I received an email from Malai Thai-Vietnamese Kitchen last week. They explained that they had revamped their wine list to make it more friendly to the Thai-Vietnamese recipes on the menu at their popular Uptown restaurant. Would I like to come and check it out?
I did not need to be asked twice. It is so good to see an Asian restaurant make a conscious effort to match their wine list with their food. So many just let their wine distributor load them up with overpriced jug wines and ‘restaurant only’ mediocrities. That makes me prefer to dine at the Asian restaurants that simply kick the whole issue into the long grass and say BYOB! Now, one of the most creative Asian restaurants in Dallas takes the issue really seriously. Hopefully, it will be the start of a trend.
Yasmin and Braden Wages own Malai. She runs the front of the house, he the back. They took us through a selection of popular menu items (and one future menu item) and chose wine pairings for each course. Here’s what we tried, and my notes in relation to the general problem of pairing wine with Thai and Vietnamese food.
We started with a dish that is a candidate to appear on the menu shortly. A laab style tuna tartar cured with lime and served with Thai chilies, cucumber, avocado and wonton chips. Braden paired this with a Livon Friulano from the Friuli region of Italy. Friulano is a synonym for Sauvignon Vert so we can summarize the type of wine he chose here: It is a white wine that has high acidity. It is fruity but not sweet. Why choose this pairing? I suspect he looked at the lime (ie. acid) used in the tuna curing and the chili heat and did not want the wine overwhelmed by that. Hence the choice of a high acid wine. The fruit in the wine adds character to the pairing.
Observation One: With acidic food or high chili heat choose an acidic wine, or the taste of the wine will be lost when it combines with food in the mouth.
Braden’s combination worked. If you try this yourself, Friulano has the additinal advantage that it is inexpensive.
Next up was a seared jumbo sea scallop (still attached to its shell, no less) served with fish sauce, spring onions, cilantro palm sugar and sprinkled with crushed nuts. Braden and Yasmin came across this dish in Dà Lat, Vietnam. Braden considers that if there is one dish that is the reason he fell in love with South East Asian food then this is it.
He paired it with a wine that I have never had before: 2010 Joseph Kent Vieux Carré, Napa. This 80 case production micro wine is a gallery of Rhône varieties: 34% Grenache Blanc/33% Marsanne/33% Viognier. It is characterized by medium-high acid, medium-plus fruit, an aromatic quality in the nose (likely from the Viognier) and a minerally backbone that is typical of Rhône white wines. It was an interesting creature that lifted the mealy flavors in the scallop flesh and went piquant moment to piquant moment with the fish sauce. But what was Braden seeking? To provide enough fruit in the wine to contribute to the pairing, but also minerality to work with the umami in the scallop (the salt in the scallop helped as well).
Observation Two: High umami dishes should be paired with acidic, fruity wines with no or low tannins.
Our next dish was a Chiang Mai Curry made from egg noodles with chicken, broccoli, and a coriander and ginger curry sauce, all topped with wonton noodles. Braden and Yasmin discovered this at the food court at the Chiang Mai night market. This is an easier dish to pair with wine than any of the others we tried. Braden and Yasmin actually felt confident to up the oak quotient by choosing a first growth Burgundy: 2008 Domaine Larue, Saint-Aubin, 1er Cru, “Murgers des Dents de Chien” (the ‘dogs teeth’ referred to by the ‘dents de chien’ part of the vineyard name actually refer to rock formations in the vineyards). The problem with oak and Asian cuisine is that the vanilla flavors do not go well with Thai exotic herbs and spices. This dish avoided those to a great extent and the oak in the wine was present but moderate so the combination worked.
Observation Three: If the food doesn’t rely on exotic herbs and spices you can pair it with an oaky white wine like a Burgundy, California or Australian Chardonnay.
Next was a photogenic massaman curry braised lamb shank served with potatoes, shaved ginger, peanuts and hard-boiled egg accompanied by 2007 Jean-Michel Guillon Gevrey Chambertin “Les Crais”. This was a charming red burgundy that is available by the glass ($12). Off the top of my head, I cannot think of anyone else in Dallas who serves Gevrey-Chambertin by the glass.
Observation Four: If you serve as a red wine with Asian food, avoid something tannic. Pinot Noir, Dolcetto and Beaujolais are good choices.
Our final course was Vietnamese barbecue pork ribs and ginger soy barbecue sauce served with green curry noodles and green papaya slaw. This was paired with a 2005 Longoria Syrah “Alisos Vineyard”, Santa Barbara County. The age meant that the tannins had softened and complex Syrah fruit, earthiness and spices were predominant.
Observation Five: Avoid tannic wines or they will taste bitter when paired with umami rich dishes or chili heat. If serving red wines, use of older vintages can achieve this, or use a non-tannic variety.
The upshot from this tasting? Thai and Vietnamese food is wine friendly but its different ingredients versus familiar western food mean different wines will work best.
The wines and dishes referred to above are available now at Malai.