It Was Supposed to be a Night Off…

By:  Sheen Fischer

When foodie friends Jess and Leo invited us to the latest wine pairing dinner at the Wine Vault and Bistro in Mission Hills this past Sunday evening, I somehow thought I was going to enjoy a night off from taking food pictures and blogging.  I mean, taking a picture of wine, especially since this dinner was showcasing all whites, is pretty much as exciting as watching paint dry and, well, it was a wine pairing dinner, which would generally mean the evening was going to be all about the wine…and did I mention it was all whites on the menu?

Chris

As owner Chris Gluck began the evening’s festivities with a brief introduction of what was to come (Let’s face it, if you know Chris, you probably know there was nothing brief about his introduction…), all hopes of my taking a night off vanished.  Something – instinct, self-preservation, a siren’s call to capture the moment – kicked in and I couldn’t help myself from grabbing my phone and snapping pictures.

Blogging 101 – It’s always the picture you don’t take that you end up needing later…

Menu

Case in point, here I should be inserting a picture of one of the wine bottles from the dinner, a picture I did not take, so instead I’m using this slightly warped picture of the menu that I took to refresh my memory while writing this article.  Christian Roguenant of Tangent Wines in the coastal region of San Luis Obispo did a masterful job of reviewing the flavor profiles and delving into the history of each wine prior to it being served.  My summary will be quite a bit less masterful, but, hopefully, in wine vernacular, approachable.

Not normally a fan of white wines and, hence, not a great connoisseur of them, either, I found each of the wines presented to be surprisingly enjoyable.  All of the whites that Christian presented were fermented in stainless steel, which was pleasant to my palate.  One of the reasons I tend to shy away from whites is that they often seem to be “oaked” to death and overflowing with tannins, acid and even bitterness, taking an otherwise enjoyable beverage experience and turning it into a battle of the taste buds.

In contrast, I found the Tangent wines to be beautifully rounded, heavy on citrus notes, with a wonderful balance of acid to sweetness.  When considering the pairings specifically, a couple of the wines cut through the food pairings to cleanse and prepare the palate for the next bite while several of the wines created a little warm bubble around the dish, mingling with the flavor of the food and enhancing each bite with the subtle nuance that can only be achieved with perfectly fermented grape juice.

On a muggy, humid, rainy evening, the Tangent whites were welcoming, inviting, approachable and a pleasant way to shake off the heavy, turbid feeling of a stormy weekend in America’s Finest City.

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Having just returned from a trip to Napa last week, one of the mantras that I remember being repeated by several winemakers is that the wine is often dependent on the food it is paired with to achieve full flavor potential.  Obviously, at an event like this where the wine is being showcased, that cannot be the case.  The wine can lean slightly on the food, but cannot be seen as dependent on it.

With that said, I quickly found myself intrigued by the subtlety with which the presented food courses held their own while having been so clearly engineered to keep the paired wines on center stage.  This fried oyster slider, served on a house made biscuit with a nice remoulade hit all of my southern boy pressure points.  Could it have used a bit more cayenne, salt, pepper and maybe even onion and garlic?  Yep.  But, then I would be writing about how the wine didn’t stand up to the food instead of how each alternating sip and bite married beautifully to create a complete experience.

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Next up on the menu was a little side trip to the Spanish side of the spectrum.  The octopus dish was tender and herbaceous with just enough bite from the olive tapenade to introduce some acid, oil and fullness of flavor, allowing the accompanying Albarino to encompass the offering and create a smooth, easy to swallow experience that was neither fishy or sharp, easily becoming one of the best pairings of the night.

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During the introduction, Chris briefly talked about their unique process called “Carnage” that is utilized when creating a pairing menu.  You can find an in depth description on the website here, but in essence, the process includes a comprehensive tasting session beginning with preparing multiple tastes and takes on dishes, identifying the characteristics of the wines, experimenting with the food flavor profiles in conjunction with the wines and then tweaking or flat out creating new recipes to fit the wine offerings.

None of that, though, means that the food preparation is sacrificed, sullied or dumbed down in deference to the wine.  To the contrary, this scallop melted in the mouth, allowing the corn puree, jus and vegetables to have the precisely correct amount of influence, enhancing the mild flavor and providing enough complexity to leave us wanting more.

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We continued our globe trotting with a trip to Africa.  This is the point in the meal that I really started to understand the deftness with which the food offerings were being prepared.  Ordinarily, the strong influence of these types of spices would call for at least a medium red wine such as a pinot noir, in my opinion.  Somehow, Chef managed to impart the essence of the spice onto this plate without an overabundance, allowing the lusciousness of the accompanying Grenache Blanc to shine through.

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For me, this dish took a couple of bites to process, then became my favorite of the night.  Boudin sausage is a favorite in my neck of the woods of South Louisiana.  It consists of a blend of meat and spices that is stuffed into a sausage casing and then lightly poached, boiled or steamed until cooked.  In our family, we like to heat it up, squeeze the semi-firm meat from its storage tube and eat it pate style with crackers or bread.

I’ve never heard of or eaten a seafood boudin.  Now, I can’t wait to get another one.  The one flavor I could readily identify in this succulent tube of meat was crab, after that I would only be speculating on the meat stuffing.  But, whatever it was, roll me in butter, pat me dry and coat me with this stuff, ‘cause after the autopsy confirms I died from over eating, I want to buried in this.

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Both the margarita and this cheesecake dessert cleverly disguised as a crème brulee rocked it at the end of the meal.  The margarita started off sweet – a good sweet, but definitely on the girly side of things.  Then a couple of bites into the creamy, semi-sweet cheesecake and another sip of margarita revealed that the sweetness disappeared and allowed the whisper of the tequila to lend its aroma to the dish, making it a perfect, slightly boozy ending to a wonderful pairing meal.

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Executive Chef Gregory Chavez (right) and his trusty sidekick/sous chef in training Frank Becerra (Frankie to the ladies, I’m told) must be pretty good dancers.  Every dish we were presented tiptoed across the tongue with grace and finesse while waltzing, tango-ing and two-stepping in perfect harmony with their viticultured counterparts.

Very rarely do I sit down to a meal with low expectations.  I’d rather save the calories until I can eat something I enjoy.  However, the evening started out as more of a social event for me with the hope that we’d have a nice meal, some nice wine and plenty of time to catch up with some friends.  Instead it became a lesson in subtlety and harmony, executed flawlessly, with ego flung aside so that every element of the evening could co-exist for the betterment of all.   It left me expectantly anticipating my next trip here when the meal is about the food – I get the feeling Chef was toying with us…and the wines for that matter.  I can’t wait to see how he brings it when the food is the star of the show.  Cheers, my friends!

Wine Vault and Bistro

3731 India St.

San Diego, CA 92103

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