Most “wine dinners” consist of a menu chosen by the chef, after which some wines are selected to complement the food. We ought to call them “Dinners with some wine.” In contrast, Chef Erin in San Diego selects the WINE first, then after tasting it, constructs individual dishes that complement and enhance the flavors of that specific wine. She can then assemble an entire meal, or tasting menu, using the best foods (usually on small plates) carefully assembled and seasoned optimally for our selected wines.
For the average cook, preparing a meal like this is akin to rocket science – which is indeed the sphere where Chef Erin last worked, on projects for the US Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. Eventually, as she expanded her evening and weekend pairings of wine and food, Erin decided she would rather please people than blow them up. So she quit her day job and created Wine Pairs, an entertainment/education/catering business.
Her normal business approach involves cooperating with a half-dozen wine bars or restaurants around the county – taking over a room in their establishment once or twice a month to present a tasting experience that highlights the wine from a single winery, or focuses on a single varietal, or uses a particular kind of beverage (beer, sake, whiskey) to demonstrate its compatibility with many different kinds of food. She also caters corporate and private parties on the same themes. We have attended at least 10 of these dinners in the last 4 years.
This week we enjoyed a dinner that highlighted some of the special combinations she’s created in the kitchen, which she calls “shi-shi tacos”. As we are 10 miles from Mexico, “regular” tacos are one of the favorite foods in the region. In fact, the Fish Taco was invented here by Ralph Rubio, who has since sold over 200 million fish tacos through his restaurant chain. So Erin is mining a rich vein of local culinary interest. Working from several of her customers’ favorite small dishes, she selected wines for this dinner that had suited the tacos particularly well in the past. Then she revisited the seasonings and accoutrements, thus refining the whole package for maximum enjoyment, tactile pleasure AND exposure to wines we might not ordinarily see.
The first course involved a white grape little-known outside the Rhone region of France, called Picpoul de Pinet (spellings vary). Click the link if you would like to learn more. Notice the ingredients list at the bottom of each image. This starter, served on a crispy “wonton tostada” included bits of langoustines, scallops, fennel bulbs and stalks, with a brown butter sauce and fresh pomegranate ariels for sparkling bursts of flavor. The wine was okay (not great) but the dish was fantastic.
Our next “taco” involved wild salmon crusted with Erin’s maple bourbon bacon jam (melt down two onions, four pounds of bacon, and maple syrup with some bourbon). To complement and kick up the flavor profiles of the dish, she adds sautéed crimini mushroom bits (about 5 mm square), shaved uncooked Brussels sprouts, and for crunch and salt, a few broken-up lattice potato chips. Topping it off was creme fraiche spiked with black Mission figs. We enjoyed a Grenache from California’s Central Coast.
The courses are served in a round to all 10-20 diners, between discussion of the flavors and some details about the winery and the wine we were drinking. In most cases guests are poured about a half glass of wine, with a bit extra if you particularly enjoyed it (or begged). By serving all diners together, she has some time to prepare the next course, and guests have a chance to greet each other and ponder how she develops the pairings.
SHREDDED PORK TACO
The third course involved 18-hour, slow roasted and shredded pork, cooked with sage leaves. Accompanying the pork were chunks of Portobello mushrooms, some pieces of kale (concession to healthy eating), and a phenomenal nutmeg Camembert creme sauce, all wrapped in a thick flour tortilla. A hearty, fruity Zinfandel accompanied this part of our dinner.
Just when we were getting heavily involved in weather, travel and where are you from? conversations (but before we reached politics and sports), Erin came out with the “main course”.
ROAST LAMB TACO
A four-pound leg of lamb was roasted all day in a bottle of wine while covered with a layer of tomatoes. The lamb was broken up, put into a green chile flour/corn tortilla, and slathered with a white cheddar cheese sauce spiked with black truffle flakes. On top of that, in case our palates weren’t totally engrossed/overwhelmed, she put a dollop of blackberry creme fraiche and a few herbs. The wine was a big Sangiovese from Alexander Valley (Sonoma region of California).
Just to show us that dessert can have the same degree of attention, we were served some chocolate “brittle” which in Erin’s book means “soft”. She likes her dark chocolate to have mouth feel like milk chocolate does, so she starts with 72% dark chocolate and adds whipped cream until the texture is right. Then depending upon the dessert wine, she introduces more flavors and textures to the mix. Last night’s selection included dried Bing cherries, toasted hazelnuts, salted butterscotch caramel bits, roasted espresso beans, coarsely-ground black pepper, and sea salt. Sadly, this dish did not come wrapped in a tortilla – but we still ate it with our fingers. In essence, the chocolate itself was the wrapper for all the special ingredients.
I almost forgot the wine – a Paso Robles Petit Syrah blend. One taster’s notes I found on the web described it as “warm chocolate, lots of vanilla, decently oaked, dry earth, grass, apple, tart cherries, boysenberry, cranberry. Lots of tart cherries.” As stated above, the dessert definitely included Bing cherries, and the wine highlighted those flavors. So Erin, more chocolate please? I admit to accepting one extra piece “for the road”.
At the end of the evening we lingered around our tables, tasting and retesting the last few drops of wine (so that none would go to waste) and discussing whether we could come up with equal or better menu pairings. Then we voted on our favorites – my wife couldn’t decide; her favorites were 1,2,3,4 and 5.
I conceded defeat. I could not think of anything better to eat or drink. My palate was both pleased and exhausted. I sat there and played with my glass under the spotlight, and tried to get my watch to sparkle in the red glow of the wine, until duty called and we went back to work on AlphaLuxe.