Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Riesling For Living

I realize I am going to sound like a spokesperson for Brie & Bleu and Thames River Wine and Spirits, but I promise that it is just coincidence that they figure so heavily into two blog posts so close together.

Although I have been on a cheap eating kick this week (trying to use stuff that has accumulated in my refrigerator, cupboards, and freezer) I could not resist when my friend Jim - my main source of wine recommendations - informed me about a wine dinner he was putting together at Brie & Bleu on Wednesday (last) night. Winemaker Konrad Hahn, proprietor of Von Schlenintz Vineyards in Germany(left), would be bringing an array of wines (including a sparkling Riesling, a pinot noir, and some very rare eiswien) and they would paired and served with a meal prepared by James Wayman (below right), one of two executive chefs from the River Tavern in Chester. The menu consisted of the following:

  • Foie Gras & black truffle custard
  • Thai summer roll with shrimp, sweet chili & peanut
  • Lob Gai: Thai chicken salad with toasted rice powder, Thai basil, mint & chili
  • Baeckoffe: Alsatian braised pork with potatoes, carrots & Riesling - served with mustard
  • Sable cookies, Stilton cheese, marcona almonds

I was essentially powerless to resist this combination. For $65 plus gratuity, I thought it was a phenomenal value. (Five courses and wine! This is a steal, people.)

As much as I was intrigued by the wine, the food was what really persuaded me to open my wallet. I have heard nothing but good things about James, and the menu seemed like such an interesting combination of sort of heavier, decadent dishes (the foie gras; the braised pork) and lighter, Asian-influenced dishes (the chicken salad; the summer roll).

The minute I walked into Brie & Bleu, Jim handed me a glass of Von Schlenintz Sekt, a sparkling Riesling. It tasted so fresh and dry and just so clean (for lack of a better flavor descriptor) on my tongue. I sipped the Sekt as I mingled with the other guests (a small and eclectic group, all very personable) and found my seat.

The set-up for these dinners consists of about 12-14 seats arranged around a group of small tables pushed together to form one large-ish table. The seats are limited in order to allow everyone to listen and participate in the conversation. The conversation was definitely quality as Konrad Hahn, seated directly across from me at the far end of our rectangular arrangement, described the Riesling grape and how his vineyard cultivates it to make such distinctly different wines. He passed around large color photos of the vineyard, showing the grapevines planted on steep slopes overlooking the river. We discussed Riesling's reputation in America as on overly sweet grape as we tried wines that proved it has versatility as a dryer beverage as well.

Drinking such well-crafted wine while discussing how it was made with the person who made it is a mind-blowing experience. And Konrad was extremely warm and inviting and very encouraging of questions. I think a person who had absolutely no wine knowledge whatsoever would have appreciated the dialogue as much as an experienced sommelier. In fact, I found myself regretting that Noe wasn't with me - he is not a wine drinker but I think he really would have enjoyed the conversation about how the grapes are grown and harvested.

James came out to talk about his menu as we were finishing our sparkler. Actually, James came in - he had been frying shoestring potatoes to top the foie gras and truffle custard out on the deck. He told us the custard was an "experiment" but it was one that the entire table was in agreement had worked. I've had foie gras before and think of it as kind of heavy - I have trouble naming a specific flavor, but the word rich is what immediately comes to mind. Somehow James' custard captured the richness of the foie gras along with the subtle truffle flavor and incorporated it into a creamy, lighter confection. All the decadence minus the heavy feeling - in short, magic.

The next two dishes - the summer roll and the Lob Gai - showcased an incredible understanding of how to use herbs. I immediately detected the mint when I bit into the shrimp and veggies of the summer roll - not overpowering mint, but just a hint of freshness that accented the crispness of the vegetables and the clean ocean-y flavor of the shrimp. The chicken salad had a great contrast of peppery spice and cooling cilantro (at least, I thought I tasted cilantro). (I sort of imagined that these two dishes would be what Jeff from this season of Top Chef would have made were he in the kitchen last night).

The fourth course was Baeckoffe, a departure from the lighter, Asian-themed second and third courses. This was more of a country dish: braised pork with potatoes and carrots. The pork was so tender that it more or less fell apart when I touched it with a fork. The vegetables were perfectly cooked - not underdone, but not at all mushy. This was paired with Konrad's lone red wine, a Pinot Noir. This German Pinot Noir was fairly understated - the color was a light ruby, and it tasted like it looked - not heavy at all. That is not to say it had no flavor - indeed, it had an almost slightly tart, cranberry-esque fruit with a smattering of what I think of as the typical Pinot Noir "spice". It was described by a member of our party as "the perfect red wine for white wine drinkers" and I couldn't agree more.

For dessert, we had the pleasure of drinking true Ice Wine (made from frozen grapes and very rare) alongside Sable cookies, Marcona almonds, and quite possibly the most divine wedge of Stilton on the planet. The cookies were buttery and much softer than they looked. It is a good thing they put a set number of almonds on each plate, because I would be a truly opportunistic feeder if a jar of Marcona almonds were set in front of me. There is something about those little golden nuts tossed in oil and sea salt that I can not resist. The Stilton was the crowning glory of the plate, brought to room temperature and the consistency of butter. I would take cheese over chocolate for dessert any day.

There were so many high points to this evening that it is hard to pick what was truly the best part, but I think it may have been how well these wines paired with the food. Eric (the importer) and Konrad explained why Riesling was such a good food wine, and every carefully selected dish prepared by James backed up their point. There are wine and food combinations that are good together - or at the very least, don't fight each other - but these pairings were truly complimentary.

All in all, the food and wine highlight of my time in Connecticut thus least until the next one. Now that I know what I've been missing, I'll be trying very hard to make sure I don't miss any more.


Jess said...

Sounds fabulous! Wish I could have joined you, I would have loved it. On a side note, it was probably the Asian Basil you were tasting in the Thai dish, it has a unique flavor. Wendy uses it all the time instead of regular basil, I'm really starting to like it. May trying growing both versions.

Amy W. said...

That was it - I checked. It had that cilantro-like freshness that I just can not get enough of!