20101013-cover-0101Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Delicious and dazzling — wine dinners intoxicate Lafayette’s finest restaurants. By Mary Tutwiler
Photos by Robin May

Ting, ta ting, ting. That’s the sound of one knife tapping on the side of a bottle. A very cold, very good bottle of champagne. The chattering room of diners at River Ranch’s Village Café comes to quick attention. Twenty champagne glasses are empty, and there is nothing like cold sobriety to turn 20 pairs of eyes to the center of the room where Lisa Tull, who represents Republic National Distributors, begins her talk. “I’m an ambassador for sparkling wines,” she says, nearly deadpan. “It’s a pleasant, bubbly world.”

Six waiters begin pouring the Delamotte Brut, a 3-year-old small winery champagne. Tull continues: “Only wines made in the Champagne region of France can be called champagne. Delemotte Brut Mesnil-Sur-Oger is made of three grapes — chardonnay, pinot noir and the lesser-known pinot meunier. All of the chardonnay and pinot noir grapes that go into Delamotte’s non-vintage Brut come from Grand Cru vineyards. The chardonnay comes from three villages, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, where the champagne takes its name, Avize and Oger. The pinot noir is sourced from vineyards on the side of the Marne river. The wine is 50 percent chardonnay, 30 percent pinot noir and 20 percent pinot meunier. Delamotte also inherits the wine produced from its sister house, Salon — in years when a Salon vintage is not declared, this amounts to the entire harvest.”

Nobody but me is listening. Instead, the party has begun. Seven different champagnes, seven paired courses, a night of toasting and laughing and dining in an atmosphere where food and wine reach the pinnacle of gastronomic expression. The room echoes with clinking toasts. Tull sits down and thoughtfully sips the truly delicious Delamotte in silence.

Wine dinners have taken off in Lafayette. A year ago, the only predictable monthly wine dinner was at Charley G’s. Charlie Goodson has been hosting wine dinners for more than five years. He began experimenting with food and wine, he says, to try to create a little excitement mid-week. At first, about eight people, consisting of a de facto wine club, loyally came every month. The number has swelled to a consistent 30, which is the seating capacity of the back of the restaurant. Charley G’s keeps its regular menu rolling in the front of the house even on wine Wednesdays.

Caviar Canape's and a toast to bubbles begin the evening at village cafe.

This October, there will be at least four dinners at Lafayette’s premier white tablecloth restaurants with other restaurateurs considering hosting occasional wine dinners.

In part, the pour is taking place at Lafayette’s newest restaurants. The French Press, The Elephant Room, and Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro have been open a year or less. Village Café has been under the direction of executive chef Jude Tauzin for about 14 months. Pamplona, which hosts occasional wine dinners, and Marcello’s Wine Market Café are pushing their third anniversaries. Along with the evolving sophistication of cooking in Lafayette, a newfound knowledge of wine, spurred by wine tastings and expanding wine lists, is bringing the art of paring food and wine to the forefront.

Lafayette’s foodies have embraced wine dinners. Chefs tend to pull out all the stops, so all the dishes are “off the menu.” The evening offers an opportunity to learn about vineyards, grapes, vintages, wine making, history, geography — the whole world of the wine aficionado. And it takes the responsibility of choosing wisely out of a diner’s hands. If you don’t like the wine, it’s not your fault.

However, from a restaurant’s standpoint, wine dinners can be as disruptive as a private party. The dinners are by reservation only, although restaurants are happy to accept walk-ins if there are seats available. There’s a lot of extra work for the chef who has to go through the gustatory and mental acrobatics of figuring out which foods work with different wines. And they are expensive for restaurants. Restaurateurs have admitted that at times they lose money on wine dinners. So why do it?

“To impress the guests,” says Pamplona manager Andrew Payne. “We use ingredients we don’t normally get to use, like truffles, paired with wines we don’t normally serve by the glass. Yes, it’s more expensive. It’s all about dazzling people. But a lot of the people who come to wine dinners are our regular customers, so we consider wine dinners an extended thank-you.”

“To teach people that wine is not only good by itself, but actually, when you pair it correctly with foods it’s supposed to go with, it makes not only the food better, but the wine or champagne better as well,” says Village Café’s Tauzin. Tauzin is on a mission to educate palates, confident that diners will learn to choose better (and more expensive) wines.

Owner Margaret Girouard and the roasted sea bass with saffron beurre blanc at French Press.

His latest dinner, $85 a person, blew past the usual order of courses (soup, salad, entree, dessert) with seven rounds of bubbly paired with whatever Tauzin felt was a good fit with the wine. Champagnes and sparkling wines ranged from a $60 bottle of Tattinger Brut Rosé to an $11 Spanish Cava. The tasting menu included soupçons of caviar, seared scallops, wild mushroom flatbread, fried shrimp in a spicy Asian glaze, crispy quail, smoked oysters with bacon cream and an almond cake with fresh strawberries.

