Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sommelier Smackdown!

Wow. So, the wine shop on the corner of my street has a monthly event called Sommelier Smackdown. I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into, but I recruited my friends Joe and R to join me for the November Smackdown. (Someone was too stupid to remember her camera, so luckily we were still able to get some pictures with Joe's iPhone. The room was pretty dark, so apologies if the food pics aren't high-def enough to make you drool...) As I said, we didn't entirely know what we were in for, but I think it exceeded all of our expectations.
The basic premise is that you have 4 courses, each paired with two wines - one from each of the two dueling sommeliers (that's Kate, the defending champion, on the far left and Mike, employee of the wine shop and challenger, next to her in the picture below).
Here's how it works: A chef (Ian, above on the right) prepares each course at the front of the room.
The sommeliers taste, then head out into the wine shop to find a wine (or beer) that they think would be the perfect pairing. They are limited by a $20 per course budget, with an additional $20 to use at their discretion to splurge on any given course (or a couple courses).
While they pour the wines and explain why they chose them, the chef plates the rest of the food and sends it out to the audience. You taste, you vote, you discuss. At the end of the night the winning sommelier is announced and is invited back to face a challenger at the next Smackdown. The menu of the night was referred to by our chef as "Strange Asian Fusion." Everything across the board was quite good, and each of the three of us had a different course that was our least favorite (which I think is a good indication that there was no crappy course, just some less awesome among the generally quite tasty selections).
First up was a fried dumpling filled with Gouda and apple and served with a dried fruit compote. (Picture, below, taken after we all had dived in...) The Gouda was almost imperceptible, but is probably what contributed the nice savory background to the apple filling. This was R's least favorite. I thought it was really good, and enjoyed the challenge with which it presented the sommeliers. Kate went with the Evolution White from Sokol Blosser (which happens to be one of the wineries I like to visit when I'm in Oregon), and it was absolutely beautiful with the dish. She got all of the votes from our small group. Mike told us that he believes that the dish shouldn't be sweeter than the wine, and I whole-heartedly beg to differ. His pairing was a Willi Haag Riesling, which was sweet and very grape-juicy. If you tasted it with just the (sweet) compote then you could see what he was thinking, but with the savory-sweet dumpling it was no good. First round to Kate.
The second course was duck! Yay! Ian talked about this dish as a salad version of a Bánh Mi, which was a mistake (in my opinion) for the two of us in the audience who know and love Bánh Mi. It was a salad of pickled daikon, crispy duck (duck confit that was then lightly battered in cornstarch slurry and deep fried), cilantro, cashews, and baguette slices. This was Joe's least favorite course, and I was a bit let down just because of the flavor profile I was hoping for from the description. When you put together the perfect duck-y, cashew-y bite, though, it was damn fine salad. Mike talked to the three of us after the course about how this salad (and salads in general) was tough to pair wines with for that very reason: You don't have an even distribution of flavors, so some bites are strong on pickled, vinegary elements, some are strong on fatty duck and cashews, some are really well balanced. Kate faced (or, rather, hid from) this challenge by pairing with a Hefeweizen from Munich, while Mike went wild with a Four Vines Old Vine Zin Cuvee from Paso Robles. Kate's pairing was fine, if too safe for my taste. It didn't compliment the dish, but it never fought it and didn't risk clashing with those vinegary bites. I have Zin issues, but Mike's Zin was fantastic. It clashed with some of the bites, but was awesome with those "perfect bites" where you balanced all of the salad components on your fork. He got our votes for that daring and for how well his wine complimented the perfect bites. Plus, his wine just rocked in general. This round went to Mike by one vote.
Third course was Penne with Black Bean Garlic Sauce, Smoked Chicken, and Truffled Pecorino. This was my least favorite, but I still enjoyed it. In some ways it was the easiest pairing, but it was a bit tricky because cheesier bites matched the wine differently than less cheesy bites. Kate went with an absolutely fantastic Catena Malbec from Argentina. This was probably our favorite wine of the night. I felt like it really called out the anise flavor accents in the dish, which was an effect I didn't particularly enjoy. It paired a bit better with the cheesier bites. Mike went with a Campi Nuovi Sangiovese. I thought the finish on this wine paired perfectly with all elements of the dish, but the wine itself was not something that you would ever drink on purpose. All three of us felt that his pairing was better, but the Malbec was the wine that came home with us at the end of the night. Kate kicked Mike's ass in this round, with half of his votes coming from the three of us. Heh.
Finally, just... wow. The pork belly. This was unreal. I realized I had never had pork belly before, which is a crying shame. Mmm... So good. It's an extremely fatty dish (R and I were not able to finish the fatty portion (which you can see in the bottom picture), and were both a bit queasy thinking back on it later, but I have no regrets), and that makes the pairing somewhat tricky. Kate paired with a Cossart Gordan 5 year Madeira, which was awesome. We'd all cooked with Madeira before, but never knew it could be so delicious to just drink. The sharp alcohol cut the fat, and the pairing was beautiful. Mike paired with a Quinto do Coa Duoro Tinto. It was really nice and balanced well with the flavors of the meat, even if it didn't cut the fat as well as the Madeira. He got my vote, but my friends were part of the 3-vote majority of the crowd that went with Kate, so she'll be back next time (in January) to take on a new challenger.Oh, and the organizer baked us M&M cookies for dessert, since the chef wasn't in the mood to do a dessert course as one of his four courses. Hee. All in all, it was a lot of great food and a whole lot of delicious wine in a really unique and fun setting. Can't wait to go back...

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