Send in the Hounds - or - A fine Chinese food and Austrian wine experience
Tuesday, a group of 20 Chowhounds gathered at Seafood Harbor in Millbrae, for an evening of fine Cantonese seafood and Austrian Grüner Veltliner. The idea was to look for good food-wine matches, but I have to admit that I got caught up enjoying the great conversation, great food, and great wine, and forgot to look for synergy.
For the non wine-geeks reading this, Grüner Veltliner (pronounced GROON-er FVELT-LEEN-er) is the name of a grape, grown exclusively, or nearly so, in Austria, where it is used to makes a fine white wine with the excellent acids and strong mineral flavors typical of the region's renowned whites. The flavor of the grape is distinctive. Some simple unwooded-Chardonnay-like tones, some Pinot Gris-like upfront melony fruitiness, and some funky grassy elements, like in a Sancerre (this last insight was new to me, and comes courtesy of the sommelier (ess?) at Bacar, who selected and obtained the wines for the evening). The wine ages slowly, but starts developing savory aged elements at 5-8 years of age, making it even more interesting.
The selection could hardly have been better. My two favorite producers, Brundlmayer and Nigl, were well-represented, and there was even a Nikolaihof, the biodynamic producer whose wines inspire worship from some.
I'll describe the wines first, then get to the food, so as not to clutter the food descriptions for those of you who are not (yet?) into wine. They're all Grüner Veltliner, so I won't repeat that.
2001 Nikolaihof Hefeabxug-Wachau. Delicate, floral nose, with underlying stone and bright, pretty fruit. A touch of (presumably old) wood on the palate, tangy, with fruit that is simultaneously extensive and austere. Tons of acid, long, then goes just a bit watery on the finish. Still, awfully nice. VERY GOOD
2001 Zull Schrattenthal-Sechs Viertel. Sparkly, stony, with some light (probably old) woodiness, a bit more than on the Nikolaihof. On palate, forward, some bitterness, tangy fruit dried by dominating minerals on the finish, with plenty of acid to carry things along. VERY GOOD MINUS.
2002 Salomon 'Undhof Wieden', Krems-Stein. Very austere and angular, super stony. Restrained fruit but very deep and full. This one got to me, the combination of a super-refreshing wine with such impressive depth was a winner on my palate. EXCELLENT
2002 Schloss Gobelsburg, Steinsetz, Langenlois. Not too appealing to me on the nose. I think there's too much oak for me, and it blurs the usually appealing precision of the Austrian wine profile, hiding the minerals and muddling the experience. On the palate, diffuse and a touch bitter with hard alcohol, nondescript. Unfortunate. FAIR PLUS
2001 Nigl "Privat" Ernte, Kremstal. Too cold at first, and not showing much, but when I went back to it, wow. Rich and glassy on the nose, like the 2001 German Mosel wines, that sense of so much restrained power in the fruit. Very full and thick on the palate, with a sweet attack slowly giving way to strong drying minerals on a long, satisfying finish. EXCELLENT
1999 E.U.M. Berger, Gedersdorfer Gebling, Kremstal. Didn't like this one. Oxidized and weird. Second bottle was the same. FAIR MINUS
2000 Brundlmayer 'Alte Reben', Kamptal. 'Alte Reben' means "Old Vines," and it shows. Very pure, stony, tasty wine, with that Trimbach-like sense that having powerful, deep fruit doesn't mean that you have to be over the top and out front with it. Quite the contrary. Restraint makes you come to the wine instead of vice versa, and it's a rewarding journey. EXCELLENT MINUS
1998 Nigl 'Senftenberger-Piri'. Now, this is what happens with some age, when you start with a wine from a good vintage and a stunningly good producer. Same rich GV fruit, but suffused with savory subtleties and the kind of sweetness that can only come from age. An almost green-olive component, just a touch of caramel, and through the middle of that wonderful aged fruit runs a big stony backbone, which asserts itself on a long, memorable finish. EXCELLENT PLUS
2001 Schloss Gobelsberg Eiswein (!) My first GV Eiswein, and it's a winner. None of the massive oak that afflicts too many Austrian dessert wines (Kracher, most egregiously). Astonishingly intense and beautiful, rich and thick but well-balanced with acid, tons of botrytis; not enough to obscure the GV characteristics, but probably enough that I couldn't have identified the grape blind (if you haven't tried this with botrytis affected wines, it's harder than you think). Long, long, long finish. Wow. EXCELLENT PLUS
Okay, I've babbled enough about wine. Now I'll babble about food. It was very babble-worthy.
House special cold appetizers. A great lineup. Superb jellyfish, perfect texture, perfect tangy sesame dressing (EXCELLENT). Dark, tasty seaweed with lighter green translucent threads that I don't know what they were, but they took the overbrooding edge off the seaweed. Yum (VERY GOOD PLUS). And some amazing almost-crunchy little red octopi with a great dried-seafood texture. I want a bowl of these things the next time I watch a baseball game. (EXCELLENT PLUS). Layered dried bean curd things, not much flavor, but fun to bite (VERY GOOD). Stewed beef tendon the part that's mostly shin-like meat, very well executed, chewy for a long time with full flavor all the way. EXCELLENT MINUS
Sauteed sugar snap peas with fresh scallop and dried conch
A really nice grouping of contrasting flavors and textures, super-tasty. VERY GOOD PLUS
Crispy fried milk with crystal prawns
Oh, yum. The prawns were simple and tasty, but what really stole my heart was those breaded blobs with sweet, light-green from honeydew, custard inside. Something like the perfect custard donut could only dream of being. EXCELLENT
Geoduck clams with yellow chives
Soft, almost sweet, savory, and delicious. A touch better than the version we had a Great Eastern. EXCELLENT MINUS
Salt and pepper style clam bellies with crispy tofu cubes
A terrific plate of crunchy texture food, not tons of flavor from either the flat pieces of breaded geoduck, or especially the little dice-sized tofu cubes, but both had perfect crunch. Great party snacks. EXCELLENT MINUS
The flesh was just a bit too cooked for my tastes, but the skin was wonderful, if a touch too salty, and I found myself poking around the leftovers for the most dark-caramelized bits of skin. GOOD PLUS
Braised sliced fresh abalone and black mushrooms with tender greens
Hmmm, where are my notes. In any case, this was a delicious combination of textures - the sink-your-teeth-in-like-a-dead-weight of the abalone, the silky bite of the dried mushrooms, and the fresh tender crunch of the green veggie, which was that thing that Is shaped like bok choy but is all green.
Baked lobster with ginger and green onion
This was not bad, but probably not what it should have been. Hard to put my finger on why -- nothing really wrong with it, but how often does the lobster plate go around, then the leftovers go begging? Tasty and savory, but not vibrant. GOOD
Smoked filet of black cod
A remarkable, red-caramelized, thick hunk of fish, with a tender, weighty chew and lots and lots of flavor. Didn't really taste smoked, but very nice. EXCELLENT MINUS
Braised yee-fu noodles
Didn't really grab me. A bit too soft, and tasted to me like canned mushrooms. FAIR
Dessert of the day
A bowl of dessert soup, probably sesame, sweet, with balls of tapioca (or sago, never can tell them apart). Delicious. EXCELLENT
Bottom line: great company, fantastic food and fantastic wine. I'd definitely return to the restaurant, and I've definitely gotten a reminder that I need to have more Grüner Veltliner in my cellar. Thanks to the organizers!
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