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A Pinch of This, a Dash of That...

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 23, 2007 9:29pm ET

Gary Danko stands at a stove in the kitchen of the Park Hyatt Carmel, throwing handfuls of butter into a big saucepan. Hubbub surrounds him as other chefs work on their dishes for the first lunch of the 21st Masters of Food & Wine.

Danko, whose eponymous restaurant is one of San Francisco's best, is responsible for the first dish of the lunch, roasted lobster served over celery root-garlic puree with a fish and butter sauce flavored with fines herbs. He is finishing the sauce so he can adjust the flavors to match with the glass of white wine sitting on the counter next to him.

He had already demonstrated the dish to a sold-out audience at the morning's cooking class. "I have not tasted the wine," he admits. "This was a last-minute change, to do this instead of a game dish. It's a Sauvignon Blanc, but they tell me it's more like a Chardonnay."

The wine, in fact, is DeLille Cellars Chaleur Estate 2005, a barrel-fermented blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. And the description is pretty accurate. The barrel-ferment character gives the wine a creamy texture and adds spicy notes, but there is enough acidity to keep it honest.

As he made the sauce in the cooking class, reducing a mixture of fish broth, clam juice and shallots before adding the butter to it to emulsify the sauce, he described his plan to match it to the wine. "If the wine is very acid, I might add more salt to soften the acidity," he said. "If it's a bit soft, a little lemon juice (in the sauce) could bring it back into balance."

Danko is one of those rare chefs who knows how to tweak a dish to make it better with wine. He learned it from Madeleine Kamman, the teaching chef who was his mentor.

The sauce has abosrbed all the butter. Danko reaches for his first taste of the wine. "Oh boy," he says. "This is not what I expected. It has a sweetness to it from the oak. This is a new twist." He looks worriedly at the lemon sitting on the counter next to him. "That lemon's not going to help," he shrugs.

He throws a handful of herbs into the sauce and tastes it, then takes a sip of the wine. His face brightens. "It works!" he sighs. "I don't have a change a thing."

In the assembled dish, the small quantity of green apple he added to the celery root and garlic puree pays a dividend. The touch of sweetness from the fruit sets up an even better balance with the wine. "I lucked out," he grins.

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