This past Thursday, we put on a wine pairing dinner with Bill and Dawn Williamson, two Australian expats who make their wine from mostly Sonoma fruit at Williamson Winery in Healdsburg. Bill crafts a LOT of different varietals and labels, and for the dinner we chose a fairly conventional progression of chardonnay, sweet wine (with foie gras), followed by pinot noir, shiraz (which he does not label syrah), malbec, and cab (with pleasant ridge “reserve”).
When the sous chefs and I create menu items for the restaurant, we focus on four or five flavors at most on each plate, preferably less. Serving conventional portions as we do and not tasting-size ones, the food must be interesting enough that you can finish it wanting more, but not such a kaleidoscope of flavors that your palate is confused or that it will clash with wine–we have to remember that we’re in Napa Valley. And then for wine-pairing dinners, we may take even one more flavor away from the plate, just to let the wine shine all the brighter. Terrell Brunet, a mentor of mine, often remarked, “It’s not about what you can add to a dish, it’s what you can take away”, which says it all. The great dishes of the great chefs are the simple ones. Off the top of my head:
Joel Robuchon: pommes puree. Few things are simpler than mashed potatoes, but the same goes for riding a bike, and Joel Robuchon is the Lance Armstrong of mashed potatoes. (Anyone have a picture of Lance eating spuds or JR on a bike?)
Bernard Loiseau: Frog’s legs with garlic and parsley.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten: Scallops with capers and raisins
Alain Passard: Egg chaud-froid with maple syrup and sherry vinegar
Point is, there’s no laundry list or paragraph-long menu description for these great dishes, They are what they are–simple ingredients, perfect combinations, in the hands of master chefs.
Which brings me to the most interesting pairing of the Williamson dinner (not that you will someday see this dish or me one a list like the one above). I was stumped by the Shiraz pairing, but I knew I wanted to do pork, so we served a crispy braised Duroc pork belly with tabbouleh, fava bean puree, and caper-raisin vinaigrette (thanks JGV!), taking inspiration for the ingredients from the ancestral home of Shiraz, the Middle East. Where they don’t eat a lot of pork. Or drink a lot of wine, actually. But if it tastes good, do it.