One of my favorite events at the annual 4-day ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) Zinfandel Fest in the city is Epicuria, an extravaganza of food and Zinfandel pairings by 50 top producers and SF Bay Area chefs. I always look forward to see how creative chefs might be with this bold, spicy and berry-licious wine. At Epicuria last Thursday, we saw the usual offerings of hearty braises, ragus, chilis and confits of lamb, pork or beef, BBQ ribs and the occasional tuna sashimi tacos and vegetarian quiches, all of which went nicely with the wine. But for me, the two best food and Zinfandel pairings of the night came from an unexpected source – steakhouses.
I initially passed both of them by because steakhouses – culturally and in name – usually connote a traditional and single-dimensional menu. But I was so impressed with the modern dishes and/or thoughtful pairings that these chefs and somms came up with. Interestingly, both are tartares in contrast to the many heavier meat dishes prepared by other chefs that night, bringing a certain lightness to the full body of Zinfandel. Brilliant.
Two classics make a classic pairing. Steak tartare is a traditional dish, but the preparation and pairing with Ridge Vineyards 2007 Lytton Estate Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley was inspired when you think of all the fancy or heavy things Harris’ could have come up with. The tartare was so well-seasoned, incredibly important when pairing food with such a boldly fruity wine such as Zinfandel, and welcome since I found many other dishes that night lacking in salt. It was also well-balanced with the traditional components of tangy vinegar, sharp red onions, savory Worcestershire and Dijon, briny capers and fresh parsley. To top everything off, Wine Director Joshua Haberman pointed out that this tartare did not include an egg which brought out the purity of the high-quality steak and the clarity of ingredients.
Ridge Vineyards Lytton Estate Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel is one of my favorite Zins, showing the savory character of its ancient vines. Like many high quality wines, it is restrained in the nose but rich in depth and length. When paired with the tartare, the fruit just leapt out of the glass. A perfect dish with a perfect wine, together even better.
Hands down best dish of the night was Alexander’s Steakhouse delicious Liberty Duck tartare with duck liver, carmelized fig, sausage spices, fried fennel and a fragrant frond of fresh fennel. The secret ingredient? Chocolate miso, which Executive Chef Marc Zimmerman says they use at the restaurant with steak too. This was not only crazy delicious, but also the best presented, most thoughtful and most appetizing dish of all.
This was paired with Robert Biale’s 2011 R.W. Moore Vineyard Coombsville Napa Valley Zinfandel ($50), which was also one of my favorite wines from the ZAP Grand Tasting yesterday at the Concourse. Chef Zimmerman paired his dish with this wine because of the similar notes of chocolate, fig and anise.
Another great dish at Epicuria was A16′s lamb sausage with Corona beans, herbs and fennel. It’s the kind of dish I would love to sit down at a table and savor over a long conversation. What came through on the dish in a non-fussy way was the quest for flavor and respect of ingredients. The savory broth gained additional flavor from fennel seeds, Senise Peppers, Calabrian chile and the liquor from dandelion greens. And while cooking the beans with the broth early on would have added a creaminess to the dish, the purity of flavors was preserved in both the broth and in the firm bite of the beans in the final preparation.