New York has established itself as a producer of wine to rival any state in the U.S. As much as I enjoy wine, I like food more. On a recent trip to the Finger Lakes, I learned that I can find the best of both worlds while touring the wineries and restaurants this region is famous for.
As part of my ongoing search for great wine and food combinations, I sat down to dinner in the excellent restaurants of two Finger Lakes wineries. Each night I was served creative dishes and wines in incomparable pairings, with course after course exploring every nuance of taste my palate could discern. I drank wines that might not stand alone but were excellent when served with the correct dish. If I did not believe wine should be served with food at the beginning, I certainly knew it before the meals ended. The different chefs, vintners, varietals and blends combined to produce two of the best dinners I’ve eaten in this country. As far as I’m concerned, every meal should be just like these.
At the restaurant in the Inn at Glenora Wine Cellars on Seneca Lake, there are three sous chefs in the kitchen to prepare as many as 200 to 300 meals on a busy night. Executive chef Joseph Sutton worked with them to prepare a sampling menu, then joined me at the table to complete the presentation by explaining each course. His enthusiasm, skill and delicious combinations can be beautifully illustrated with a description of two of the eight courses he served me.
The first was his baked brie en croute. He served it with a peach compote paired with the same flavor Spumante that wine maker Steve DiFrancesco created right next door. I would never have tried the effervescent peach wine on my own, but when served with the warm brie and rich fruity compote, it intensified the flavor of both spectacularly. He also served a peach orchard salad with candied pecans in a honey dressing that would have worked passably well with that Spumante, but his choice of a fruity 2005 Riesling worked better, and without that extra sweetness.
His seafood course was a combination of squid, king crab legs and sea bass. When I expressed my reluctance to cook calamari because of the texture, Chef Sutton explained that tough or rubbery squid is a thing of the past now that it is available in pre-tenderized squares to slice and serve as needed. His was tasty in a cumin and chili rub crust. It was served with the pre-cracked crab legs and a delicious blackened bass in a saffron white wine sauce, all on a bed of Julienne vegetables.
The extravagance of dry saffron threads used as decoration led me
to explain that he could grow his own for much less than the $50 an ounce it currently sells for. Maybe that isn’t a concern for a large restaurant, but in my home kitchen it makes a huge difference.
The tangy, spicy crunch of the fish with the mild morsels of crab meat in that sauce worked for me. Although I try not to drink a wine I can’t pronounce, the Glenora Gewurztraminer he served with it made me want to dust off my high school German. In all, Chef Sutton’s knack for food presentation and wine pairings meant that the disparate parts combined to create a memorable seafood entree.
Red Newt Bistro
The next evening on the opposite shore of Seneca Lake, Debra Whiting served me six courses, each paired with at least two wines – a red and a white – with one exception. There was a Riesling wine flight, which was made up of three glasses, one of the Red Newt Riesling created by her husband, David, and two from neighboring vintners. The surprise was that a fourth glass appeared that was a blend of all three! In a most unusual display of cooperation, the three wineries combined their best barrels to bottle the perfect Riesling, called Tierce. Before you think this was an entirely academic experience, you should know that Dave was recognized for creating wines that are “pointedly food oriented” by Wine Spectator magazine.
To complement this most unusual Riesling “flight,” Debra served a mesclun and herb mixed salad surrounded by roasted corn kernels and topped with cold baby potatoes under a warm bacon and red onion vinaigrette. The cold, warm, crunchy, roasted and piquant just-picked freshness of the greens had my taste buds working overtime to savor all that goodness. The Rieslings were perfect with it, especially the Tierce, which proved that the sum is greater than the parts. Unfortunately, only 100 cases were bottled to be split among the three vintners, so if you want to taste it you have to go to the Red Newt Bistro.
Dave Whiting also produces the only Syrah from grapes grown in the Finger Lakes. His wife paired it with a breast of duck, which I love, but seldom find an opportunity to cook. Hers was pan seared in the skin to a crispy brown, narrowly cooked around the thickest slices, but changing to scarcely pink in the center of the thin end. The rich duck flavor was at its most intense where it was rare, with the flavor diminishing as the doneness increased. I forget what the white wine was because the Syrah was so perfectly paired with the duck that the flavor was cleanly defined – brilliant! It was simply the best duck I’ve ever eaten.
Debra takes great care to use only the freshest local ingredients at her bistro. She “found” a hard, sweet pear that was created at nearby Cornell University to use in the next dish. It was baked and served on a bed of mesclun (without fresh herbs this time) with a pungent gorgonzolla sauce. Fortunately, my revived German allowed an easy pronunciation of the Gewurztraminer served with a Cabernet Franc for this course. I found myself drinking the red with the richness of the greens and sauce, while enjoying the pear with the “Gertz.” I simply couldn’t decide which I preferred, but if I had to choose, that subtle pear flavor would have been ruined by the Cab Franc.
Save some room
By an odd coincidence, dinner finished with a flan on both nights. Chef Sutton’s had sugar encrusted fresh red and green grapes on top that burst with sweet flavor. The flan itself was creamy sweet, with the roasted sugar “juice” mixed with unreduced Niagara wine for a sauce. The same wine was in my glass, so the grape, grape, grape flavors, almost too sweet, dominated the dessert perfectly for a winery.
The flan at the Red Newt was entirely different, undoubtedly the best I’ve ever been served. Chef Debra Whiting and I share the same philosophy about dessert – it shouldn’t be too sweet. Her flan was cooked on the thinnest bed of fresh apricots and flavored with coconut milk. It was the creamiest, I-can’t-believe-this-is-cooked bit of perfection, with apricot brandy drizzled over it. It was not cloyingly sweet but just right, as was every dish she served me.
These dinners convinced me that wine and food taste best when served together. From my own cooking experience I know that even a mediocre wine, or a less-than-perfect dish, can be elevated when served in the right combination. Armed with that knowledge, I tasted my way through the other wineries, and quizzed the many chefs as I circled Seneca Lake looking for new wines and recipes to combine at home. One thing’s for sure, as much fun as eating out can be, there’s nothing better than gathering friends and family for good food and wine around my own dinner table. Bon appetit!
by Richard Frisbie
Richard Frisbie is a bookseller and publisher in the Hudson Valley who writes culinary travel articles. When he is not writing for Life in the Finger Lakes magazine, he is a featured Food Correspondent for Gather.com where his other articles can be seen.