What a pair: matching the right wine to the right food
Part of the magic is for restaurant owners and staff to know their food, their wines and their guests exceptionally well.
Special to The Seattle Times
WHO SAYS a wine list can’t be stellar without a Chateau Latour? Seattle’s thriving restaurant scene proves that great wine programs are built by owners and staff who know what guests want and how to offer wines to enhance their particular style of food. With smaller plates in vogue, the prospect of pairing can become especially challenging. Here we look at three places in the region that create exceptional food-and-wine experiences.
At Nathan Lockwood’s Capitol Hill gem, Altura, diners choose three to five courses, or splurge on a seven-course tasting menu. The chef features fresh, local ingredients in Italian-inspired cuisine.
Guy Kugel, manager and sommelier, says that when the restaurant opened two years ago, the clientele influenced the evolution of the wine list. “Mostly people wanted to explore Italian wines,” he said. “A pairing menu is a fun and easy way to try new wines.”
Diners can enjoy pours from northern to southern Italy, Sardinia, Sicily and all different varietals. With an 80-bottle list, Kugel had to draw some lines in the sand: no wines from the southern hemisphere, and none from California. “We try to have a solid range of prices and styles with the limited space we have,” he said.
A frequently changing, seasonal menu keeps Kugel on his toes. In summer he paired chilled tomato soup with a white blend from Veneto. With braised elk this winter, he might serve a big rosso from Sardinia. For truffle season, he suggests a lighter-bodied, earthy Grignolino from Piedmont.
Monsoon East is Bellevue’s chic sister restaurant to the more casual Monsoon Seattle on Capitol Hill. Chef-owners Sophie and Eric Banh, who grew up in Saigon, turn out flavorful Vietnamese creations such as green papaya salad, wokked squid and bo la lot.
The wine list is dominated by drier whites that pair well with the spices and flavors of Vietnamese food. Manager Michael Johnston tries to avoid wines that are too big and bold, like a buttery California chardonnay. “The perfect wine with our food is a German-style riesling such as Joh. Jos. Prum from Mosel,” he said.
“Part of the fun of dining is trying new things,” Johnston said. “The service staff has a lot of wine knowledge. Part of their job is to educate.”
“One of the first things that informs a wine list is location,” said Sarah Penn, who owns Pair in Ravenna with her chef-husband Felix. “I’m in a neighborhood, not downtown or a tourist location. I want to be approachable for people.”
When the Penns opened the restaurant nine years ago, the original concept was to create an early-American tavern-vibe. They are known for European-inspired cuisine with a French flair.
At Pair, diners order multiple small-plate dishes. When a couple shares, for example, salad, gougeres, rillette, trout and steak frites, servers often suggest wines by the glass, half bottles or split glasses. For one bottle to work with a range of foods, Penn suggests a rich white or a light red.
“We don’t have endless space,” Penn said. “I focus on food-friendly wines, lighter or medium-bodied wines, like Côtes du Rhone, cab franc, pinot noir and Beaujolais.” She makes a point to have several $30 bottles, favoring good-value French wines. “I look for something approachable with good structure, not too austere. Approachable in terms of both pocketbook and palate.”
The owners and staff at Pair, Monsoon East and Altura know their food, their wines, and their clients exceptionally well. Combining those three ingredients, they’re producing fabulous culinary experiences.
Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle-based freelance writer. Lindsey Wasson is a Seattle Times staff photographer.