East-West Fusion cuisine has been with us long enough that the ideas have seeped into mainstream cooking in America and other parts of the New World. Many of us remain puzzled, however, about just what to drink with a dish that uses classic French techniques but laces the flavors with Japanese or Thai ingredients.
Some folks from Oregon set up a rewarding experiment last week at Bushi-Tei restaurant in San Francisco, which has a fine fusion chef named Seiji Wakabayashi. They sent him a bunch of their wines and gave him carte blanche to create new dishes for them.
Adelsheim, Anne Amie, Elk Cove and Willamette Valley Vineyards each sent him five wines. In most vintages, these wineries produce at least an outstanding wine or two. They threw some interesting challenges at Wakabayashi, and he came through like a champ with a five-course meal for the 20 wines.
He took more chances with the white wines. He offered asparagus, a notorious challenge for wine, with a set of Pinot Gris. He used sesame and raspberry with a mixed group that included a rosé, and he added kinome oil (made from a mintlike herb) as garnish to halibut for a batch of Rieslings. A wafer of 90 percent cacao chocolate leaned against a portion of venison to accompany the reserve PInot Noirs, Oregon's red-wine calling card.
The wines showed well next to this food, mostly because Wakabayashi knows how to keep things subtle, despite the long list of strange-sounding ingredients.
In his first course, serrano ham wrapped around asparagus stalks added a nice bridge to the wines. That, and a sprinkle of green apple Parmigiano dust, made all the Pinot Gris taste like someone had amped up the acidity in them. Bright and soft on their own, they got tremendously zingy with the wines. Adelsheim Willamette Valley 2007, a round wine that sang of mineral and quince, gained the most complexity with the dish. It really was a startling effect, but refreshing.
The next course grappled with the task of finding something to go with four very different wines: Elk Cove's pleasant if bland Pinot Noir Rosé 2007, Anne Amie's fresh and floral Müller-Thurgau 2007, Adelsheim's creamy, apricot-scented Chardonnay CH 2006 and WVV's rich, nutmeg-tinged Chardonnay 2006. The chef came up with a raw oyster and a scallop in a bowl of savory blancmange, a creamy pudding flavored with sesame, topped with a mizuna leaf, raspberry coulis and a drizzle of vanilla bean oil. Whew!
It's actually a lovely dish, and it did the Müller-Thurgau proud. The wine wrapped its fruit around the flavors in the dish and stood up to the creamy texture, which unfortunately torpedoed both Chardonnays. The rosé just remained bland.
Things got better with the halibut. A thick slice of the white-fleshed fish, wrapped in a crepinette to keep it moist, floated over delicate white beans, fennel nage and some of that kinome oil. Each wine responded to something else in this dish and got a little better. The earthy Elk Cove Riesling Estate 2006 picked up more fruit. So did Adelsheim's very minerally, tart Auxerrois 2007. The off-dry, fruity WVV Riesling 2006 got soft and silky. The flavors got a little raucous in a dry, tart Anne Amie Riesling 2007, but it became more vivid.
For the lighter Pinot Noirs, Wakabayashi opted for a few slices of duck breast with sautéed mushrooms and a cherry sauce for a flight of lighter wines. Elk Cove Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2006 won that round on my scorecard, its silky texture making the best match with the duck so its crisp raspberry and cherry flavors could come through.
The reserve Pinots paired with venison loin, crusted with crushed espresso beans, no sauce except for a wild berry chutney, and that chocolate wafer. Anne Amie Winemaker's Selection 2006 got broader with the food, Adelsheim Elizabeth's Reserve 2006, supple and elegant on its own, became even more delicate and picked up some fruit. Elk Cove Five Mountain 2006, tart on its own, gained in smoothness. Only WVV Tualatin 2006, which had a sour pickle edge, fell short. It got raucous.
It struck me that none of us attending this lunch were likely to rush home and make any of these dishes for dinner the next time we open an Oregon wine. But it proved there's nothing to fear from Asian flavors in western food, at least when they're in the hands of a chef who knows how to keep things reasonably subtle. And subtle is what Oregon wines need. They're not as big and rangy and some of their cousins from California and elsewhere. That pairs up with complex foods well.