By Annette Hanami
At the West of West Wine Festival (WOW) this past weekend, top SF chefs Stuart Brioza, Evan Rich and Cortney Burns, joined by sommeliers Paul Einbund and Peter Palmer, shared their collective thoughts on the “Evolution of California Cuisine” to a rapt foodie audience. With delicious bites paired with 2012 vintage West Sonoma Coast Vintner Pinot Noir as a backdrop, the panel revealed what makes the SF food scene so special: the sense of community, casual formats and inventive flavors and combinations that make us change the way we think about food and wine.
A Sense of Community
According to Evan Rich, Chef of Rich Table, there’s “more of a relationship” here between chefs, growers and winemakers. They talk to each other, they know more about what each other is doing and what the consumer wants, which informs how they cook. SF foodies are part of this community. While in other parts of the country, a guest might ask how a particular dish was prepared, in SF, they’ll ask, where did it come from.
Flavor Cuisine, Not California Cuisine
We’ve gone way beyond California Cuisine, said Stuart Brioza, Chef of State Bird Provisions. It’s about unique, local ingredients and taking the flavors to the next level, illustrated by his duck with marinated mushrooms and tart berry sauce. Smoking of the duck is one way Brioza adds layers of flavor to all his dishes. The Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyard and Flowers Sea View Ridge Pinot Noirs stood up beautifully to the savory dish.
For Cortney Burns, Chef of Bar Tartine, smoking takes different forms, like charring, which adds another dimension of flavor to dishes, even to desserts. She described the time she tasted the unctuous juices dripping from charred eggplant, with its hint of sweetness and smoke, inspiring her to add it to a Japanese yokan dessert. At Bar Tartine, a lot of the flavors come from mostly house-made, umami-filled cured, fermented and concentrated products.
Burns’ team prepared a bold sprouted smorrebrod with kale, greek yogurt and sunflower tahini flavored with house chutney spices – the hint of natural sweetness from the yogurt and the creaminess of tahini balancing the earthy flavors of the bread and kale. Her creativity often stems from an abundance of seasonal ingredients and relationship with growers, for example, accepting 90 lbs of freshly picked kale one day. Rather than taking a small portion, she embraced the entire lot and challenged herself to invent new and different ways of using it, to the delight of her guests.
Chef Rich uses a lot of bitter greens to balance the sweet in his dishes. At WOW, he served up sweet bay shrimp with fried shallots, fresh Blue Lake green beans and green coriander. I wouldn’t normally think to add crunchy green beans to a dish, let alone with wine, but the sweetness of the shrimp and pitch-perfect seasoning balanced the dish, and the pairing. Rich changed the way I think about using raw vegetables. My favorite pairings with this were the Alma Fria Dona Margarita Vineyard Pinot Noir and the LIOCO Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir.
At Rich Table, chef loves vegetables. “Vegetables are king in California” said East Coast native Rich, going to the market 4-5 times a week to see what’s available and always thinking about what he can do with them to make them memorable. He may use proteins to flavor a dish, like roasted cauliflower basted with bone marrow, but the vegetable is “the star of the dish”. Rich could make a vegetable lover out of anyone!
Creating a Liberating Wining and Dining Experience
Bar Tartine is a great example of the informal dining experiences one can find in the Bay Area. There are no formal courses here, instead, you’ll find 4-5 dishes at the table at any one time so guests can share and try new things to stimulate their palates. Burns goal is to create a “liberating experience…so they’re very conscious of what they’re bringing to the table.” She looks for a balance of dishes with none dominating the other.
With wine too, restaurants are creating a more casual and open atmosphere with guests. Brioza, whose background included working with Larry Stone MS at the former Rubicon Restaurant, said, there’s “more openness, a drink what you like, eat what you like” attitude and guests are in fact, he finds, looking for more interesting pairings.
Future of SF Bay Area Food and Wine
Most of the panel started with Old World wines but chefs like Rich now finds that Sonoma Coast wines pair well with his food and that he’s “really pushing California wines.” He thinks consumers often associate Old World wines with that particular region’s cuisine because they’ve been doing it for a longer time, and he believes the same will happen here in the Bay Area community. Based on the gathering of these top chefs in this extraordinary seminar and the beautiful synergy of the food and wine pairings that day, the time is now.
For more information on the far west of Sonoma Coast wines, visit the West Sonoma Coast Vintners website.