A complicated menu pairing at trendy Cafe Gray Deluxe proves to be memorable, experts tell Annabel Jackson
The dishes in Cafe Gray Deluxe are every bit as fabulous as the girls in the fashionable bar - but the food is quite complicated, says the restaurant's glamorous chef sommelier, Yvonne Cheung. Chef Chris Grare likes to use ingredients that are not necessarily the natural friends of wine, adds Cheung, who proceeds to list the umami-rich ingredients that are a wine's 'worst nightmare'.
And so we gather, in one of the restaurant's lovely little alcoves, to see how Cheung would rise to the challenge of enhancing a dining experience through wine pairing. My companions are Debra Meiburg, a master of wine and gorgeous woman who needs little introduction; J.C. Viens, who appealingly styles himself as a gourmand and storyteller; and the rather more serious Sarah Wong, who has a well-developed palate and wears quirky shirts.
As we sit down and check which wines are to be tasted, we are pleasantly surprised to see three whites. What, in 'Red Town'? Meiburg says that, particularly in summer, she prefers white wine and Wong adds that it is usually lower in alcohol than red, making it doubly suitable in the heat.
We are soon chatting excitedly about wine number two, the Domaine Huet Clos du Bourg 2001. This is a fabulous demi-sec Vouvray, made from chenin blanc, from a top producer; a honeyed, mineral wine that really should be a decade old before consumption.
Cheung pours the Champagne, Cedric Bouchard Inflorescence Blanc de Noir 2008, and the first dish arrives from the open kitchen. It is actually a trio of dishes served in spoons balanced in grooves of a specially created wooden stand. And my, are we confronted with umami! Seared gnocchi with a tomato reduction and Parmesan foam, beef tartare and spicy chicken wing on pickled lotus root.
We are amazed how the Champagne cleanses the palate between three very different but intense gourmet experiences and how the bite-sized portions bring out the acidity in what is a rounder, heavier style of Champagne than a blanc de blanc. Wong comments on how the Champagne could stand up to the mustard and spice, while Meiburg loves the way the bubbles become more 'prickly' with the chicken.
Viens moots that Champagne might be the most umami-like of wines because of the fermentation process. Meiburg notes that Champagne has many faces, while Wong says this is a very good example of Champagne working well with food and not just as an aperitif.
Our soup course is a veloute of white asparagus (notoriously difficult to match), exotically constructed with infusions of chamomile tea, chrysanthemum and elderflower, served in an espresso cup, with a little watercress, egg and hazelnut oil salad by the side. It is a delightful culinary experience.
Viens enthuses about the soup bringing out a touch of bitterness in the wine and the sweetness of the salad bringing out the wine's floral notes. Meiburg loves the contrast of hot soup and chilled wine, while Wong says how, beyond the classic matching of foie gras and sauternes, it is rare to find chenin blanc matched with savoury food.
We are then served grilled halibut en papillote, a delightfully presented dish sealed with a clothes peg. Wonderful curry-esqe aromas emerge from the sauce made with calamansi, butter, lemongrass and Vietnamese rhubarb - an unusual, porous vegetable that soaks up all the juices.
Here we have some dissent. Viens says he would go back to the restaurant simply to eat that dish again, and drink the Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile 2005, the Grand Cru 100 per cent riesling that Cheung had paired with it. It is an iconic, rich wine with ripe fruit but still finishes bone dry. Viens says the pairing is a great example of how a wine could emancipate a dish and make it even more enjoyable.
The rest of us felt the sauce overwhelmed the wine and eagerly return to the Huet. 'I feel like I am missing out on the great wine flavour,' Meiburg says of the Trimbach. We liked the sweetness of the Vouvray with the curry sauce.
Cheung declines a wine with dessert - a soup of jasmine blossoms in a dish nestling on an ice bed, with a little hazelnut spring roll at the side. Pairing dessert wine is a real challenge, as the wine must always be sweeter than the dessert, and it was mooted that probably it should be drunk as a dessert, after dessert or with cheese.
It is suggested that foie gras should actually be eaten at the end of a meal, when paired with a sweet wine, and not, as is customary, at the beginning. We are still gabbling on about the Vouvray and conclude, to our amazement, that if we had to pick one wine to take us through all four courses, it would have been this one. We had just experienced an entire meal taken with white wine, including one off-dry label.
It was quite a revelation.