Hands down, my favorite place for wine dinners during my years in San Francisco wasn’t any of the city’s wine temples; it was a small storefront in the Outer Sunset neighborhood called Old Mandarin Islamic.
Their rendition of northern Chinese cooking was remarkable in its fine-tuned fragrance and textures. The cumin-flecked lamb was always just chewy enough; hot pots dotted with chiles and Szechuan peppercorns gave off a heady pungency; the white-fleshed fish in chile oil—officially the Szechuan dish shui zhu yu, but dubbed “crack fish” by the proprietors, for good reason—seemed like it would be fierce but turned out subtle and floral. The entire menu was, and still is, extraordinarily good with the sorts of wine I love to drink on my own time: cabernet franc, riesling and gamay in their infinite guises, Champagne, dry chenin blanc—even zinfandels and stoic cabernets.
Old Mandarin wasn’t exactly my secret, in that, over the course of most of a decade, I brought in nearly every wine person I knew. Thanks in part to their reasonable corkage fee—and probably to the amusement of owner Shuai Yang and his family—it became an insider’s haven for wine, in those final fog-shrouded blocks of the city where the continent gives way to the surf. Improbable, maybe. Also exquisite.
Things have changed. Insider sanctums like Old Mandarin are now joined by a new passel of restaurants making commonplace what once was, problematically, deemed “exotic”: placing non-Western cuisine alongside inventive and serious wine programs.
That these cuisines go with wine is certainly no surprise to anyone who’s carefully studied them—not only Chinese, but Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, stretching to the various regional forms of Thai and Indian, and so on. Each has its own alchemy of flavors, and each achieves balance in those flavors in different ways. And all have wonderful contexts to enhance wine.
At Parachute in Chicago, a compact list that barely covers a page manages to wrap in German pét-nat and several flavors of Loire chenin blanc and even a red from hotter-than-fire Mexican producer Bichi. It’s all meant to go with Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark’s Korean-inspired cooking: dishes like beef tartare with puffed rice and a snail dolsot bibimbap. There’s a similar phenomenon at work at ATOBOY in New York, where Ellia Park runs a wine list that includes Milan Nestarec’s pingy sparkling wine from Czech Republic and Meursault from the emerging star Arnaud Tessier to go with dishes like lotus root in chile oil and the umami bomb of corn mixed with taleggio and the soybean paste known as doenjang, all made by her husband Junghyun Park, the chef. New York’s Indian Accent succeeds in a slightly posher format, with mini-verticals of Austria’s Hirsch and the Loire’s Domaine Huet.
A similar mix of avant-garde wine choices and novel cooking could be found at the restaurant Fung Tu, located on New York’s Lower East Side. It closed last year, but not before offering a defining set of quietly radical wine selections, chosen by Jason Wagner, a partner and sommelier who went on to become the wine director at Union Square Cafe. Wagner selected Italian orange wines, ethereal reds from the Bugey producer Grégoire Perron and white Coteaux Champenois from Olivier Horiot. And sherry, always sherry. The umami of fino sherry, for instance, enhanced the textural gloss in dishes like chef Jonathan Wu’s “China-quiles,” a mashup of egg custard and Szechuan flame—much as the wine’s low-acid but bracing aspects bring out nuances in sushi that not even sake can.
That non-Western cooking goes beautifully with wine is hardly news. But we often still respond with a sense of surprise when we find a great wine list at a non-Western restaurant—a response that surfaces some complicated aspects of the history of American dining. Namely, that most Asian-derived restaurants in America were relegated to a casual realm, with little more to drink than beer or a carafe of middling sake.
Such a response, it’s worth noting, isn’t limited to Western diners. “Especially Korean guests, when they come to our restaurants, they think only about soju, even if they live here,” says Ellia Park, who grew up in Korea, and whose forthcoming ATOMIX is expected to debut with a 1,000-bottle selection. “So I wanted to show them that the new Korean food can go with wine. There are so many fermentation techniques, so much flavor in one dish.”
