Pairing a wine with what you are cooking (or visa versa) while you are at home is one thing. You plan for specific meals with specific ingredients and can research into what wines you’d like to pair (again, or visa versa). To me, cooking at home is easier because you are in control. Pairing wine and food at a restaurant is a whole other beast. You are given specific choices of dishes and wines and you don’t necessarily know what to choose. If you are like me and can’t afford going to restaurants with fancy sommeliers, and half of the wait staff are underage, in training, or not knowledgable about wine in the least, you have no one to turn to for advice. Most of the time, the wine list looks like gibberish, and you have no idea what they mean. Some wines are offered by the glass, some by the bottle, some by the half carafe…oy! How do you know what would work together!? Settle down now, children. Not to worry. Let me feed you with some easy, handy, and delicious knowledge to take with you the next time you go to a restaurant so that you are guaranteed a halfway decent pairing.
There are two ways to go about choosing a wine and food pairing in general; either pair a wine to go with a dish, or pair a dish to go with a wine. I usually pair a wine to go with a food because I am more picky about the food that I eat than the wine that I drink. Unless I have a special wine that I have been saving, a craving for a specific wine (Rosé season, come back!), or a special occasion, it is far easier to pick a wine to go with a food than the other way around for me. So, at a restaurant, unless you have a specific bottle that you are dying to try (hello, Penfolds!), choose something on the menu that you would like.
Now, many of you have heard, “White wine with fish and chicken, red wine with beef.” Okay, you could follow these guidelines, but it’s not as cut and dry as all that. What you need to look out for is how each dish is prepared. Is the meal grilled? Blackened? Fried? Boiled? Is there a tomato sauce? A creamy sauce? A cheesy sauce? What spices and herbs are being used? What sides are coming with the meal? Each of these have an effect on how the dish would pair. In fact, rather than looking at what the main protein is of the dish, I tend to look at how it is prepared. Salmon and chicken are so versatile. They can go with any kind of wine; red, white, rosé, or bubbly, depending on what spices, sauces, or cooking methods are used.
Take, for example, the dinner I went to last weekend at 2941 Restaurant. The hubby and I don’t often go to swanky and fancy restaurants, but the hubby surprised me and made reservations here as an early Valentine’s Day date. 2941 is an amazing restaurant in Falls Church, VA. It has been reviewed time and time again as being one of the best of the best in the area. There are tasting menus as well as a la carte menus, a great wine list, and foods that are out of this world. After looking at their menu for about 15 minutes(everything looked so good!), I finally decided on the Seafood Matelote, which was “branzino, mussels, lobster, saffron rice, mussel broth.” Branzino is a white fish, similar to a sea bass, and I never cook it at home, so that is what made me choose it. Now, looking at the ingredients, there are a few different shellfish in the dish and saffron rice. Shellfish, in general, goes extremely well with creamy and oaky whites, like chardonnays, but they could go well with some lighter reds, like Pinot Noir or Gamay, depending on the spices and cooking preparation. Saffron rice reminds me of flavors that I find in Indian dishes (think curry), and again, would go well with creamy and oaky whites or lighter reds.
I knew what I wanted to eat, and I knew I wanted a glass of white wine. I had been drinking a lot of red as of late, and I hadn’t had a white in a while. There were about 7 or 8 choices for wines by the glass. Unfortunately, 2941’s wine list menu is under construction, and I can’t find a picture of it online. From what I remember, there was a Napa Valley California Chardonnay, a Riesling, a Loire Valley France Sauvignon Blanc (Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc is Sancerre; a grassy, melony, peary, gooseberry, creamy, fantastically wonderful Sauvignon Blanc), an Italian Soave, and I can’t remember the rest. I apologize, 2941, for butchering your wine list just now, but put one up on your website so that I can brag about you more accurately!
Thinking that creamy wines went better with the Seafood Matelote rather than the crisp, Riesling or whatever else was on the list, I narrowed it down to the Napa Chardonnay, the Sancerre, or the Soave. Napa Chardonnay and I have a finicky relationship. I either really like or I very much do not. I don’t often enjoy buttery tastes in Chardonnay, and California chardonnay typically has a lot of it. However, some are well balanced and are just want I am looking for with a specific food (like shrimp), or at Happy Hour on a warm day outside. At restaurants, unless I know the wine, I do not often order a California Chardonnay because I don’t know if I will like it or not. That limits that option for me. I love Sancerre, but I have had the one on the list before (so good!). Being always eager to try new wines, that left the Soave. Soave is an Italian grape that has lots of melon, peach, and honey characteristics. These are more full flavors, similar to the full flavors found in Napa chardonnay or Sancerre and I haven’t had a lot of Soaves, so I made my decision! Soave it is! I knew the pairing had to be at least halfway descent. It was an Italian white wine, and they eat a lot of fish in Italy, so the pairing couldn’t be horrible!
And trust me, it wasn’t. The saffron rice and mussel broth brought out a cantaloupe and honey taste from the wine. The wine made the sauce so much more creamy and savory, and the branzino just melted on my tongue. The sweetness of the lobster was instantly heightened with both the sauce and the Soave. The mussels…eh…they were okay. But to be honest, I ordered the dish for the Branzino and the lobster, so all is well.
So after this long post, if you had to take away two things, take away these:
#1: When at a restaurant, focus on pairing a wine not only with the dish’s main protein, but the preparation of the dish as well.
#2: Go to 2941 Restaurant if you live in the area! It’s worth a fancy date or fancy night out with friends!
Questions for you:
- Are there any “rules” that you follow when pairing wine and foods at restaurants?
- What restaurants in the area have you been to that have great food/wine lists?