Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Take a Journey of Food & Wine Discovery - Try a Chef's Tasting Menu with Wine Pairings

At a basic level - wine is just a beverage and food is just nourishment.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with looking at food and wine this way - they don't have to be anything fancy, nor do they need to be over analyzed to figure out if the wine smells more like cherries or raspberries or if the food has the ultimate balance of salt, savory, sweet, acid, texture, and spiciness.

Costco is one of the largest wine retailers anywhere, and annually sells more than $1 billion worth of the beloved fermented grape juice (some of my dollars are in that total!). Annette Alvarez-Peters is Costco's head wine buyer, and on a CNBC special about Costco she said "But at the end of the day, it's a beverage. It's a beverage. I think you either like it or you don't like it." Although wine geeks were appalled by the statement, this wine geek agrees.... but only to a certain degree.


Wine Racks at Costco - But you Knew that Already - right??

Wine is basically just a beverage, but with such a tremendous variety of wines, made from a staggering number of different grape varieties, handled by different winemakers in different parts of the world, impacted by weather conditions from year to year - wine can be so very very much more. It doesn't have to be more than that to be enjoyed, but if you want to search further - it can be so much more than just a beverage. For me it is a passion so great that I want to have it as the focus for a second career, and spend many waking hours reading, studying, and of course sampling the wonderful creations from wineries around the world. 

In the same way, food can just be nourishment - a melted slice of american cheese on Wonder bread (like the Twinkie, I believe Wonder bread with still be with us even though Hostess is no more) is the kind of food that has launched a thousand lunches, but it can be so very much more in the hands of the right Chef. 

So, wine can be so much more than just a beverage, and food can be so much more than just nourishment - but that's only part of the story.  The intersection of a Chef who is passionate about food, but also has a good understanding of wine, and a Sommelier who brings in-depth wine and food pairing knowledge can result in a truly memorable and educational dining experience.  A way to take a culinary tour of the best food a Chef has to offer, and see how a successful food and wine pairing can be be proverbial whole that is greater than the sum if its parts - is to experience a Chef's Tasting Menu with wine pairings.  

Mmmmm.... Chef's Tasting Menu

These eating extravaganza's are not for everyone, but if you are some combination of a foodie and a wine lover, you may be in for the experience of your life.  These dinners are a large investment of both time and money, often taking two or more hours to experience, and usually costing more than $100 per person.  If spending that kind of money on any meal, even a special occasion, is ridiculous to you - then stay away! In reading Yelp and other reviews of Chef's tasting menus you see reviews from people who were not going to enjoy the meal no matter what they experienced, simply because the price was too high. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that - better to decide beforehand that one of these meals is not for you, than to spend the time and money and not enjoy it!

Even years after I began my evolution to a wine geek, I did not have any interest in these tasting menus, preferring just to have my entree (usually a mid-rare steak and a starch side dish so I could imbibe in a nice big red wine like Cabernet Sauvignon), and not waste time with a bunch of little one or two bite dishes.  My mind was changed forever at the deft hands of Chef Claud Beltran, who at the time was at Restaurant Halie in Pasadena, CA (he is currently at Noir in Pasadena).  For full disclosure, Chef Claud is my wife's cousin - but relation or not, his Chef's tasting menu with course by course wine pairings  was a culinary life-changer for me.

Chef Claud Beltran Enjoys a Little Glass of Red

Since that experience, my wife and I have sought out Chef's tasting menus, and had much more memorable meals than we would have if we had stuck to the appetizer, entrée , and dessert model.  For me, I am also a wannabe Chef and restaurant Sommelier and have learned a great deal about flavor combinations in foods, and the impact that food and wine can have on each other from the tasting menu's we've been lucky enough to enjoy.  I now plan trips around specific restaurants we want to try - and my bucket list has increased with names of restaurants to dine at, along side such entries as seeing an active volcano and sipping several drams of Scotch at Glenmorangie Distillery in Scotland.

