some popcorn in bacon fat and top with bacon salt in the near future.
The next course took the dinner in a new direction: that of it wowing me with the food. 72 Hour braised short ribs had the texture of a perfectly medium rare steak. The gnocchi beneath it could have used a little bit of a sear, but were as light and fluffy as any I’ve seen in Seattle. Listening to chef Nathan describe the process and theories behind the dish helped me to understand not only what went into the dish, but into the thought behind the wine pairing. This dish went with the Claret. In describing the Claret, winemaker Aryn Morell (whose name was sadly, misspelled on the menu) corrected the definition of Claret I had learned from NPR. It is made from the second class grapes, those that didn’t go into the prime Bordeaux blend. Ding, Ding, Ding, this dinner was racking up points with me as my wine education skyrocketed and I ate a fantastic piece of meat, which in and of itself would have made a great $25 entree. The wine might not have been their premium blend, but the things that brought it further from a premium wine were the same that matched it up well with the fatty braised meat.
The dinner till now had gotten better and better with each sip and each bite, and while the wine in our next course continued that trend, the beef tongue, while tasty just had a rough time improving upon the short ribs. The expertise of the chef still shone in his horseradish buttermilk and apple and parsnip salad, but I needed more of that sauce to amp up the somewhat bland flavor of the beef tongue and the lack of cohesive texture on it. Some parts were mushy, others chewy, all in all, I just like the pieces I could dip into the sauce. Like the yuzu curd on the scallop, the dish was excellent as long as the condiment lasted. This was paired with the Columbia Valley Red Wine, an easy drinker that was heavy on the Merlot. One point for the sauce and wine, but one also denied for mediocrity with the meat.
At this point I was still dreaming of those shortribs, wishing I had taken Aryn, the winemaker and his wife Edith’s offer of the extras on their plates, when the pork belly landed. That’s the picture atop this post. This dish nailed, with precision, the intersection of great wine and great food. The perfectly cooked pork belly both melted in my mouth and had ample outer crispness to give great feeling while eating. Meanwhile the mustard greens and the fried quail egg, aside from contributing to a visually stunning dish, made textural contributions of their own. But once again the condiment, the sauce, stole the show, this one in the form of a cabernet grape reduction made with grapes from the same place as those in the wines we tasted. This sauce was like wine flavored crack and astutely bridged the gap between our food and our wine, melding the experiences to the point where they were nearly indistinguishable. That’s a three pointer. Wait, no, a million points. Forget this system, I just want to go swimming in the cabernet sauce, floating around on an island of pork belly. In the shade of a mustard green tree and under a blanket of fried quail egg. Oh, what? Where was I?
It would have been near impossible to one up that course, but from the heavenly scent of the vanilla cream cocktail that came with the dessert, I might have admitted it could happen. While the scent oversold the dish a bit–seriously it was the best thing I’ve smelled in years–the dish was a well conceived, well executed take on apple pie a la mode, with crisped lumpia wrappers as crust and an apple jelly (with apple chunks) as filling, the cocktail as the ice cream.
To me, to deny that this wine dinner wasn’t worth every penny of the $100 it was charging would be near impossible. I wouldn’t expect this to be an every day experience for people my age and salary range, but I think for a once or twice a year thing, to delve deeply in to the wines we drink and the food we eat, and more than that, the point at which they intersect, is an important part of understanding great meals. In between times, wine educations can come from the blurbs on the grocery store aisles or at free wine tastings (I highly recommend 12th and Olive wine shop if you’re in Seattle).