If you've got an appetite for duck testicles, you'll find them in a dish at Mario Batali's new restaurant, Del Posto, in New York. But if you think testicles are old hat, your dining destination can only be the Explorer's Club.
This New York-based international organization's members range from Sir Edmund Hillary to Neil Armstrong. These intrepid explorers have led the charge to the depths of oceans, tops of mountains and beyond the earth itself. But perhaps its most fascinating voyage—to the outer limits of the edible—takes place at an annual dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. The menu makes duck testicles sound like fish sticks.
But this year's dinner had an extra element for those in attendance who also happened to be wine lovers. Winemaker Cal Dennison from Gallo brand Redwood Creek had offered suggestions for pairing his wines with many of the exotic dishes. I would finally have a chance to decide whether Pinot Noir or Chardonnay matches better with tarantula.
The dinner, held on March 18, drew about 1,500 guests, dressed in tuxedos and gowns, moving and mingling around buffet tables laden with the stuff of scary movies. If an inaugural ball and the dinner scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom could have a lovechild, this is what it would look like.
I started piling food on my plate right away, including the pickled duck tongue, mealworm sushi, scorpions and crickets. At another table I found a mushroom cap stuffed with maggots, cockroaches and a honey-soy glazed tarantula on a skewer. I bypassed the alligator and feral hog (been there, done that), and helped myself to the kangaroo balls Bourguignon, Hawaiian moonfish and sweet-and-sour bovine penis (with testicles). A passing waiter offered me a tempura-battered tarantula, which I accepted since the glazed one already on my plate looked lonely. Decadence on my part—I later discovered that they cost $175 each.
I didn't know which food to start with, but Dennison offered some wine advice. "The flavors are very important. Whether they're sweet or salty or spicy, we must know the correct wine to pair," he explained. "But then we also have texture. When you have a texture of something that's very drying, I think that's where you wouldn't look to use a Cabernet with tannins, but something that complements dry foods or elicits salivary action to get your juices flowing, like Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc."
But with the reception crowded and table space in short supply, a formal tasting was out of the question. So I got a glass each of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and began sampling the foods. The Chardonnay matched well with the dense, dry texture of the bovine testicle. The penis, however, had absorbed much more of the sweet-and-sour flavors, which would have been fine if it didn't have the consistency of a bike tire. So what I really needed was a palate cleanser (and, perhaps, a psychiatrist), not an accompaniment.
The big question was how the wines would pair with the foods that once walked this earth on six or eight legs. I'd been warned that the Madagascar hissing cockroach is not generally a crowd-pleaser, but I wasn't put off by it. I had to chew through quite a bit of exoskeleton to get at the somewhat bitter yet velvety innards. However, the texture was a pleasant match with the Pinot. The sweetness of the honey conflicted with the earthiness of the wine, though, so should I get to try cockroach again, I'd like to have a dry Riesling handy and see how that works.
I rounded things off with an Explorer's martini (with a sheep's eyeball in lieu of an olive). I followed that with two coffees made from beans collected from some nontraditional places—weasel regurgitation and feral cat droppings, respectively—as I reviewed my tasting notes. I concluded that just about any wine works well at washing down something that once slithered, swam or scattered when the lights came on. In other words, the rules of pairing wine with "regular" foods apply equally to more exotic fare. It's not necessarily what you cook, it's how you cook it.
Take the tarantulas, for example. Both the tempura and honey-soy versions featured crunchy legs and a savory, chewy head and abdomen, with a slight mouth tingle (I'm guessing that was the venom). But the honey-soy tarantula had a sweetness that I thought worked well with the Pinot Noir, while the tempura tarantula held onto that extra bit of fat from the fryer that would pair perfectly with a sweet wine. Cal recommended the Chardonnay, but I'm thinking that at $175 a pop, why not go with something special, like a Sauternes?
I'm not in a huge hurry to consume my next cockroach, eyeball or scorpion, but at the very least I won't be intimidated by Del Posto's duck testicles. And choosing a wine will be easy. It all depends on how it's cooked. It is cooked, right?
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