Are you a wine aficionado who enjoys delighting guests with the perfect pairing of wine and food? Most of the time, you’re probably spot on. Yet even chefs and professional sommeliers sometimes have trouble pairing a tomato-based dish with wine. This is especially a concern during late summer, when heirloom tomatoes are at their ripest and chefs’ menus are filled with delicious dishes featuring the finest expression of this juicy red delicacy. You want to order wine to complement the dish, but which varietal will create the perfect pairing?
In New York, the Patina Restaurant group asked their top chefs to create a special tomato-based menu in five of their restaurants (Brasserie, Brasserie 81/2, Café Centro, Naples 45, Nick & Stef’s Steakhouse) for August. Step into any and you know the cuisine will be fabulous. But what about the wine?
”When you order one of the items on the tomato menu it’s important not to overwhelm it with a strong, tannic wine,” says Michael Boyer, Assistant Director of Brasserie 8½ on 57th Street in Manhattan. Boyer has put together an exciting list of affordable wines from around the world, with bottles starting at a surprising $28, effectively making you wonder if the printer missed a digit on the wine list.
Executive chef Julian Alonzo, who graduated from the French Culinary Institute and worked at celebrity chef establishments such as David Bouley and Guy Savoy, has created an exciting tomato menu featuring three choices of starters (heirloom tomato salad, olive oil poached red and yellow cherry tomatoes, fried green BLTs). ”The appetizers are best paired with white wines,” says Boyer, such as Pinot Grigio (Canaletto Delle Venezie, 2005) from Italy ($8 glass/$29 per bottle) or the Gruner Veltliner Forstreiter 2005 from Austria, ($10 glass/ $40 bottle).
I enjoyed the Gruner Veltliner with the heirloom tomato salad, savoring the large, red wedges of tomato accompanied by shaved aged parmesan and balsamic glaze and basil ($13) and the Pinot Grigio with Chef Alonzo’s tempura zucchini blossom stuffed with Maine lobster, roasted corn relish, and avocado ($16) from the regular menu. The refreshing acidity of these very balanced, aromatic white wines clearly complement the flavors of the dish. I also could not resist ordering the “Fruits de Mer” sampler from the regular menu, featuring shrimp, oysters, clams, and crabmeat, one of the best presentations of fresh shellfish I’ve had in the city with its theatrical arrangement of razor clams, exotic oysters, luscious pink shrimp, black muscles, spicy cerviche, and fresh crab.
Special tomato-based dinner offerings include olive-crusted monkfish ($24), buttermilk Gianonne chicken ($23), and rouget a la plancha ($26). Rouget is the special Mediterranean fish used in the classic French bouillabaisse. Chef Alonzo prepares it with tomato consommé, picked ramps, and what he calls a “tomato floating island.” For this dish, Michael Boyer helped me pair it with a 2004 Perequita ($8 glass/ $28 bottle), a gorgeous dark-colored but surprisingly soft, fruity wine from Portugal, a new, trendy region for delicious and value-centric wine. This dish also went well with the Rose Tavel, Domaine Longval 2004 ($10 glass/$42 bottle).
In addition to the excellent service and cuisine, one reason Brasserie 8½ has so many regulars is because of the extensive, well-planned wine list. “Our clientele is well-traveled and quite knowledgeable about wine. I try to find new trends from around the world and bring variety and value,” says Mr. Boyer. Most of the many wines available by the glass range from $8 to $18, making this a great way to educate yourself with different styles of wine.
Tomatoes are also on Alonzo’s menu for dessert in the form of grilled tomato brioche with basil crème ($9), green tomato tarin with red and cherry tomato ice cream and cheddar wafers ($9 and incredibly delicious), and chilled sweet beefsteak tomato soup ($9 and my favorite).
Brasserie 8½ is fun any time of the year with its great menu and ultra-reasonable wine list, but “festivals” such as the current tomato menu encourage diners to stop by more often. Try the wines suggested by Mr. Boyer and see for yourself if wines such as Pinot Grigio, Gruner Veltliner, and the soft, fruity Perequita present the perfect pairing.