I had dinner with a mob of Victorians the other night. Well, actually, there were exactly two at our table of eight at a big dinner promoting the wines and foods from the Australian state where Melbourne is the capital. The hook was that one of that city's highest-profile chefs was preparing the food in concert with Joseph Humphreys, chef of Murray Circle at Cavallo Point, the Lodge at Golden Gate, across the bay from San Francisco.
As the conversation bounced from the differences between cricket and baseball to our individual recollections of visits to each other's country, we dug into dishes made from sustainably raised abalone, wild-caught southern rock lobster and lamb raised in the hills of central Victoria, seasoned with Murray River salt and enriched by goat and sheep cheeses.
Guy Grossi, who has three restaurants near Melbourne and one in Bangkok, represented Victoria in the kitchen, along with two of his chief lieutenants. Australians know Grossi as one of the Iron Chefs on their version of the popular competitive TV show and from his own programs. Before the dinner, he demonstrated a simple sauce made from verjuice, which he spooned over tortellini made with the rock lobster.
Those lobsters are impressive beasts. Averaging 4 to 5 pounds each, they look like hulking football players compared to Maine lobster's 1- or 2-pound jockeys. "When the lobsters came in yesterday, there were 20 or 30 people in the kitchen to gawk at them," said Humphreys. "We hadn't seen anything like that before."
The theme for the dinner, using these Australian products in dishes that would feel familiar to Grossi's Italian parents and Humphreys' California friends, certainly made everyone feel comfortable. Humphreys used the abalone, for example, much as he would California's catch, giving razor-thin slices about 3 seconds on the flat grill before arranging them over slices of raw local halibut and drizzling them with a shishito pepper sauce.
To drink with them, Plunkett Fowles' Stone Dwellers Riesling 2010 had the requisite tang to go with the dish. This Australian Riesling was new to me. Plunkett Fowles, one of the larger producers in the Strathbogie Ranges of northern Victoria, is making its U.S. debut this spring, so this was a preview. The Riesling, typically dry in the Aussie style, showed lots of lime and wet stone character on a delicate frame, picking up a haunting quince note on the finish. For me, it was a step above most Victorian Rieslings, which can be tasty but generic.
Grossi's tortellini came next, the tart flavor of the verjuice balancing the richness of the creamy, sweet and herbal lobster filling. Verjuice is made from underripe grapes, just the sort of thing vintners don't want to use in their wines. "Verjuice is getting to be a popular product in Australia," Grossi noted. "It's a great by-product for the wineries because they can use the green grapes they pull off the vines so the rest get ripe." It makes an outstanding addition to sauces where you might use lemon or vinegar.
Guy Grossi's tortellini balanced rich, creamy lobster against tart verjuice made from underripe grapes.
Two familiar Chardonnays were fine with the dish: Yabby Lake Mornington Peninsula 2007 and Yering Station Yarra Valley 2008. They had the richness some Victorian styles lack, without sacrificing the lively balance.
Australian lamb is familiar to Costco shoppers, and it showed well in the chefs' preparations. Grossi and Humphreys roasted the racks with an herb bread stuffing and the boneless loins with an olive crust, catnip for the red wines. Another new Strathbogies wine from Plunkett Fowles, the Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch Shiraz 2008 (don't you love Aussie wine names?), shared the table with Yabby Lake's 2007 Pinot Noir and a craft ale from Melbourne called Mountain Goat Australian Pale Ale. The Shiraz had a transparency not usually found in dense Shiraz, which made it a nice table companion to the supple Pinot. I liked the beer, too, made with delicate, surprisingly un-bitter hops from Tasmania.
The last wine, Mount Langi Passito Riesling "The Gap" 2008 was a bit of a letdown after its predecessors, and so was the dessert, a rather dry olive oil cake.
All these ingredients from 8,000 miles away had Humphreys feeling a bit defensive. "We are all about local, local, local here," he admitted. "For me, it was exciting to see the quality of what can come from elsewhere." But would he use these ingredients on his own menu? He just shrugged. "They're good enough, but I have to think about whether it's what we do here."
The wines, though, are another matter. Murray Circle's wine cellar has grown to more than 20,000 bottles and 3,000 different wines, and they're not all local by any means. There are wines from every point on the globe where they do well. Should that same reasoning apply to foods such as succulent lobsters, tasty abalone and distinctively good lamb? Being a locavore isn't easy, is it?