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December 17, 2003

Food and Wine: Le Divorce

Slate 's Mike Steinberger has a great article on how parallel trends in food and wine (toward a certain level of "irrational exuberance") create a collision at the table. His well-argued thesis is that more aggressive tastes are harder than ever to pair. It's hard to disagree, but then again it's also hard to get to riled up about it... does that make me a Philistine?

Posted by jay at December 17, 2003 12:16 PM | TrackBack
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Comments

It does seem as though Mr. Steinberger is rather riled up about it, and, to be honest, it seems to me that he is rather overstating the "problem." For one thing, though there are more restaurants out there following Adria's and Veyrat's lead, for the most part they are few and far between, doing food that IS specifically intended to challenge to pallets of sophisticated diners. What they are doing is not entirely unlike the fashions that show up on the runways of Milan and Paris. These are not intended to enter the mainstream, but to showcase new ideas. A chef is, in general, a craftsman. He is successful when he can do something of very high quality that people like and he can do it consistently and profitably. Adria and the other vanguard chefs out there are artists. Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso pushed the limits of painting and the visual representation of ideas. And they influenced whole new schools of art. But they didn't bring about the death of representational or realistic art and design altogether.

To be honest, as well, I would venture to say that Ferran Adria couldn't care less if his food goes with a particular wine, unless it was a wine (or other beverage) he crafted himself to complement a specific dish. In fact, I'd not be shocked at all to hear of Adria designing a completely experimental 12 course tasting menu designed to pair with Grape NeHi. His food is about revolution in the dining room. It might be somewhat self-important, but Steinberger's frustration at this dining experience diverging from the traditional wine and food pairing seems to miss the point of what these chef's are doing.

As for the larger world of fusion cuisines, there are two things to consider when pairing wine with dinner. For one thing, many chefs who are trying to do fusion cuisine just don't have a strong enough grasp of the soul of the cuisines they are trying to fuse to do it well. A lot of fusion cuisine is just bad--messy, neither authentic nor artistic, and unbalanced. When done well, it can be fascinating, providing discernable layers of flavor and ingredients that showcase each of the cuisines who contributed to the development of the dish. I think this is one of Tom Douglas's strengths. He seems to appreciate that adding ginger and lemongrass to otherwise traditional Italian dishes doesn't make it fusion, but that the careful use of ingredients and techniques specific to a cuisine can be used in concert with those of another to create something more interesting than the sum of each of its parts.

The second thing to consider is that when fusion is done well, like all good food, it has balance and complexity, but also has a dominant trait. It might be the sweetness of the port in a roasted duck with cranberries and dried mango. It might be the gaminess of lamb in tagine with okra and preseved lime. But one flavor or family of flavors should take center stage to give context and focus to the rest of the flavors. This, it seems to me, is what one should take into consideration when choosing the wine with which to pair it.

However, since the diner cannot be expected to necessarily know ahead of time which flavors are going to dominate such dishes, it seems like a trend to chefs and sommeliers working together to provide the diner with appropriate suggestions from which to make their beverage selection might well be one worth starting.

Hey, I never said I wasn't long-winded, Jay.

Posted by: paulette on December 17, 2003 04:13 PM
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