Chino Cum Vino
About ten years ago, I started habitually breaking one of the cardinal rules associated with drinking alcohol: I began ordering wine in Asian restaurants. Retribution from the community at large was swift -- based on the supposition that only somebody who couldn't not drink would order Chardonnay with cashew chicken, I was immediately labeled an addict.
True, most of the wine offered back then in the local neighborhood joints was typically on a par with the food, designed to appeal to anyone with an opposable thumb who was capable of twisting off a screw cap. Wine lists were rarities. So to be fair, my desire to suck down a glass of totally prosaic stuff rather than just go without was open to interpretation.
Of course I saw nothing wrong with it. For one thing, yeah, I do love to drink wine. I find it hard to consume a meal without at least a glass or two. I prefer to think of my habit as urbane and European, however, as opposed to asinine and alcoholic. But the issue of drinking wine with Asian food really comes down to preconceived snobbery. After all, if a spicy, full-bodied Zinfandel complements a porterhouse in a place like Capital Grill, why wouldn't it go equally well with beef and broccoli at restaurants such as Bamboo Garden?
For the past decade, restaurants like Pacific Time, with significant wine menus and sommeliers on hand to aid in navigating them, have helped me make the case to myself that I wasn't just living in denial. For the past six months, it seems, eateries such as Tropical Chinese and PAO, who both have held sophisticated Asian wine dinners paired with primo vinos, have helped me prove to everybody else that I really was just trying to enjoy a holistic dining experience (and maybe cleanse my palate a little bit between courses). Honest.
But I'm not the only one to encounter resistance along the path to epicurean illumination. PAO's wine director Josh Moulton, who recently hosted a dinner for the South Florida chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food, faced a very real obstacle that evening -- not the actual pairings of the hot and sour cabbage with a Salmon Run Riesling from the Finger Lakes region of New York, or even the surprisingly smart combo of Manila clams in black bean sauce with the Argyle Pinot Noir from the Willamette valley appellation in Oregon, but the fact that the crowd was in a celebratory mood. In other words, the members of the AIWF were too talkative to allow for a serious seminar. "Frankly, I wish they had been less interested in drinking and talking and more interested in exploring the wines and foods and why they worked. Nobody said to me that they were enlightened by the wine and food pairings, or that now they understood that wine and Chinese food really do have great matches," he says.
Still this was a group of diners who generally adore wine and are open to exploration. George Temel, chairman of the rather boisterous members, says, "What impressed me is that, given the already spicy meal, the wines were on the low acidity [side]. I never felt the burp sensation that could have happened with that kind of meal. It definitely told me Josh did a quality pairing."
In retrospect Moulton agrees that most of the group probably felt the same way. "[The] white [wine] pleasantly surprised them, and they dug into the food with gusto. The pinot and clams shut them up -- a good sign they liked it. My overall remembrance of the evening is that they loved the food and were surprised by the origin of -- and how much they liked -- the wines. But more than that, I loved that they were simply irrepressibly enjoying themselves. So who needs a wine snob like me to tell them what they liked or why. I just looked at the empty bottles and clean plates," he recalls.
It's a bit harder to break down the barriers of people who believe that you shouldn't drink wine at all with Asian food. Tropical Chinese Restaurant, which has long had a lengthy and diverse wine list, attempted to do that last February by matching its most popular dishes, such as Peking duck and longevity noodles, with a number of German and Alsatian Rieslings. Among aficionados such as Steve Petusevsky, food writer and chef-owner of Chef Steve's Carried Away Cuisine in Weston, Riesling is one of the standard-bearers for Asian fare. "Perhaps I'm a bit biased by living in Germany for years, but the German wines are fabulous with Asian foods. And I think that almost any wine from Alsace goes well," he notes. But, he adds, "There are so many possibilities. I also like some of the more esoteric whites: Gewürztraminer, Sancerre, even some Meritages."
Harry Ryecliffe, who owns Cefalo's wine shop in Kendall, agrees, at the same time dispelling the myth that only beer will work as a match. "The type of food done in the Pacific Rim does lend itself to beer. So you look for wines that have those same qualities -- acidity, plus citrusy and zesty flavors. Gewurtz by itself means seasoning. It means the wine has a spiciness to it." He did caution, though, during cooking teacher Eleanor Hoh's Easy-Style Asian Cooking class that he hosted at the shop a few days ago, that you should "pick out wine not to offend the food."
It's good advice to take to heart -- and palate. The Tropical dinner wasn't as successful as it could have been, because the residual sugars in Riesling almost demand highly flavored and seasoned dishes. The items that Tropical presented were less vibrant and too subtle for the wines, which ranged from dry to sweet, and as a result the wines were indeed somewhat insulting, ja. In fact they made the fare seem blander than it actually was.
Jeffrey Wolfe of Wolfe's Wine Shoppe enjoyed a better response with his latest Friday-night tasting that featured take-out from Gourmet Gourmet -- crispy chicken won tons with a chili dipping sauce, General Chow extra-spicy chicken, aromatic pork curry, and Szechuan shrimp, to name several. Wolfe's theory: View Chinese food through rose-colored glasses. Literally. Which is why he poured an assortment of rosés ranging from the Toad Hollow Rosé of Pinot Noir ("the richness of the fruit here paired great with the fried items") to the Susana Balboa Rosé of Malbec ("this wine made the curry taste like a great opera, letting the food hit all the spicy high notes with just enough heat to let you sense the pain but not mouth shattering") to the Duval Leroy Saignee Rosé, NV ("had to have this -- the burnt orange sugar and strawberries matched great with the hottest of the hot, even the whole chilies from the General!").
In sum, Wolfe says, "The tasting was a hit. Real men do drink pink! It really opened people's eyes to the other possibilities. One guy said he was going to put down the beer and chill a rosé for his jerk chicken, and a couple of people went out to Miss Saigon [afterward] with a few Malbec rosés."
But don't let us do all the preaching. Test your own faith at Azul and Café Sambal in the Mandarin Oriental, Miami, where guest chefs from the Oriental, Bangkok and the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong will be cooking from September 24-27. You can sample authentic à la carte dishes during lunch at Café Sambal; taste through a prix-fixe six courses for dinner at Azul; or, on September 27, learn at a three-hour cooking class that includes a three-course menu paired with wines ($150 per person; pre-registration required; 305-913-8254).
Or better yet, before you head out for some mu shu pork next time, call your neighborhood Chinese restaurant and ask about wine lists and corkage fees. If they don't have the former, they're likely not going to charge you more than a token amount for bringing your own. And if you do take in, as opposed to taking out, remember the golden lotus rule and offer your hosts a taste. Sometimes, it's the customers who can provide an education.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.