Zinfandel For Every Taste

A Sonoma chef cooks to three facets of this celebrated grape
Harvey Steiman
Posted: June 30, 2009

Zinfandel isn't just Zinfandel isn't just Zinfandel. As a red table wine, some Zins aim for claretlike grace, while others muscle up into power wines. At the extremes, the grape can make something light and pink, such as white Zinfandel or Zinfandel rosé, or produce a rich, sweet dessert wine that's close to Port.

A good way to get to know the grape is to open several different styles to match a summer menu. And where else to go for Zinfandel menu ideas but to a restaurant named Syrah Bistro? Actually, Josh Silvers' establishment by that name in Santa Rosa sits in the heart of Sonoma County, not far from many of California's best Zinfandel vineyards. And Silvers' cooking style fits easily with the rustic, energetic flavors of the wine, favoring as he does local ingredients and direct preparations.

Despite its name, Syrah has an eclectic California-centric wine list that offers nearly as many Zinfandels as Syrahs. In 1999, Silvers chose the name for the restaurant because he thought Syrah was going to be the next big wine. "But more important," he says, "I believe in the symbiotic relationship between food and wine, and I wanted the name to express that we take wine seriously."
We asked Silvers to come up with a menu for three Zinfandels: an appetizer for a dry rosé, a main course for a claret-style red, and a dessert for a sweet late-harvest wine. His response? A backyard barbecue.

"When I think about Zinfandel and summer, I think of the grill," Silvers says. "So I came up with things you can cook on the grill or prepare ahead." He wanted to avoid what he calls chef recipes. "I love braised pork belly with Zinfandel, and serve it at the restaurant, but who wants to mess with that at home?"

That kind of practical approach reflects a chef who, while only 45 years old, has 30 years experience in restaurant kitchens. In addition to Syrah, which lies one block from Railroad Square in Santa Rosa, Silvers and his wife, Regina, own Petite Syrah, a wine bar next door, and will open Jackson's Bar and Oven, a block away, this fall. Named after the couples' 4-year-old son, Jackson's will specialize in pizza and casual fare made with great ingredients, what Silvers says is "the kind of stuff chefs like to eat on their days off."

Raised in Los Angeles, Silvers at the age of nine was already helping his father in a kitchen he managed. By 17, he had dropped out of high school and was cooking professionally at the City Hotel in Columbia, Calif., where he had started as a dishwasher. "After I was done washing dishes I would go to work in the pantry, for free," he recalls. "When [a] slot opened up, I was ready to go. That's where I really learned to cook." He rounded out his experience by taking some courses in baking and restaurant management at the nearby college.

He got to wine country in 1986 as sous-chef at Mustards Grill in Napa Valley, working with owner Cindy Pawlcyn and chef Wendy Little. "I was really influenced by both of these women," he says. "I started seeing the cooking world as less contrived. I got an appreciation for rustic, soulful flavors. That's what has to come through first when I cook. I attribute that to Cindy and Wendy."
Silvers' Zinfandel menu starts with squid, marinated with preserved lemon and garlic, grilled, and served over a warm potato, arugula and chorizo salad. "Surf and turf for the rosé," he jokes.

That combination of seafood and sausage makes the dish work well with Pedroncelli Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Dry Rosé 2007.The wine, with its raspberry color and flavor, has some tartness of its own, and the flavors in the dish amp up the berry flavors. (But don't add more lemon juice than the recipe calls for; it tastes great on the salad, but it can diminish the wine.)

For the claret-style Zinfandel, Silver marinates racks of lamb with sumac, an aromatic Middle Eastern spice obtainable from ethnic grocery stores or via the Internet, cooks the meat on the grill and serves it with cherry-mint relish. Polenta with fresh corn and grilled zucchini complete the plate.

Of several Zinfandels we tried with the dish, the richer ones made better matches. The robust Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County 2006 smoothes out with the smoky lamb. It becomes plush and rich in texture, and folds itself around the meat. The crunch of the cherry-mint relish plays nicely against the natural cherry flavor of the wine.