The menu was a winner, and Tauzin plans to continue with that format. “The small tastes work the best,” he says. “I’m working with a small winery to get ready for the next dinner.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Marcello’s Wine Market Café recently composed an Italian wine dinner, $100, that delved deeply into Sicilian cuisine and all Italian pours. Nicole Jordan, a former wine expert at Republic, manages both Marcello’s and The Elephant Room. She chose the wines for Marcello’s dinner from the restaurant’s cellar and along with chef Blakley Kymen created the menu.

Her first wine accompanied a puff pasty pocket filled with tomatoes, kalamata olives and feta cheese. That’s a tough paring; the strong salty flavor of olives and feta is usually reserved for rough wines like retisna, a resin-flavored wine from Greece. Jordan paired her country antipasto with a non-vintage Bellavista Franciacorta Brut Rosé, a sparkling rosé from Brescia, outside of Milan. The rosé was a brilliant choice, the acid mellowing alongside the salty olives, and led off an entire dinner of deep flavors that culminated in a stunning red Jordan paired with a Piedmontese filet.

“The legend behind this wine,” she says, “is that Nero drank it while Rome burned.” That’s a bit of a stretch, but maybe not so egregious a claim when you drink wines from the terroir of the Romans. The wine is “Serpico” dei Feudi di San Gregorio, an old vine Aglianico from Campania, where Falernian, the wine Nero favored, was grown.

Vine tales and wine-flushed camaraderie were the flavor of the evening. For one thing, dining at Marcello’s is sort of like eating dinner at your grandmother’s house — the walls covered with antique photographs, the floors quieted by oriental rugs. The collective pleasure was palpable: diners table hopping, owner Gene Todaro relaxed, eating dinner with his customers, the loudest laughs coming from his table.

Pastry "purses" filled with tomatoes, kalamata olives and feta cheese at Marcello's Wine Market Café.

The technical wine lecture, at first a de rigueur element of the wine dinner, seems to be dissipating like the puckery tannins of a young wine as it breathes in a decanter. At some wine dinners, the representative from the distributor, or better yet, a wine maker, will speak about the different bottles. Some dinners limit the talk to table-side, where diners can listen to as much or as little as they care to learn. Jolie’s next dinner takes all the formality out of the occasion.

Jolie’s is planning a brown bag wine dinner in early November. A wine maker from Argentina is flying in for the occasion. Ten flights of wine from Mendoza province will be tasted blind, accompanied by a four-course family-style dinner. “We only do wine dinners when the wine maker or the owner of the wine company can come,” says Jolie’s owner Steve Santillo. “We get a very personal explanation of why and how a certain wine is made.”

At the end of the evening, diners will vote on their favorites. Only then will the names of the wines and the price structure be revealed, and Santillo is betting that the most expensive wine won’t get the collective nod. “People will see that good wines can have great values,” he says.

The French Press hosted a wine dinner in September, $85, that featured some unusual wines. Most of them were white wines, which seem to have gotten a bad rap in Lafayette, and the dinner was thinly attended. That’s an anomaly as far as wine dinners go; most of them at the French Press have been sold out in advance.

David Kenney, from Uncorked Wines in New Orleans, introduced all five wines in one short statement as the first bottle of Cremant, a sparkling wine from the Jura region of France, was poured. The softness of the bubbly was gorgeously paired with a corn bisque garnished with Gulf shrimp and truffle oil.

As the courses proceeded — softshell crab, roasted sea bass, rack of lamb, Szechuan shortbread — the wines got curiouser and curiouser. Take the Vin de Pays de Vaucluse Blanc, which was paired with a filet of roasted sea bass with ricotta pine nut ravioli, grilled lobster and saffron beurre blanc. The wine was a 50-50 blend of chardonnay and viognier, a very unusual pairing of grapes; historically there have not been many wines made from this blend. And there’s a reason. Nobody at the table liked it.

But that’s not to say it’s a bad thing that this wine, created by small producer Domaine de Durban and offered by highly respected importer Kermit Lynch, was served. It was an opportunity to explore the wine in its proper setting, alongside a dish designed to bring out its “clean and crisp” (that’s the tasting notes) qualities. No, I didn’t like it, but next time I run into a chardonnay-viognier blend, I’ll know something about what to expect. And that’s what wine dinners are all about.

Upcoming wine dinners in Lafayette:
Charley G’s, Oct. 27, last Wednesday of every month.
French Press, monthly, call for specific date.
Marcello’s, occasionally, call for the next date.
The Elephant Room, Oct. 27, call for specific dates later in the year.
Village Café, Oct. 27, usually on the last Wednesday of the month.  
Jolie’s, Nov. 4, a moving target, depending on when a wine maker is in town.  
Pamplona, occasionally, call for the next date.

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