Wines Ahoy!

Jeffery Lindenmuth / March 2005

Down to the sea in sips: Restaurateurs branching into seafood ventures hook wine lovers with untraditional lists.

Red with meat, white with fish: while certainly the most recited tenet of wine pairing, it's merely a rule made to be broken for sommeliers in America's leading seafood restaurants. Those wine professionals have cast their nets wide to identify wines that, regardless of color or origin, make exciting piscatorial partners. At Fresh Seafood Restaurant & Bar in La Jolla, California, Ladeki Restaurant Group corporate sommelier Megan Burgess makes no apologies for trolling locally for her list of about 150 selections. "I always say be true to what you are," she says. "We chose to be predominantly California on our list because we're proud of the wines of California and Oregon. If someone really loves Burgundy, there are things that are Burgundian in style. We'll tell them to try Littorai Pinot, from the Anderson Valley." Fresh also offers about 35 wines by the glass, along with varietal sampler flights of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir (about $8 per flight). "We do sampler flights by variety across different regions to show how different a grape can be, depending on where it's grown," explains Burgess.

Despite a menu that is largely seafood, the Fresh wine list includes a disproportionate number of red wines—about 100 reds, compared with only 55 whites. Burgess attributes a handful of the reds to her penchant for pairing California Pinot Noir with flavorful fish dishes like executive chef Matthew Zappoli's monkfish osso buco with root vegetables. Other reds are there at the behest of guests: "We have regulars for whom it doesn't matter—if they have lobster, they still drink Cabernet. Wines like 1993 Chateau Montelena and 1997 Belle Oaks from Heitz sell wonderfully," says Burgess, adding that such big Cabs also move well by the glass at $19.

At California's Yankee Pier, with locations in Larkspur, San Jose, and San Francisco International Airport, John Hulihan, director of beverage and service for the Lark Creek Restaurant Group, remains true to their commitment to all-American wine lists. The Yankee Pier list includes about 40 wines, mostly whites, with about 20 also available by the glass, to "make the whole list more accessible," according to Hulihan.

And, in his eyes, editing such an abridged list presents a greater challenge than assembling a tome of hundreds of wines. "We have room for six or seven different Chardonnays, and you have to get a range in there. You have to really consider one selection versus another. You have to please a vast group of people with just a limited number of wines." One advantage, however, is that the entire wine list fits comfortably printed on the reverse side of the menu, thereby placing it prominently in every diner's hands.

In searching for American value wines for the deliberately casual venue, Hulihan looks beyond obvious grape varieties and renowned appellations. "One wine that works well here is Semillon, a wine where Washington State offers great affordability. Even in California, there are less billboarded appellations, like Mendocino," he says. Yankee Pier also offers a growing list of half bottles and select wines by the carafe.

At Jimmy Bradley's New York City seafood outpost The Mermaid Inn, even a wine novice can effortlessly angle a great deal. All the wines are priced just $15 above cost. "It's a short list, about 35 bottles. There's no storage space there, and it's not deep in terms of bottle age. We buy wines to drink," says Bradley of his progressive little list. With the wines listed by grape variety, the list strings together a bounty of lesser known whites—Vitovska, Fiano, and Timorasso. "A lot of the reds are lighter and are off-varieties, like Gamay and Frappato, that are not mass-marketed. Even some Pinots from Oregon and red Sancerre in its lighter shades of flavor," says Bradley. General manager Arik Torren collaborates on the list with Bradley, changing the lineup almost weekly. "We stay at about half red, but in the summer we have reds like Gamay and maybe a Sancerre that I keep in the refrigerator. For the winter season, we'll move into slightly bigger reds," says Torren.

Because of the conciseness of The Mermaid Inn's list, Bradley considers it his "greatest hits list." It also represents a very direct reaction to the cuisine, in contrast to his other restaurant, The Harrison, where the fine dining atmosphere demands a list of greater quality and rarity. The modest $15 markup can be effective only in a higher volume place like The Mermaid Inn, where tables may turn five times a night, according to Bradley. "People who know wine are good restaurant customers, and I'd rather have that business than anyone else's. I want a restaurant of people that know our business, and we attract those people with great perceived value and quality," says Bradley.

At B&G Oysters, a South End Boston hot spot, chef Barbara Lynch, who also owns No. 9 Park, imbues clam shack classics with her flair for regional Italian and French ingredients. Sommelier Cat Silirie offers a predominantly white wine list, anchored in the classic seafood partners—Muscadet, Sancerre, Chablis. With just 30 or so whites, Silirie spans a lot of ground, ranging from German Riesling and Muscadet at around $30 to Fontaine-Gagnard Grand Cru "Le Montrachet" 2001 at $350, though prices average between $30 and $40.

With a watchful eye on the menu, she gently tweaks her list to make it match both the food and the season. "This year, Barbara is sneaking more meat in, like shrimp with Brussels sprouts and pancetta or clam stew with chorizo, so I'm trying to find older red wine, which can offer nice soft tannins." Her smattering of a half dozen reds includes cru Beaujolais and Pinot Noir from both Burgundy and California. But as one concession to her "avoid tannin" rule, she allowed chilly Bostonians this winter to enjoy a 1994 Altare Barolo, a wine she likes to call "Barolo light."

For Silirie, a customer desperately searching for a glass of Cabernet is a challenge to be met with sheer enthusiasm. "I explain that I like the wine to speak to the food. It's about hospitality, so we have to turn them on to the wine without being disrespectful. I explain the traditions of Barbara's food, and soon they're enjoying a gorgeous Chianti Classico Riserva." Of course, Plan B would be to direct them across the street to Lynch's companion restaurant, The Butcher Shop.

One of the perennial by-the-glass pours at B&G is Pedro Romero Manzanilla Sherry "Aurora" ($6). "We practically have to give it away, but we have fried calamari and oysters that are great with it," says Silirie.

At Great Bay restaurant, adjacent to the Hotel Commonwealth in Boston, the newest venue from Radius team Christopher Myers, Michael Schlow, and Esti Parsons, Chardonnay rules the list in 30 renditions from around the globe. Stuart Horwitz, the dining manager, enjoys high-acidity wines that form a backdrop for the creations of chef Jeremy Sewall, leaning toward French Chardonnays and California offerings that he feels are "Burgundian in style," like Chateau Montelena and Sonoma-Cutrer Les Pierres. "A lot of people forget that during the 1976 Paris tasting a Montelena Chardonnay also won first place," says Horwitz.

As the ideal seafood red, Horwitz holds up Burgundy, but he looks beyond its obvious salmon pairing, saying, "It works well with any fish that's cooked with the skin still on it, which preserves some of the fat in the dish." He rounds out the list with a selection of 12 sakes, which he notes do particularly well at "The Island" seviche bar.

At his yet-to-be-named restaurant in New York City's Time Warner Center, Charlie Trotter forecasts a comprehensive wine list to suit his vision of a seafood-driven menu. "We'll still have robust reds, because if you do a monkfish with beef cheek ravioli, that could work with an Amarone," he says. Trotter also predicts a "massive half-bottle list," as well as beverages that go beyond wine—beer and elaborate nonalcoholic creations of fruit and vegetable juices, with accents of herbs. With an initial list of 650 selections, there should be a wine to match anything Trotter can dream up. "It will be as much a beverage destination as a food destination. Wine is one of my joys," he says.