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World Flavors, American Wines

A wine-and-food matching menu from New York's March Restaurant

Owen Dugan
Posted: September 16, 2003

March's owners, chef Wayne Nish (left) and wine director Joe Scalice, have created a restaurant strong in quality and refinement.
 
  Fricassée of Seasonal Vegetables with Coconut Milk, Lemongrass and Citrus Flavors  
 
  Braised Veal with Zucchini, Tomato, Garlic and Basil  
 
  Candied Walnut Tart with Bourbon Islands Vanilla Ice Cream  
 
  Wine Suggestions  
 
  Also:  
 
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These days, chefs rarely soft-pedal their flavors. When lemongrass appears on a menu, diners can expect to see stalks of it on their plate. Coconut milk conjures visions of thick curry sauces and tropical aromas. Pairing wines with such dishes generally requires deferring subtlety and straining to match these flavors -- essentially the high notes on the plates. But at Manhattan's March Restaurant, wine and food are much more in tune.

The owners, chef Wayne Nish and wine director Joe Scalice, have sustained a high level of quality and sophistication for more than a decade now. In their dining room, no single ingredient gets the high note, and the wine must match the entire plate. In conversation, they finish each other's sentences, and they are similarly simpatico on the table.

"I'm not trying to remake things," says Nish. "I take baby steps. Add one flavor -- one layer -- at a time. Joe matches a wine, which becomes the final layer of the dish."

As a result, Scalice is known for serving sake, sweet wine and even Sherry with dinner, along with the classic European and American wines on his 435-selection Wine Spectator Award of Excellence-winning list. Both men draw on a broad range of flavors -- even by today's standards -- but apply them with a fine brush.

For our purposes -- a wine-and-food matching menu for the home chef -- we had to rein Scalice in a bit. We asked him to select wines for a three-course menu of March standards, using distinctive Old World grapes grown and vinified in California: Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc, Syrah and a botrytized dessert wine in the style of France's Sauternes. This focused the experiment greatly, but also offered some surprises.

The first dish, a vegetable fricassée, robes sautéed vegetables in a sauce slightly thickened by coconut milk steeped with Thai elements. But don't expect self-conscious fusion here -- the result confidently integrates these flavors. It's cosmopolitan, not multicultural. As Nish explains, "The fricassée was inspired by [Alain] Ducasse in Monaco: I read about his and made my own version. This dish has Southeast Asian elements, but also butter and sea salt. This brings a commonality to the food."

Scalice points out that the coconut milk "brings out the vegetables' sweetness and makes for more dynamic pairings." He often matches sake here, but we concentrated on California Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, hoping that their fresh fruit characters and relatively full bodies would align with the bright flavors in the dish.

We were only half wrong: The best match hinged on the winemaker's judicious use of oak. The Chalone Pinot Blanc Chalone 2000 had tropical fruit and melon flavors, but it was the spicy oak that bound it to the food. "Wine either underlines the flavors in a dish -- makes them more vibrant -- or the dynamic combination of wine and food flavors make something new," says Scalice. Clearly the latter was happening in this case. The oak in this wine, as Scalice says, "makes a non-U.S. variety an American wine."

The slow-braised veal shank with vegetables would require a fairly hearty wine, so we tasted four California Syrahs. Again the dish incorporated different food cultures. Nish points out that the "cooking techniques and flavors are standard European, the garnish is pretty Provençal, but the finish is white soy sauce." With its ingredient of dried fish, white soy functions much as do anchovies in some Italian sauces: You don't taste them, but you'd miss the body they bring if they were left out.

Body was the crucial factor in the wines. One hefty Central Coast Syrah threatened to push the dish off the table. This was the wine many sommeliers would recommend, according to Scalice: "Sommeliers often try to sell the most impressive wine, and don't even consider what's the best wine for the food. It's disjointed. But I don't want to rock the boat."