My hope is that this list will grow annually, and I will share our experiences in these glorious intersections of food and wine - but here are some of our most memorable Chef's Tasting Menu's so far:
  • Different Pointe of View - Phoenix, Arizona. A beautiful resort (Pointe at Tapatio Cliffs) with a very nice restaurant.
  • Binkley's - Cave Creek, Arizona.  Casual atmosphere, great food.
  • See Saw - Scottsdale, Arizona. Sushi tasting - sadly no longer open.
  • Moto - Chicago, Illinois. Molecular gastronomy, delicious food, and a sense of humor - highly recommended.
  • Comerc 24 - Barcelona, Spain.  Included a short rib with a cherry sauce that is one of my all-time favorite dishes.
  • Restaurant Gary Danko, San Francisco, California.
  • Encanto - San Francisco, California.  Top Chef Master Chris Cosentino's restaurant. Although no longer available, we had the "5th" Quarter tasting menu, all the other/offal parts - heart, kidney, pig's trotters. Unbelievably good!
  • Graham Elliot - Chicago, Illinois.  An unforgettable, and quite glutinous meal - no longer available, but at the time called the Repertoire. It included 15+ courses paired with appropriate beverages - not just wine. One course was paired with a cocktail with orange soda and Sriracha. Too hot for my wife to enjoy - but I loved it and haven't been without a bottle of Sriracha since!
  • Posh - Scottsdale, Arizona. Their menu consists of a list of ingredients, and you say what you don't like or want - and they take if from there!
  • Mugaritz - San Sebastian, Spain.  A memorable birthday meal for me, which included the Chef giving us a tour of their state of the art kitchen. I had picked this restaurant well in advance of our trip to Spain, and they then suffered a kitchen fire. Thankfully they were up and running in time for our arrival.
  • Topolobampo - Chicago, Illinois.  Gourmet+Mexican Food+Wine Pairing??? This was a fascinating meal for me as I could not begin to guess how they would pair Top Chef Master Rick Bayless' food with wines. Surprising to me anyway, a lot of the pairing was with French wine - very cool experience.
  • Alinea - Chicago, Illinois.  A bucket list restaurant for me that did not disappoint. I recommend you read the book  Life, on the Line about Chef Grant Achatz, and you too may want to experience this restaurant. 
  • é by Jose Andres, Las Vegas, Nevada. This somewhat "secret" restaurant is housed within Jaleo restaurant at the Aria.  The restaurant consists of eight seats situated around a counter where you watch each course being prepared by your Chefs.  Two seatings per night, so only 16 hungry souls get to enjoy this experience on any given day. You need to score Golden Tickets (yes, just like Willy Wonka), which for me involved getting up at midnight exactly 30 days prior to the day I wanted to send an email to request reservations.  Two words... WORTH IT! 
  • Alize at the Palms, Las Vegas, Nevada. Not only great food, but a view unmatched in Vegas.
What's Next? 

Here is what we have planned for upcoming food and wine pairing excursions:
  • Next Restaurant.  Pun intended. After such a memorable meal at Alinea, we wanted to try Grant Achatz's next restaurant, which he aptly named.. NEXT! The concept for this restaurant is a theme/menu that changes every three months. We were able to score reservations for "The Hunt"... take a look at this video, that while safe for work should still be called food porn:
Next Restaurant - The Hunt
  • Asador Etxebarri - Carracedelo, Spain. A restaurant where all the cooking is done on wood burning grills, and the food has earned the restaurant recognition as one of the best in the world.
  • Casa Marcial, Parres - Arriondas, Spain. Great food can be found in small out of the way towns - and that's what we're hoping for with this restaurant.  With their take on Spanish dishes like Squid in its Ink - I can't wait to try. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing. Have you ever tried Mexican food delivery Chicago, IL? Chicago covers the Mexican fusion spectrum, from Tex-Mex to high-end Mexican, and from popular chain restaurants to locally-owned with experienced chefs.

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