CuisineXplorers made its official debut to the world on Sunday, January 16, when I was invited to participate in the first Wine Ride organized by my friends at Keeper Collection, publishers of online interactive cookbooks by some of Texas finest chefs including David Bull, Monica Pope, and Paul Petersen. They also produce events such as the Chefs Under Fire competition and now the Wine Ride, a sort of scavenger hunt where five teams composed of Texas sommeliers, bloggers, and photographers competed to find the perfect food pairing from four Austin venues with stellar wines from Selection Becky Wasserman Wines & Champagnes.
Now, what on earth could drag me away from the couch on an NFL playoff Sunday? Well, the incredible opportunity to sample some of the most amazing Burgundies and Champagnes on earth, that’s what. I also wanted to test my own wine and food pairing skills against some of Texas’ best sommeliers: Scott Barber, of Centennial Fine Wine & Spirits (Dallas); Eric Hastings, of Eddie V’s Prime Seafood (Houston); Jason Huerta, of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse (Dallas), current winner of TexSom’s 2010 Texas’ Best Sommelier competition; and my pals June Rodil, of Congress Austin and Mark Sayre, of TRIO at the Four Seasons Austin. The teams had to travel from venue to venue (Fino, Central Market Cooking School, Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, and Foreign & Domestic), where the sommelier sampled foods prepared or selected specifically for the wines at each venue, then declared which was the “perfect pairing” before moving on to the next venue while the blogger and photographer documented the proceedings. Eventually everyone convened at Uchiko where each team made their presentation in front of an audience, which also got to enjoy a tasting of exclusive wines with Austin sommelier Devon Broglie, and Peter Wasserman via Skype.
Honestly, when I signed up to be a location blogger I was quite confused about how the event was to unfold, but once we got going it all came into focus and everything went smoothly, although at a fast pace, and turned out to be a barrel of fun. Lucky me, I was assigned to cover the goings on at Foreign and Domestic, where Ned and Jodi Elliot prepared what the competing somms agreed was the hardest pairings. F&D was the only venue that had two sets of pairings, savory and sweet. The wines for the savory pairing were 2007 Domaine Michel Lafarge Bourgogne Aligoté “Raisins Dores” and a 2007 Jean Noel Gagnard Chassane-Monthrachet “L’Estimée” (picture above).
Chef Ned chose to prepare three complex, multi-layered dishes that combined juxtaposing flavor profiles and textural characters, giving the somms lots of things to work with, but at the same time providing a challenge for pairing.
The soup, which three out of five somms declared one of the most difficult things to pair (“it’s liquid on liquid,” said June) was a smoked chestnut cream garnished with fried chestnut slices and fried whole peanuts, lime powder, and paprika. Full of rustic, earthy flavors, it was lovely on a cold winter day. June, Mark, and Scott picked the Aligoté as the match, but Jason and Eric preferred the Pinot, a light-bodied red with bright berries and earthy notes. Eric picked it as his perfect pairing, describing it as having “a nice fall feel” and I agreed that the acidity in the Aligoté was too racy for the delicate soup, but June fully disagreed, picking the soup and Aligoté as her perfect pairing.
Next course was a spectacular parsnip ravioli swimming in a light fennel broth with roasted grapes and Brussel sprouts, topped with crispy fried pig ear strips.
This was tricky, tricky, tricky to pair, combining meaty, sweet, and bitter flavors, and textures that ranged from delicate silky pasta to crisp, chewy pork, and nutty, creamy parsnip. Jason loved the Pinot with this dish, but everyone else, including me, thought the Aligoté was the best, and both Mark and I agreed that it was the perfect pairing of the day.
Last of the savory was a roast quail over potato puree, with hazelnut pesto and caramelized celery. This beautiful and savory dish matched both wines for different reasons. I thought the gamy, dark meat flavors of the quail went great with the Pinot, but the Aligoté matched the creamy potatoes and sweet/earthy /vegetal nature of the celery. Either would have been a good match, and the somms were split right down the middle on this one. While Mark, Jason, and Scott liked the Pinot (this was Scott’s perfect pairing), June and Eric preferred the Aligoté. I liked them almost the same but lean toward the Pinot.
Then came time for dessert, and Jodi didn’t disappoint, offering three completely different items: a blood orange sorbet topped with roasted hazelnuts, a creamy rice pudding with caramel sauce, and a rich dark chocolate mousse topped with milk chocolate ganache and fleur de sel. Neither of the wines to be paired were meant for dessert, both definitely dry and unlikely picks for sweets: 2007 Domaine Michel Lafarge Bourgogne Passetoutgrain, and N.V. Paul Berthelot Champagne Brut Reserve Premier Cru –Yeah, I drank that!
Here, all but two of the somms were split on the decision. Jason picked the “against the rules” match of chocolate mousse and Champagne, which I though unusual but actually worked; Eric liked the red wine with the rice pudding, saying it was like “adding fresh berries on top,” but I thought the rice was too sweet and agreed with June that it gave the wine a metallic taste. She also picked the rice, but matched it with the Champagne, which she likened to sake: “rice and yeast together,” was her working theory. Both Mark and Scott picked the blood orange sorbet with the Champagne, and I agreed. The hazelnuts complemented the toasty notes on the Champagne, and the sorbet matched its citrusy flavors.
From the occasional roars of laughter and “oooohs” and “ahhhhs” coming from the packed front dining room at Uchiko I gathered the presentation portion went well, especially when the purpose and prizes of the Wine Ride were announced: the winning somm will win a spot to compete in Somms Under Fire, the new Keeper Collection statewide competition, and the blogger, photographer, and facilitweeter of the winning blog post will each win an all-access media badge. The voting for both the somm and the team blog post is currently scheduled to begin on Thursday January 20, but stay tuned as I will confirm this on CuisineXplorers’ Facebook page. To vote, go to http://sommsunderfire.com/pairing/. The team blog post voting will take place at http://www.keepercollection.com/blog, where you will be able to read and view the day’s events. Personally, I was thrilled to have participated and can’t wait for Somms Under Fire.