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A sommelier on your shelf

`What to Drink With What You Eat' enlists an army of experts to suggest pairings. How about a Barbera with that mahi mahi?

February 21, 2007|Patrick Comiskey | Special to The Times

IMAGINE having the perfect wine for every dish on the takeout menu from your favorite Chinese seafood restaurant. The very notion seems farfetched. Those menus usually list dozens of items running the gamut from heat to savory, sweet to sour. Where do you start?

I'd recommend you start by picking up the latest book from food writers Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, "What to Drink With What You Eat,"(Bulfinch Press, $35) and turn to the page in the fifth chapter on Chinese food, where you'll find 20 well-reasoned suggestions, as well as a handful to avoid. Most of them will make the meal better. A few might be ideal. And one might create that perfect synergy between food and drink that can make even eating out of a box a memorable dining experience.

Pairing wine with food has always been more of an art than a science. Even though hundreds of thousands of words annually are devoted to the topic in books, newspapers, magazines and blogs, it's nearly impossible to apply hard and fast rules. And really, how could you? The perfect pairing is almost always inexpressible, a heady mix of the sensual and the unexpected. When it happens, words fail; you're left speechless, simply marveling at your own mouth.

So a book that seeks to demystify this most wondrous of mysteries seems about as useful as a book on how to look at a painting, or a book on how to read a book. But that is exactly what the husband-wife team Dornenburg and Page have done with "What to Drink," subtitled "The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea -- Even Water -- Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers."

Thanks to Dornenburg's experience as a chef and the pair's seemingly insatiable appetites and exhaustive taxonomic energies, the authors have shed new light on the art of pairing, ensuring even the novice wine drinker -- and eater -- a book's worth of peak experiences.

Dornenburg and Page are best known for their book "Becoming a Chef," a kind of experiential guidebook: life lessons by way of the toque. But the new book builds on their more recent "Culinary Artistry," to which a number of the country's most famous chefs contributed their expertise on complementary foods. At the heart of that book is an index of ingredients and their most reliable and delicious accompaniments. This approach, supplemented by chef's suggestions and recipes, allows readers to reference time-honored flavor combinations with flashcard quickness.

"What to Drink" extends the list approach to food and beverage pairings. Drawing from extensive interviews with some of the country's best-known sommeliers, it compresses their suggestions into two sprawling indexes that take up nearly two-thirds of the book. One is an alphabetical list of dishes, ingredients and types of cuisines from "acidic (or tart foods) or dishes, e.g. goat cheese, tomatoes," to "zucchini blossoms (esp. fried)" and the wines, beers, teas and other drinks to pair with them. The other lists wines and beverages and suggests foods to pair with them (and to avoid).

Not only will you learn that meals flavored with celery, citrus and cilantro will pair well with your New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (not to mention a Filet-o-Fish), but you'll also get snippets of information about how it works and why.

The book's initial chapters establish some basic principles of food and wine pairing. If you're a foodie, or if wine is a regular feature of your supper, you're probably acquainted with several of them: how to employ your senses, for example, or how to pair a region's food with a region's wine.

But Dornenburg and Page take pains to point out that you don't need to be an expert -- indeed, for most of us, pairing food and wine is practically innate. We've known since we were kids that certain foods taste better with certain beverages. Oreos always taste better with milk; with 7-Up, on the other hand, they're pretty yucky. (They are with Barolo too; a Banyuls, however, would be heavenly.)

Voices galore

DRAWING on that foundation, Dornenburg and Page employ a small army of sommeliers to back up their claims with suggestions, anecdotes and advice. These include such well-known experts as New York's Joe Bastianich (wine book co-author, restaurateur, wine merchant and winemaker); Karen King (beverage director at the Modern, formerly of Union Square Cafe); Bernie Sun (corporate beverage director for Jean-Georges restaurants); Chicago's Alpana Singh, (Master Sommelier, previously of Everest restaurant); Brian Duncan (wine director and partner of Bin 36 Restaurant, Wine Bar & Market); the Bay Area's Larry Stone (Master Sommelier, French Master Sommelier, winemaker, formerly of Rubicon); Rajat Parr, (Master Sommelier, wine director of Mina Group); and Alan Murray (Master Sommelier, sommelier and wine director Masa's). Los Angeles is underrepresented, but Valentino's Piero Selvaggio and Silver Lake Wine's George Cossette both make appearances.

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