Not wanting to be bound by traditional matchups of white wine with fish and red wine with meat, chefs Maurice Toulemon of the University Club and Century Plaza executive chef Raimund Hofmeister worked for at least a year on unusual wine and food matchups for a recent Les Amis d'Escoffier Society Dinner at the Century Plaza Hotel. The annual dinner honored the memory of the late Auguste Escoffier, generally considered the "king of chefs."
Escoffier believed that unconventional food and wine pairings were the mark of a true culinary artist. A prime example was his pairing of fine Champagne with a Japanese salad at a dinner at the Carlton Hotel in London. Made with pineapples, oranges, tomatoes, lettuce hearts and fresh cream, the salad received considerable praise, but many an eyebrow was raised when it was served with Champagne. Only after repeated tastings was it accepted.
Bear Claw Soup
Similar challenges were faced by Toulemon and Hofmeister. A bear claw soup enriched with flavors of wild mushrooms, quenelles and juniper proved not an easy match for any wine. Their choice was Madeira Verdelho, Special Reserve, a medium-sweet, rich, full-flavored wine, which cleared the palate nicely for the multiflavored soup.
Unfortunately, Madeira of this type is not favored these days, but it should be, especially on cooler evenings.
Hudson Valley duck liver in an herbed aspic could have been matched to a dry, fine, sparkling wine, but the chefs preferred a white Burgundy, Meursault Le Narvaus, 1982, a fat, round, big-styled wine. Meursaults in general, especially from good vintages like 1982 and 1983, have the structure and power to take on liver, pates and not overly spiced delicatessen meats. California Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are worthy candidates also.
Another atypical match-up was deep-fried eggplant served with Creole mustard sauce and crayfish sausages. Ordinarily, beer would have been my choice to go with this, but a lean elegant Puligny Montrachet, Les Combettes, 1982, Henri Clerc was not overpowered and showed well. To its credit it was not overly fruity and, indeed, a California full-fruited Chardonnay might have had a difficult time. A restrained, less fruity Pinot Blanc or even a mild Sauvignon Blanc also is an appropriate candidate for a variety of today's popular Cajun-style dishes. Try Jekel's Arroyo Blanc (Pinot Blanc) 1984.
The Henri Clerc wine selected is one of his best. It was aged in one-third new oak for 10 months with fermentation in the barrel. Also assisting in the match-up is the wine's unusually high 14% alcohol, which may be another asset in Cajun food pairings.
Pairing fillet of rabbit in a spicy Cajun-style hazelnut breading with a red wine stumped the experts. A soft silky claret would have been decimated, but a Chateau Talbot, St. Julien, Grand Cru Classe, 1979 worked well. It is just beginning to come around from a vintage that still is suffering from great expectations and hardness. The latter characteristic, generally considered a negative one, helped tame the spicy character of the dish.
Cajun Foods and Wines
Talbot is usually a good buy, even in off years, because it is fuller bodied and less costly than most of the wines of that district. Additionally, it is known to age sooner than its more noted neighbors from chateaux Latour and Mouton. The wine destroyed the myth that Cajun foods cannot be enjoyed with a red of elegance and finesse. Indeed it is not uncommon at K-Pauls in New Orleans to enjoy elegant, robust Cabernet Sauvignon with heavily herbed and spiced dishes. Try a young and vigorous Cabernet Sauvignon Jekel, Private Reserve, 1981. Here is a well-made Cabernet able to handle assertively spiced foods. As with any wine, it is simply a matter of orienting the palate.
In keeping with the theme of unusual match-ups, a full-bodied, lush red Burgundy, Eschezeau, 1979, Henri Jayer was selected for baked Brie cheese in a caraway-flavored pastry crust with artichokes and tomatoes. The intensity of flavor and texture made the difference here.
Other choices that also could work well are Pinot Noirs such as Chalone's, 1982, David Bruce, Santa Cruz Mountains, 1983 and Santa Cruz Mountains Winery, 1981. A worthy, less than $10 choice for Zinfandel lovers is Sebastiani's Zinfandel, Proprietor's Reserve, Sonoma Valley, 1980.
Those wanting to invest in good red Burgundies should consider the 1979 vintage, as most are developing nicely. A word of caution, however, for those currently cellaring '79s. Take a quick taste to make sure maturity doesn't pass you by. The Eschezeau generally was aged for a minimum of three years in 100% new oak and unlike so many other Burgundies, it is unfiltered. This bottle, worthy of additional age, is an excellent candidate as a special occasion wine when price is not a factor. Expect to pay $25 or more.