The wine also changes the flavor profile of the zucchini. Marinated in orange and cumin, the squash has a lovely delicate spiciness that finds greater harmony with its citrus element when you wash a bite down with some of the Zinfandel, which enhances the orange character. "It's one plus one makes three," Silvers smiles.

In the compote and ice cream dessert, the intense fruit compote stands up well to Sapphire Hill Zinfandel Alexander Valley VLH (Very Late Harvest) 2006, a sweet late-harvest style that's almost as rich as Port. The compote gets even more flavor by pureeing it and then adding more whole blueberries, which are warmed through and softened. That plus a buttermilk ice cream or a tart frozen
yogurt provides the balance that makes the wine match work.

"Nothing says summer to me more than ice cream and blueberries," he sighs, "except maybe watermelon. But watermelon doesn't work with Zin."

To make a dinner from the grill practical, Silvers suggests doing the prep work well in advance, beginning with the marinade for the lamb, which infuses the most flavor into the meat with an overnight stay in the refrigerator. The compote can also be made a day in advance and kept refrigerated.

On serving day, marinate the squid and squash at least 30 minutes ahead. As serving time approaches, "make the polenta first, because it takes a while," Silvers recommends. "If it gets too thick while standing, just mix in some hot water and check the seasoning." Assemble the salad just before grilling the squid, and then put the lamb on the grill for its 15 to 20 minutes of heat.

Silvers likes the practical advantages of a grill dinner, which gets him out of the kitchen and together with friends. "And if you can impress your friends, even better," he adds. "I really want people to cook this dinner."

205 Fifth St., Santa Rosa, Calif.
Telephone (707) 568-4002
Web site www.syrahbistro.com
Award of Excellence


24 to 30 whole squid, preferably fresh
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 preserved lemon, chopped (or zest of 1 lemon, chopped)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Warm potato, arugula and chorizo salad (recipe follows)
1 teaspoon Meyer lemon-flavored oil

1. Skin and clean the squid, separating the legs from the bodies and keeping the bodies whole. In a bowl, toss the squid with the garlic, preserved lemon and olive oil. Let the squid marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes or in the refrigerator for longer.

2. Over hot coals or high heat, grill the squid, turning them once, for about 2 minutes total, just long enough to mark them on the grill. The residual heat will finish cooking them.

3. Divide the warm potato, arugula and chorizo salad among 4 to 6 plates, and top with the squid. Drizzle on the Meyer lemon-flavored oil. Serves 4 to 6.

Warm-Potato, Arugula, Chorizo Salad

6 fingerling potatoes, boiled and cooled
2 Mexican chorizo sausages, cooked, cooled and peeled
2 teaspoons neutral-flavored oil, such as grapeseed or rice bran
4 cups arugula, tightly packed
6 tablespoons smoked-paprika vinaigrette (recipe follows)

1. Slice the potatoes and chorizo into 1/2-inch pieces. You should have about the same quantities of potato and sausage.

2. In a small skillet, heat the oil and sauté the potato and sausage until lightly browned and warmed through. Transfer the slices to a medium-size mixing bowl, and add the arugula. Add the smoked-paprika vinaigrette, and toss the salad to coat. Set aside until ready to assemble first course.

Smoked-Paprika Vinaigrette

1 small shallot, peeled and minced
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Salt and pepper, to taste

In a small bowl, mix together all ingredients. Makes 1/3 cup.


2 racks of lamb, about 2 pounds each
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 shallots, peeled and sliced
1 750ml bottle Zinfandel
10 to 12 sprigs thyme
1 tablespoon sumac, ground (see note at end of instructions)
1 to 2 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil, such as grapeseed or rice bran
Cherry-mint relish (recipe follows)
Fresh-corn polenta (recipe follows)
Orange-cumin grilled zucchini (recipe follows)

1. In a deep pan or dish, combine the lamb with garlic, shallots, Zinfandel, thyme and sumac. Cover the lamb and refrigerate it overnight.