If the Chalone provided a new dimension to the fricassée, the Marr Syrah Russian River Valley Vine Hill Vineyard 1999 was, as Scalice says, "a marriage of equals" with the veal. It wasn't too heavy in body, delivering bright fruit with black pepper and spice notes and a clean beef stock flavor that linked it to the sauce.

The dessert, a candied walnut tart, is a signature at March; it comes from Nish's tenure at New York's legendary Quilted Giraffe and La Colombe d'Or, where he and Scalice met, and which they owned for several years. It offers simple and intense flavors, mellowed a bit by the ice cream.

Scalice's longstanding passion for Sherry has a new incarnation in the line of bottlings he assembles for Bodegas Dios Baco. He included one of these, his Cream Sherry (which really tastes more like a Pedro Ximénez), in our tasting with the tart. With sweetness and nuttiness to spare, the wine was a direct hit. But it didn't fit our prerequisite of foreign varieties on U.S. soil. The American Port we tried took on an unpleasant cough-syrup flavor next to the tart. A Vidal Blanc turned sour. The Chappellet Chenin Blanc Napa Valley Moelleux 1999 had enough sugar and acid to carry the wine's floral and orange peel flavors through the tart's assertiveness.

Nish feels that "most tasting menus are just a series of entrées; I try to build." As a general rule, he moves from light to heavy, but in this case, he also starts with the more complex preparations, more layers of flavor, and builds to fewer, more direct flavors. Scalice complements, folding in appropriate, if sometimes surprising, wines. It's a crescendo effect. You have the feeling that after standing very close to a painting and admiring the detail, you gradually get to stand back and appreciate the whole.

One word that recurs in their discussion is "trust": their trust in each other and the customers' trust in Scalice's wine selections and Nish's cooking. Nish points out that "people have different ideas about what's a great restaurant," and Scalice says that "even in formal dining, the lowest common denominator is taste." But building a relationship with a customer is more elevated. As Scalice says, "Trust means people are comfortable." At March, comfort is an exercise in refinement.

Fricassée of Seasonal Vegetables with Coconut Milk, Lemongrass and Citrus Flavors

In a 10-inch sauté pan over low heat, add the olive oil and the shallots. Add a large pinch of salt, then the celery root, eggplant, acorn squash and mushrooms. Cook over low heat for 3 minutes.

Add the garlic, zucchini, yellow squash, string beans, yellow wax beans, asparagus tips and vegetable stock or tomato water. Cook over medium-high heat for 4 minutes more. Then add the sweet peas, tomatoes and herbs. Cook for 1 minute more and season with salt and pepper.

Add the coconut milk and the butter, and stir to blend well. Finish with the lime juice and season with salt, if necessary.

Divide the vegetable mixture evenly among 8 shallow soup bowls. Drizzle the liquid over and around the vegetable fricassée and garnish with additional herbs. Makes 8 appetizer servings.

Confit of Garlic:

Separate and peel cloves from 1 head of garlic. Cook in 1/2 cup olive oil in small saucepan over very low heat for 30-40 minutes until golden brown.

Infused Coconut Milk:

Combine and cook the following over low heat for 30 minutes:

  • 13.5 ounce can coconut milk (or a frozen 1-pound bag from Vietnam or Thailand)
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves
  • 1 bird chile pepper, halved
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, chopped

Braised Veal with Zucchini, Tomato, Garlic and Basil

  • 2 tablespoons coarse sea salt
  • 2 whole veal shanks, about 2 1/2 pounds each
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons
  • 2 leeks, split, washed and chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled, split and chopped
  • 2 large onions, peeled and chopped
  • 4 celery stalks, washed and chopped
  • 2 heads garlic, halved horizontally
  • 8 dried bay leaves
  • 1 large handful of fresh thyme
  • 1/2 cup coriander seeds
  • 1/4 cup black peppercorns
  • 2 pounds plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • 4 young zucchini, about 6 inches long, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 small onion, minced fine
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
  • 2 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 1 cup fregola, cooked in 2 cups chicken stock
  • 16 basil leaves, crushed and torn
  • 2 tablespoons white soy sauce (see note)

