Even in BYOB Chinese restaurants, wine is an exotic sight. Matching anything to a table of wildly varying dishes--what goes with deep-fried squid and 1,000-year egg?--can be a tricky thing to pull off. But it isn't impossible, and an appropriate bottle will make a Chinese meal far better. Just remember the Hippocratic oath for wine pairing: don't kill the food. And bear in mind that the wine (or beer) is meant for the meal, not the dish.
With these precepts in mind, we traveled to Chinatown with a cooler. If nothing worked we'd at least get toasted.
DIM SUM WITH WINE
2162 S. Archer
Other diners at Shui Wah, a superb dim sum restaurant in the Chinatown mall, seemed puzzled that our table of three had brought a half dozen wines for brunch. And one of my own dining companions still couldn't believe we'd brought wine at all. "Omigod," she said, "you totally cannot drink wine with dim sum. That's so wrong." It may be, but as with so many sinful things it sure feels right. Dim sum is blander and less complex than Chinese food tends to be at dinner, which makes it easier to match with wine. As an added bonus the acidity in wine leavens the doughiness of, say, a barbecue pork bun. I wanted a bottle that accentuated both the shrimp crepe and the chicken feet with black beans. A good pairing would preserve their taste but also heighten it (wine geeks may be the last people who still believe in the perfect marriage). Reds were out--too big and demanding. The standard recommendation for Chinese is a sickly sweet gewurztraminer, which to me seems more fitting as a punishment than as a beverage. But would dry be better? Semisweet? I wasn't sure.
The lone rose on the table, a 2004 Chateau de la Negly that's berrylicious when consumed alone, was immediately dulled by the food. And a pair of whites from outstanding producers--a piercingly acidic 2002 Loire wine from Baumard and an elegant, slightly sugary 2004 Kunstler Estate Riesling--were stubbornly uncooperative. The Loire steel-wooled the taste out of the food; meanwhile, the lush Riesling proved standoffish, so satisfied with its own merits that it ignored the food entirely. Lean, uncomplicated whites were best: crisp enough to cut through fat, refreshing enough to vanquish the parade of plates, light enough to leave the rest of the day intact. And happily, the cheap stuff was best: a $5 2004 Cave de Montagnac made from the obscure French grape picpoul, aggressively herby by itself but perfectly balanced with the food, and a $10 liter jug of a 2004 gruner veltliner from the Austrian winemaker Loimer. A bit fuller than the mineral picpoul, the gruner veltliner met the food halfway, lifted it over its tangerine-scented body, and carried it down gently.
DINNER WITH BEER
2414 S. Wentworth
The most frequently recommended wine for just about anything--the life vest of oenophiles everywhere--is champagne. It's got bubbles (the carbonation scours your palate, refreshing it for whatever's next), daggerlike acidity, and even when dry carries a seductive hint of sweetness that convinces food to talk more. But there's something else with those qualities: beer, which is custom-built for Chinese food. It slices through the starchy or semisweet sauces, and it stands up to the same spicy foods that ruin wine.
Beer can be as diverse as wine, but in Chinese restaurants it usually just means Tsingtao, a Chinese brand whose chief virtue is its alcohol content. To road test a few replacements we went to Dragon Court, a Cantonese restaurant whose windows house grim aquarium tanks of lobster, crab, and the astonishingly ugly monkfish. Aided by a Chinese speaker in the party and an attentive staff of diffident young Chinese men, we feasted on garlic-dusted crispy chicken, pork with bok choy and taro root, fried fish and tofu stew, and a complimentary lobster that was our reward for ordering three specialty entrees (two lands you a whole steamed fish, three a crab or lobster). What made such gluttony possible? Above all, a big bottle of Saison Dupont, a Belgian farmhouse ale with a huge head, a spicy, hoppy backbone, and a vibrantly fresh taste. Surprisingly, otherwise excellent wheat beers (Schneider Weiss and Goose Island 312) were overpowered by the food; a fine pale ale, Lakefront Cream City from Milwaukee, turned lackluster, and the intense Dogfish 60 Minute IPA, a beer bitter enough to tan hide, became mysteriously muddled. (As my friend remarked, you wanted either the beer or the food, not both.) A bit more heft was necessary: Piraat, a brawny Belgian strong golden ale, was great with everything, and though Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale may have been too rich overall, it meshed perfectly with the sweet, roasted flavors of our final dish, a lamb, tofu, and watercress hot pot spiced with star anise. By the end of the meal the sauce in the hot pot had reduced until the lamb it coated smelled, as a dining companion observed, exactly like buckwheat pancakes.
For which of course we would need milk.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.