As an unrepentant wine-and-food matcher, I often go for the "beverage pairing" with chef's menus at fine restaurants. It's a way to get a variety of flavor profiles and compare my preferences with the sommelier's. It usually satisfies.
Looking over the Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning wine list at Momofuku Ko, David Chang's place of casually brilliant chef's menus in New York, one listing called to me. At $95, Joh. Jos. Prüm Riesling Mosel Spätlese Wehlener Sonnenuhr 2006 was just the thing I wanted to drink on this summer evening. So I ordered a bottle and took note of how well it harmonized with chef Sean Gray's parade of bites.
Frankly sweet but balanced with a subtle zing of acidity, the wine offered a profile of pear, a hint of apricot and a touch of steel, with a bit of almond blossom. The finish didn't want to quit. Although conventional wisdom avoids sweeter wines with savory food, I don't mind at all. I like the contrast.
The meal was extraordinary, a great example of using modernist techniques with so much restraint it's almost as if they're not there. A poached egg, no doubt the result of sous-vide perfection, rested on meltingly long-cooked sweet onions and nestled against a clutch of chervil. The Riesling's sweetness linked with the onion's, its floral notes responding to the fresh herb.
Chickpea puree, smoother than possible with normal preparation methods, gained extra depth from miso-like Hozon, a product of Ko's lab made from fermented local nuts, seeds and grains. Meant to enhance a few lobes of sea urchin from Hokkaido, Japan, the puree's flavor was so intense I only needed a fraction of it to balance the character of the shellfish—which in turn brought out the wine's creaminess.
A chicken oyster, its panko coating fried to a crackle, would have been great with any wine. A chaser of white kimchee broth in a tiny cup tilted the balance in a different direction, its sour notes bringing out the wine's fruit.
I am convinced that thin slices of aged beef strip loin, given a quick touch-and-go on a brazier to pick up a hint of smoke, worked better with this sweet white than it would with most reds. The wine draped like silk against a dab of green peppercorn sauce under the beef.
And so it went, even to the newest dish on the menu, a whole eggplant smoky from cooking close to burning wood, a hake fillet cooked inside. The fish plus creamy-textured eggplant plus a saucy topping of fresh and roasted tomatoes made a spectacular dish. The wine's sweetness and fruit seeped into any cracks in the flavor profile.
The one dish for which a sweet wine would actually be the top recommendation came through as expected. Frozen foie gras shredded over a tiny tart of lychee, candied pine nuts and Riesling jelly was tailor-made for an 11-year-old Mosel's strengths.
It's fun to try suggested matches, but not mandatory. When there are so many facets a good wine can show with different elements in the food, why not take advantage?