Monday, September 14, 2009

Sommelier Smackdown

I was invited recently to an event at the Midtown restaurant Nios called a "Sommelier Smackdown," a title which was about half right. On one side, trying to find the best wine pairings for each course of a three-tier meal was Emily Wines, the San Francisco sommelier, whose first New York wine program Nios is. On the other side, however, was Jim Meehan, the owner of the East Village speakeasy PDT.

This is not what you'd call a fair fight. Not that Wines and Meehan aren't both talented—they are, abundantly. But, to my mind, 9 times out of 10, nothing marries better with a meal than wine. Not beer, not spirits, not cocktails. Also, inviting Meehan to a "Sommelier Smackdown" is like asking Johnny Appleseed to complete at the annual orange festival. Wine and cocktails are just too different.

Still, all parties seemed game. And it was designed as a lark to begin with, so why carp. So off we all went to the first course, a corn risotto. Emily Wines—who has the most professionally advantageous name is the history of specialized labor (and it is her real name)—poured a Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2007. It was round and buttery, not the sort of Chard I typically like. But I had to admit is was a good partner to the risotto. I like a bit of butter on my corn, don't you?

But Meehan countered with a surprisingly sophisticated creation. (Not surprising in its invention, since Meehan has plenty of that, but in the way it perfectly coupled with the food.) The cocktail was called an Imperial Silver Corn Fizz. It was a combination of homemade corn water (you read that right—corn water), Makers Mark bourbon, honey syrup, champagne and egg white, shaken into a frothy concoction that was pale yellow at bottom, white on top. If there was such a thing as creamed corn whiskey, it might taste like this lightly sweet, absolutely unusual drink. The crowd adored it. I told Meehan the drink was good enough, and strange enough, to become a permanent fall-time edition to the PDT menu. People will take about his corn water the way they talked about Don Lee's bacon-infused bourbon.

For the next course, a rack of lamb with grilled figs and fingerling potatoes wrapped in jamón serrano, Wines, with be-baubled neck, leaned over with a bottle of 2006 Gai'a Estates Agiorgitiko, a well-chosen, light-bodied, dark-colored, woody Greek with bark-like tannins. Meehan was on less-certain ground, offering The Senor Smackdown, a mix of tequila, lime juice, Dry Sack sherry, Benedictine, fig jam, and lime zest, shaken. It was a great cocktail, which easily sucked me down into its intoxicating world, but it felt out of context. The fig connection was not enough to tie it in.

Meehan bounced back a bit at dessert, which was a rose petal panna cotta with pomegranate foam. His Raspberries Reaching cocktail was one of the most beautiful and elegant mixed drinks I've ever laid eyes on. Maybe too beautiful. Fragile, even. Trimbach Framboise eau-de-vie, 5 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszú, pomegranate liqueur, and a few drops of rose flower water, were its ingredients. A rose petal was its garnish. An almost magically floral drink, a fine match was such a delicate dessert. Wines' parry was, I felt, her major slip-up of the evening. Trying a bit too hard, she topped a perfectly fine off-dry sparkling wine from the Savoie region, NV Patrick Bottex Cerdon de Bugey "La Cuille," with rosewater and floating pomegranate seeds. The seeds made it a frustrating business getting your mouth to the wine, which, frankly, would have suited on its own. There's a wine for every dish, I say. Trust it. Don't adorn it.

Everyone voted, assignment a numerical score to each contestant per course. When the tallying was done, Emily won, 216 to 205. Meehan was the first course; Wines the second and third. But Meehan's Imperial Silver Corn Fizz was without question the drink of the evening.

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