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Wine and tequila play surprise starring roles at Oakroom, Blind Pig dinners

by Steve Coomes

I confess it proudly: As a former chef, I’m a food first guy, so as a general rule, I go to restaurants because of their food. That rule can, however, reverse itself when I go to brewpubs and the occasional spirits dinner.

Margarita made from Casa Noble silver tequila. Photo by Steve Coomes for Insider Louisville

Especially since a pair of superb experiences I had recently at The Oakroom and The Blind Pig. Not only were the drinks equal to and, in some cases, debatably better than the food, what made both nights out incredible was the obvious and serious consideration invested into the pairing of food and drink.

Seems with every “paired” dinner I attend lately, the collaboration of chef and sommelier or bartender yields unexpectedly good flavors, ones that better unify the whole course, and, in many cases, unexpectedly serve to improve the wine or the food itself.

Last Friday’s Copper River salmon dinner at The Oakroom presented multiple such examples, such as when sommelier Julie DeFriend paired R. Stuart & Co. Big Fire Rosé with chef Bobby Benjamin’s salmon tartare, Ikura wild roe and Fiedler Farms prosciutto appetizer.

Despite knowing better, nearly every time I hear “rosé,” I still have flashbacks of purloining sips of the faux pink, sugary varieties as a kid and thinking, “Really? Adults like this stuff?”

The Big Fire match was perfect, anything but cloying, and with a deliciously acidic edge that cut perfectly through the dominant saltiness of the roe and the fattiness of the prosciutto. I even heard guests near me remark what I was thinking: “This is rosé? I’ll never think of it the same again.”

Bobby Benjamin, chef de cuisine, The Oakroom. Photo by Steve Coomes for Insider Louisville

Yet DeFriend wasn’t done. She paired the L’Ecole “Walla Voila” Chenin Blanc alongside salmon ceviche with cucumber slaw, coconut broth, cashew and opal basil.

Two of the subtler flavors on the plate — the basil, which was gelled into a black strip, not in leaf form, and the coconut broth — turned vibrant with prodding from the wine’s balanced fruit.

Again, bit players in the dish took leading roles I never expected. Such results are the product of thinking and tasting, plus experience to know how chemistry affects flavor so significantly.

Side note: A thanks to Benjamin, who allowed me to follow him around the kitchen awhile that night and snap some pics. His excitement and passion for his craft is fun to see in young chefs. And the strawberry-jalapeno intermezzo served that night should be on grocer’s shelves.

I enjoyed a similar experience at The Blind Pig. I really enjoy tequila, but I’m like most who enjoy it mixed, despite knowing the truly good stuff can—and often should—be drunk neat.

The most striking pairing of the night for me was the salad of watercress, spinach and friseé, duck confit, house-made bacon, smoked spicy pecans, lavender lemon vinaigrette, with the Casa Noble Reposado. Reposado (which means “rested” for less than a year in very lightly toasted oak barrels) has a distinctly warmer, earthier and even nuttier edge than younger “silver” tequila.

The bare hint of smoke from the barrel was enough to latch onto the bacon and smoked pecans in the salad to elevate it to a dish worth enjoying as an entrée. This is a salad for crying out loud! When does anyone take much care at all to pair anything great with a salad, much less tequila?

Bravo, chef Joe Frase and manager Jeremy Johnson, for giving these two a hookup.

Jose “Pepe” Hermosillo, CEO and master distiller at Casa Noble, holds up a bottle of his company’s best, Extra Anejo. Photo by Steve Coomes for Insider Louisville

A bit thanks to Jose “Pepe” Hermosillo for sharing the best of the best made at Casa Noble with our group. For a final flourish on an already terrific meal, he poured glasses of the brand’s Extra Anejo, a 5-year-old tequila that costs somewhere around $100 a bottle in most liquor stores.

It was unbelievably smooth and without the heat of the younger vintages, and full of vanilla and caramel tones—tastes that bourbon fans likely are familiar with. What’s beautiful about tequila is it does share those barrel notes without the grain or heavy char flavors found in whisky.

If you don’t like bourbon for the reasons I mentioned, give tequila (drunk neat) a chance. And if you do like bourbon, I’ll bet you find much to like in good tequila.

A last shout out to Hermosillo. The Jalisco, Mexico native was a gracious and friendly host whose excellent English allowed him to answer a barrage of questions throughout the night.

If you’ve seen a passionate winemaker talk up his trade, then you can imagine Hermosillo’s equal pride for tequila. I think everyone who attended that dinner will view that spirit in a similar light from now on.

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