Sprinkle the salt over the veal shanks. Brown the veal shanks lightly in 1/4 cup olive oil in a large Dutch oven, about 10 minutes. Remove the veal shanks. Add the leeks, carrots, large onions, celery, garlic bulbs, bay leaves, thyme, coriander seeds and peppercorns. Cook until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the veal shanks, the 2 pounds of tomatoes and the chicken stock. Bring to a simmer, cover tightly, and braise over low heat for 3 hours. When the veal is tender, take the pot off the heat, and let cool to room temperature in the cooking liquid. Remove the shanks and cut the meat off the bones in large pieces. Discard the bones.

Strain the cooking liquid, pressing down on the solids, and discard the cooking vegetables. Reduce the liquid until thickened to about 2 cups. (If the veal is not to be served the same day, refrigerate the meat submerged in the sauce.)

Cut the veal into serving sizes, and reheat the pieces in the sauce over low heat. Meanwhile, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil in a 10-inch sauté pan and add the remaining ingredients except the white soy sauce. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Finish with the white soy sauce. Divide the vegetable mixture evenly among 8 dinner plates. Place one or two pieces of braised veal on top of the vegetables, and garnish with fresh basil. Serve immediately. Serves 8.

Note: Regular soy sauce is fermented from 80 percent soybeans and 20 percent wheat. So-called white soy sauce, or shiroshoyu, is made from just the opposite: 80 percent wheat and 20 percent soybeans. To the resulting product, niboshi (tiny dried sardines), konbu (dried giant seaweed) and dried shiitake mushrooms are added to produce a more flavorful brew called shirodashi. It is available at good Japanese grocers.

Candied Walnut Tart with Bourbon Islands Vanilla Ice Cream

In a 4-quart saucepan, melt the butter, sugars and honey together and bring to a boil. Cook until a candy thermometer reads 253° F or hard ball stage.

Turn off the heat, pour in the cream and nuts and stir to mix thoroughly. Turn out the mixture into the pastry shell and tamp down evenly.

Bake at 325° F for about 20 minutes, until the center of the tart is bubbling. Let cool enough to serve. Cut into eight pieces and serve warm with vanilla ice cream. "Bourbon Islands" is an old name for Madagascar, the source of Nish's favorite vanilla. Makes 8 servings.

Wine Suggestions

Joe Scalice, wine director of March Restaurant, Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews and I tasted a number of wines with this menu. Below are the most complementary wines we found, followed by alternates. If none of these selections are available, try to find wines with similar characteristics.

Fricassée of Seasonal Vegetables with Coconut Milk, Lemongrass and Citrus Flavors
First choice: Chalone Pinot Blanc Chalone 2000 (NR, $25)
Alternate choices: Chateau St. Jean Pinot Blanc Alexander Valley Robert Young Vineyard 2001 (89, $18), Steele Pinot Blanc Santa Barbara County 2001 (88, $16)

Braised Veal with Zucchini, Tomato, Garlic and Basil
First choice: Marr Syrah Russian River Valley Vine Hill Vineyard 1999 (NR, $27)
Alternate choices: Cline Syrah Sonoma County Los Carneros Vineyard 2000 (90, $28), Neyers Syrah Napa Valley 2000 (90, $30)

Candied Walnut Tart with Bourbon Islands Vanilla Ice Cream
First choice: Chappellet Chenin Blanc Napa Valley Moelleux 1999 (NR, $60/375ml)
Alternate choices: Standing Stone Vidal Finger Lakes Ice 2001 (90, $24/375ml), Lolonis Sauvignon Blanc Redwood Valley Late Harvest Eugenia Private Reserve 1997 (89, $30/375ml)

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