2. Preheat a grill, concentrating the heat on one side.

3. Remove the lamb from the marinade, and pat it dry with paper towels. Rub the lamb with oil, and sprinkle it with salt. Sear the meat quickly on the hot half of the grill, then move it to the cooler side and put the lid on the grill. Turn and check occasionally, until it reaches the desired doneness, about 10 to 12 minutes for rare (130 ° F on a meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of the meat). Let it rest off the grill for 2 minutes.

4. Cut the lamb into double chops, and spoon some of the cherry relish over the meat. Serve with fresh-corn polenta and orange-and-cumin grilled zucchini. Serves 4.

Note: Sumac is a Middle Eastern spice with citrus and floral aromas. It is available in specialty groceries and from Internet purveyors.

Cherry-Mint Relish

1 1/2 cups fresh black cherries, pitted
1 teaspoon vin cotto (or equal parts honey and red wine)
1/2 small shallot, peeled and minced
6 to 8 mint leaves, chopped
Pinch of fleur de sel
Few grinds fresh black pepper

Mix ingredients in a small bowl and let stand for several minutes (or can be refrigerated several hours). Makes 1 1/2 cups.

Fresh-Corn Polenta

1 ear corn
2 cups milk
1 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup polenta
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. Shuck the husks, cut the kernels from the cob, and set them aside. Break the cob in half and add it to a medium saucepan with the milk, water and salt. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

2. Remove the cob and start adding the polenta, 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time, stirring the mixture as you add. As it starts to thicken, stir in the corn kernels. When it is very thick, remove the polenta from the heat, and stir in the butter and grated cheese. (The polenta can be kept warm for up to 1 hour, but it may be necessary to add hot water to soften it before serving.)

Orange-Cumin Grilled Zucchini

1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 orange, zested and juiced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Large pinch salt
Few grinds fresh black pepper
4 zucchini, cut in half lengthwise

1. Crush the cumin seeds on a cutting board with the back of a heavy pan, then transfer them to a small skillet. Grate the zest of the orange into the skillet. Squeeze in the juice, and add the olive oil. Bring the mixture to a boil, and remove it from the heat. Add salt and pepper.

2. Roll the zucchini in the mixture, right in the pan, and let it marinate for about 30 minutes.

3. On a hot grill, arrange the zucchini crosswise to mark them. Finish cooking them on the cooler side of the grill, turning several times to cook evenly, about 5 minutes, or in a 450 ° F oven for 6 to 8 minutes.


1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch salt
1/2 cup red wine
Buttermilk ice cream or tart frozen yogurt

1. In a small saucepan, mix 1 cup of the blueberries with the next three ingredients. Bring the mixture to a boil, lower the heat, and let it simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until reduced to a light syrup.

2. Transfer the mixture to a blender and puree, then return it to the pan. Add the remaining blueberries and simmer until they soften, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool. Serve over buttermilk ice cream or tart frozen yogurt. Serves 4.

The first choices below are the wines Harvey Steiman judged to be the best matches for chef Silvers' dishes. Similar-style alternates are provided in case you cannot find the primary choice. Zinfandel rosé can be especially tricky, since many of the wines have frankly sweeter profiles than the ones recommended here; look for dry versions.

Garlic-and-Preserved-Lemon Grilled Squid
First choice: Pedroncelli Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Dry Rosé 2007 (87, $10)
Alternate choices: Big House Pink California 2006 (84, $10); Graziano Zinfandel Mendocino Rosé 2006 (84, $14)

Sumac-and-Zinfandel-Marinated Rack of Lamb With Cherry-Mint Relish
First choice: Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County 2006 (91, $20)
Alternate choices: Sausal Zinfandel Alexander Valley Family 2005 (91, $19); Quivira Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2006 (89, $20)

Blueberry Compote With Buttermilk Ice Cream
First choice: Sapphire Hill Zinfandel Alexander Valley VLH (Very Late Harvest) 2006 (NR, $26/375ml)
Alternate choices: Carol Shelton Zinfandel Sonoma County Black Magic Late Harvest 2006 (88, $20); Valdez Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Late Harvest Simoncini Vineyard 2005 (88, $18)


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