Friday, March 19, 2010

Sommelier Smackdown!

I've been dealing with an obnoxious sinus infection for more than a week now. I've tried rest, vitamin C, and antibiotics to no avail, so I decided last night (since I don't have any congestion to mess with my palate) to go ahead and see if maybe copious amounts of good food and wine would do the trick. Shockingly, this did not cure me... but (less shockingly) it was a lot of fun. The February Smackdown was a little below the quality of previous Smackdowns, with several of the wine pairings falling flat on their faces and some dishes that were less amazing than one would hope. A good time was had by all thanks to Chef Ian's entertaining banter, so when Joe and I arrived at Smackdown and saw that there was a new chef this time, we weren't sure how that would go. The answer? Really, really well. The chef this time was Paul Turano of Tryst in Alrington, with his assistant Annie.
The sommeliers were returning champion Michael Meagher (below, right) from Vineyard Road and challenger Brahm Callahan (below, left) from Post 390.
While it was fun (and sometimes educational) to watch Ian create dishes that were challenging to pair wines with at previous Smackdowns, that also resulted in the occasional dish where neither pairing worked particularly well. As Michael pointed out, the chef this time had just planned a menu of awesome food without any special effort to trip up the sommeliers, and this resulted in the most consistently high-quality pairings yet, with both wines pairing nicely on every course.
First up was a Coriander-Crusted Scallop with Ahi Amarillo and Cilantro.
There was a bit of spice in the sauce and a nice herbal note from the cilantro, which were nice with the scallop and made for interesting wine-pairing opportunities. Michael went with an Old Vine Verdejo, while Brahm went with a nice German Riesling that we recognized from last time.
Both pairings were actually really nice. The Verdejo is something I would be much more likely to sit down to drink on its own, but I loved the way the body of the Riesling complimented the texture of the scallop. I tossed my vote to Brahm by a narrow margin, while Joe voted for Michael. It apparently wasn't that close for everyone, as Brahm took this round 23 - 10. The next course was a Warm Potato and Leek Soup with Truffled Crème Fraîche. This was a really nice soup. Rich, hearty, and satisfying. The fried waffle-cut potato on top was a nice accent as well.
Chef Paul actually dished up seconds for anyone who wanted them, and passed the bin of waffle-cut chips for everyone to enjoy an extra....
The pairings for this course were both bubbly. Michael gave us a really nice sparkling (which I would totally buy in the future) and Brahm gave us a really interesting beer.
Joe and I both felt that, while we liked the sparkling wine on its own, it fell a bit flat as a pairing. The beer, on the other hand, had interesting orange and coriander accents, which played off the subtle flavors in the soup beautifully and added interest to the dish. I never would have thought of that pairing, so it was cool to see how well it worked. I think Brahm underestimated how much some of these people dislike beer, though, and he was beat handily by Michael 12 - 21. The next course was Slow Roasted Lamb with a Lamb and Spiced Fruit Tart and Apple Salad.
I loved this dish. The lamb was perfectly cooked, and the salad of Granny Smith apples, arugula, and Dijon vinaigrette was fantastic with it. The tart contained beer-braised lamb shank, spiced dried fruit, and a rich sauce. Everything worked perfectly together. The wines on this course were Michael's 2005 Bourdeaux (mostly Cab Sauv with a hearty dose of Cab Franc) and Brahm's 2005 Italian Red (primarily Corvina with Rondinella).
Michael's wine was awesome, and I loved it with every component of the dish. It got votes from both me and Joe. The Italian red was a little lighter than I would have preferred with the dish, but was still a nice wine. Again Joe and I found ourselves disagreeing with the masses, and Brahm took this course 24 - 9. One of the great things about having a different chef is that we got an actual dessert (which Ian refuses to make for us). The dessert was an Oatmeal-Crusted Chocolate Brownie with Hot Fudge, Coffee Ice Cream, and Whipped Cream.
The brownie was apparently Annie's mom's recipe and had a nice hit of sea salt in it, which is something I love with chocolate. The coffee ice cream was fantastic as well. So good. The pairings for this were Michael's Mas Amiel made with Grenache grapes (yay!) and Brahm's 10 year Tawny Port.
I'm not a big tawny port fan, but this was a really nice one. It paired perfectly adequately with the dessert, even if the pairing wasn't particularly inspired. (I think at least 9 out of 10 people on the street would have thrown a port at a chocolate dessert...) Michael's wine, on the other hand, was sort of a revelation. On it's own we figured it would lose to the port, but it was absolutely perfect with the dish. It's fun to find out about a new wine like this and to see it work so well with a dish. I make a mean coffee ice cream and a pretty solid brownie, and this will be the wine I reach for next time I serve those items together. The masses agreed with me and Joe for once, and Michael took this course 21 - 12... which meant the four courses were split between the two sommeliers, but that Brahm was the winner by a final score of 71 - 61. This was a really great night, with awesome food and big pours of awesome wine. Brahm will be back next time as the defending champion, and I'm really looking forward to it.

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