Sep 18 2009
by Brett Ashley McKenzie
Just Grapes Wine Buyer Maggie Smith and I were invited to attend the Iron Chef-style “Aloha Kitchen Challenge” at Roy’s Chicago on Monday evening, and we were thrilled to sample courses prepared by some of Chicago’s rising culinary stars. Three culinary students were asked to create a course keeping in theme with Roy’s Hawaiian-fusion style, and each dish was paired with a wine, selected by Roy’s corporate office.
Each dish was innovative, from Roy’s sample dish of trout with delicately sauteed crimini mushroom to a shrimp ceviche with jicama and peach, and savory, from the seared tuna to lamb chops. The services was impeccable, the staff and chefs (students and pros) knowledgeable and engaging, and the atmosphere was perfect. But Maggie and I were surprised and, we must admit, dismayed by the relatively thoughtless wine pairings. As opposed to enhancing and strengthening each dish, as a good wine pairing is intended to do, the wine selections detracted from, overpowered, and often clashes fiercely with the flavors in the wonderfully cooked and artfully presented food.
The first dish, a flaky, buttery trout served on a bed of squash and alongside the most gently sauteed mushrooms I’ve ever tasted, was perfect for fall and absolutely flawless. However, it was served with a 2005 Korbel Champagne “Natural.” The bubbly was overwhelming and completely off-set and overpowered the delicate textures and flavors of the dish. An off-dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer or lightly effervescent white like a Vinho Verde would have much better complimented the dish. Instead, it was impossible to enjoy the wine and food together, and we ended up eating the fish without sipping our wine. Just Grapes Solution? The Banyan Gewurztraminer.
The second dish, a shrimp ceviche prepared by one of the student chefs, was paired with a Bonterra Viognier, which was once again overwhelming for the dish. This shrimp was some of the freshest I’d had in Chicago. Because the student used milder jicama and peach in a dish that typically comprises sharper, more acidic citrus flavors, a lighter-bodied white, like a Pinot Grigio, or even a brut sparkler would’ve done the trick. The Viognier, perhaps, would’ve better complemented an acidic and citrusy ceviche. Just Grapes Solution? The Duval Leroy “Paris” Cuvee.
The next dish was a seared tuna served alongside two delicious egg rolls in veal stock, and the powers that be had paired it with… a Californian Pinot Noir. The veal flavor was big, so I understand the temptation to turn to a red. However, the red was too big for the tuna. This was a difficult dish to pair. I would’ve instead chosen a dry rose, something a little more acidic and cleansing to help the diner go back and forth between the items on the plate without affecting the more subtle flavors in the egg rolls and the tuna so drastically. Just Grapes Solution? The 2008 Domaine Skouras “Zoe” Rose.
The final dish featured lamb chops and smoked figs. The smoky flavors and tender lamb required a special red, and again the pairing was disappointing: a Bonterra Cabernet was selected for this course. At this point, Maggie and I decided to order a wine off Roy’s own wine list, knowing we’d be unable to evaluate the nuances in the lamb alongside the Bonterra . We selected a wine that Just Grapes had once carried, a Robert Sinskey Merlot, which added subtle notes of spice and berry to the lamb in a complementary fashion.
The event itself was a fantastic success, with the student chef who created the tuna and egg roll dish–Justin Selk of Le Cordon Bleu–winning the grand prize: an internship at any Roy’s restaurant of his choice. Each of the student chefs clearly has a bright future ahead.