By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
“Pairing food with alcohol of any kind isn’t traditional in India, but I have been doing it for over 10 years,” explained chef Avinash Kapoor of Akbar Restaurant. “I think it likely that I was the first restaurateur in the U.S. to offer Indian meals with wine pairings.”
Kapoor’s offerings of innovative Indian food with an extensive wine list has been very successful; he owns three Akbar restaurants in Marina del Rey, Hermosa Beach and Santa Monica. His ambitious approach has been groundbreaking, since some wine lovers doubted that the pungent and piquant spices used in South Asian food could be matched with their favorite beverage.
The proof is in the tasting, and a large crowd of wine aficionados was on hand for a wine dinner at the Santa Monica location last week. Wine expert Peter Kerr had brought bottles from Kistler Vineyards, a boutique winery in Sonoma that has received critical raves. Kerr, a nattily dressed fellow with the bearing of a history professor, has worked with Kapoor on pairing dinners for years – when asked how many, they guessed 50 or 60.
Kapoor credits Kerr for taking the guesswork out of the process, explaining, “I used to be back in the kitchen with a bottle of wine, thinking ‘What will go with this?’ but not any more. I have worked with Peter so many times that we are good at communicating with each other.”
After welcoming glasses of Prosecco, we had the first course, mussels in a coconut curry gravy paired with a 2010 Russian River Chardonnay. The curry was deceptive; on first taste I exclaimed to my neighbor, “He has toned down the heat to make it fit the wine.” By the third taste I had revised my opinion; the cumulative heat of the Serrano chili had become assertive.
It was interesting to see how my perception of the wine changed too, as the initial peachy flavors faded and citrusy elements became more pronounced when paired with the heat. Serrano chili isn’t traditionally used in Indian food, but it produced a remarkable effect here.
The pairing that followed, of tandoori mahi mahi with a 2009 Vine Hill Chardonnay, was slightly less effective thanks to the fennel seed and coriander in the coating on the fish. I like both of those flavors, but in this case they were a bit overpowering. I preferred the accompanying vegetables, which included squash, mushrooms, cabbage and green beans – these were richly spiced but had no single dominant flavor, and went better with the wine. This Chardonnay had a flowery scent, and when I tasted it alone it seemed too light and subtle to match the cuisine. When I had the fish in small portions alongside the wine I could see what was intended. The idea was sound, peppery flavors against floral and lightly acid wine, and it was interesting even though not entirely successful.
Things were back on track with the tandoori duck breast paired with a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, a symphony of rich, smoky flavors matched with a wine full of strawberry and cherry overtones. The duck was incredibly tender and served over a vinegary katchumber, the Indian-style pico de gallo of purple onion, cucumber and tomato. The flavors of vegetable, duck, and wine were brilliantly calibrated – had I tasted them separately I would have never guessed that they would complement each other so well.
The final savory item was beef tikka with wild mushroom sauce, paired with a 2010 Kistler Estate Pinot Noir. The wine had strong, spicy notes of its own that stood up to the beef topped with richly seasoned mushroom sauce. The side dish was potatoes cooked with aromatic ajwain seeds, which taste like mildly peppery thyme – very different from the mushroom sauce and nicely complementary.
The beef was chewy but flavorful, and was well matched to musky mushroom gravy with an underlying flavor of chili, garlic, pepper and ginger. It was a fantastic combination with the Pinot, which had ample fruitiness to contrast with smoke, pepper, and mushroom funkiness, and it finished the dinner on a high note.
A chocolate-dipped strawberry finished things along with coffee or tea, but it was an anticlimax – something to nibble while everyone discussed the parade of flavors we had just experienced. Avinash, the chef, and Bart, the wine expert, circulated around the tables, sipped wine with guests, and no doubt made notes for future explorations in pairing.
At $99 inclusive for five courses paired with samples of expensive wine, it was an enlightening evening at a very reasonable price.
Akbar is at 2627 Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica. Open daily except Sunday for dinner, Mo-Fri for lunch. Menu at akbarcuisineofindia.com. 310-586-7469.
The wine dinner was arranged by Gourmet Wine Getaways, which also arranges events at other restaurants. Send email to Bart Lynn at firstname.lastname@example.org to get on their mailing list, or call 310-393-9994.