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A door opens on wine pairings

Slanted Door's Charles Phan finds varieties that make his Vietnamese dishes 'more interesting.'

January 26, 2013|S. Irene Virbila
  • A green papaya salad would pair well with a sweeter white blend with a crisp minerality.
A green papaya salad would pair well with a sweeter white blend with a crisp… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Subtle fresh spring rolls, a rollicking green papaya salad, comforting pig's knuckle soup, fragrant lemon grass pork, "shaking" beef and caramelized shrimp -- they're all delicious, but hardly the easiest dishes to pair with wines.

Unless, of course, you're at Slanted Door, Charles Phan's terrific restaurant in San Francisco. Slanted Door has always been different -- modern, hip, uncompromising. It was one of the first Asian restaurants to buy the same quality ingredients that Chez Panisse or Zuni Cafe might use. And it was also one of the first, if not the first, to have a serious wine list.

After spending a couple of weeks exultantly cooking through Phan's new and long-awaited "Vietnamese Home Cooking," I called him to get his input on which wines would pair best with his terrific recipes.

The Slanted Door's wine list started almost accidentally. Just before Phan opened the restaurant in 1985, he was having lunch at Zuni Cafe and noticed a big table of guys with about 20 bottles of wine. On a whim, he leaned over and asked if they knew of anyone who would be interested in helping him make a wine list. The name Mark Ellenbogen came up. He was just back in town after living in Italy and took the job as wine director, which he held for more than 25 years.

The first list was all Italian, but after six months, it wasn't working. That's when things got radical. Next up: a Riesling-driven list with a few other whites and some reds. No Chardonnay. And not a single wine from California.

"Back then," Phan says, "people thought we were being snobby, leaving Napa out." But he didn't have much storage, and, on a shoestring budget, he couldn't have a big list. And Napa wasn't exactly making the kinds of wines that went well with Vietnamese food.

Phan and Ellenbogen eventually decided to organize the wines by characteristics -- dry, floral, delicate, spicy, etc., instead of by grape or country -- with dry at the very bottom.

"If you look at the list today," Phan says, "it still has some of the same characteristics."

Until last year that list was a legal-size sheet of 120 wines. Wine director Chaylee Priete has since doubled the labels, and it's still heavily Riesling-based. "However," explains Phan, "there's now a small but firm emphasis to find some local winemakers who farm ecologically and meet our criteria for low-alcohol, high-acid, low-tannin wines that pair with our food."

From experience, I'm well aware that it's not easy pairing wines with Vietnamese food, which is often sweet, tart and fiery, all at the same time. That's why I was so curious about Phan's favorite wine matches for specific recipes.

"Wines with high alcohol [anything over 14%] or low acidity are not going to work with this spicy and sweet food," he cautions.

When guests balk at ordering unfamiliar wines, Phan offers to let them try something dry and something fruity side by side and then choose which they think works better with the food.

"If you don't do an experiment like that," he says, "you won't see how wonderful the changes are, how the wine makes the food more interesting."





Sweet and crisp

Look for a white blend from Vienna or Austria that's sweet with a crisp minerality, such as a Gemischter Satz. Phan especially likes it with the 2011 Bernreiter Gemischter Satz, a field blend grown within the city limits of Vienna, typically drunk only at a Heuriger (a wine tavern attached to one of the city's many wineries). Gemischter Satz can have up to 20 varietals blended together. Some add acidity, some musky sweetness and some crisp minerality.


Turn to Riesling

Look for very dry, minerally Rieslings from the Wachau or Kamptal in Austria. "Most people mistakenly pair a big red wine with our grilled meat dishes," Phan says. "In fact, only a select few red wines go well with our food. They need to be delicate, have lots of acid and no tannins -- tannins and the fish sauce we use in virtually every dish taste bitter and metallic when they meet. Instead we urge people to try something like the 2007 "Heiligenstein" Riesling from Willi Brundlmayer in Kamptal. Slight notes of dust, resin and citrus marry with the lemon grass, while the purity of the Riesling minerality cuts through the fat and richness of the pork.


S. Irene Virbila


Grilled pork chops with sweet lemon grass marinade


Total time: 40 minutes, plus marinating time

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from "Vietnamese Home Cooking" by Charles Phan.


3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 lemon grass stalk, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons minced shallot

1 Thai chile, stemmed and finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 bone-in center-cut pork chops, each about 12 ounces and 1 inch thick

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