Of course, the real history is more complex. Americans have long been interested in bringing wine together with whatever Asian cuisine was of the moment; in 1983, the New York Times noted a $26 glass of Château Yquem on offer at the Cantonese restaurant Auntie Yuan, and in the late-1980s, wine merchant Darrell Corti offered an enlightened wine perspective alongside Ken Hom’s Hong Kong-inspired recipes. But one watershed moment came with the wine program at Charles Phan’s Slanted Door, which for more than a decade has done quite well by matching its Vietnamese cooking with decidedly off-kilter selections, originally made by wine director Mark Ellenbogen.
The Slanted Door’s take was that grüner veltliner and off-dry riesling, for two, best enhanced Phan’s five-degrees-off-traditional Vietnamese cooking. And Ellenbogen took pleasure in denying patrons things like pinot grigio. (The wine list has since expanded to embrace modern Californian and other wines.) The effect was additive; it wasn’t just finding great flavors in the food and the wine, but finding how they became more than the sum of their parts, and opened up a new vocabulary for describing each in the process. Lemongrass and kaffir lime became flavors you could identify in wine. Similar synergies could be found in the work of Bank Atcharawan, who brought national fame to the Las Vegas restaurant Lotus of Siam with a profound list of German riesling, and James Yu at Great China in Berkeley, who also saw the value of a serious wine program. This view was refined by places like Corey Lee’s Korean-inflected Benu, in San Francisco, and New York’s Megu.
To find it more broadly across the country today is cause for celebration among those of us who have long loved the ways that wine, with its European roots, harmonizes with non-European cuisines. That includes me; I once spent weeks with my friend Olivia trying to devise a framework to match wine and Thai food.
That’s why the maturing of this trend—a shift from our BYOB-on-the-lazy susan past to the present, where these wines are part of a restaurant’s gestalt—is worth noting. Indeed, it echoes a larger and essential trend: the 21st-century view of Asian cooking in America, which takes these cuisines out of the strip mall and the international district and puts them downtown, with the same demand for attention and same currency as any other ambitious spot. Often, these places have both Asian and non-Asian staff and partners. And the cooking, as often as not, is similarly hybridized. Fung Tu was less a Chinese restaurant than a Chinese-American one, as is true a few blocks away at Mission Chinese Food, where beverage director Sam Anderson offers an edgy set of naturally-minded bottles that bring out the extra funk and smoke in Danny Bowien’s own remix of Chinese and American flavors.
Likewise, at Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco, you’ll discover jacquère from Savoyard producer Romain Chamiot, and Scarpa’s austere Barbaresco, to go with Brandon Jew’s carrot ma jiang mian (sesame noodles), or roast duck garnished with dehydrated peanut butter and hoisin sauce. For the lunar new year, beverage director Maz Naba offered a series of back vintages (1982, 1994) corresponding to this Year of the Dog. And David Chang’s new beachhead in Los Angeles, Majordōmo, wine director Richard Hargreave has assembled a set of choices that includes magnums of Claire Naudin’s orange-ish Le Clou 34 aligoté from Burgundy and Foradori teroldego, along with Clemens Busch riesling and Liquid Farm chardonnay from Santa Barbara and everything in between—plus sake and even the fermented Korean beverage known as makgeolli.
That brings us to the other great agent of change in this: the Chang empire—in that Momofuku and its ilk provided media-friendly context for a haute cuisine mashup that wasn’t the F-word (fusion, that is). Chang’s cooking was the very definition of “of the moment.” Crucially, he installed risk-taking wine directors, first at New York’s Ssam Bar, then at Momofuku Ko and so on.
No one saw it as unusual, because it was covered in Chang’s gonzo sheen. Nor was it unusual for anyone who has spent time in pretty much any Asian capital. While Americans have been dawdling with cheap hot sake and Sapporo to accompany our sushi, the Japanese have for decades been opening exquisite Burgundies, Bordeaux and California bottles, and more recently natural wines. The affinity may have come more recently to Shanghai or Seoul, but with as much enthusiasm. And don’t forget that, as former French colonies, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have long received steady supplies of great wine; I spent my time in Vientiane in 2008 alternating between Beerlao and grand cru Chablis.
And yet, for it to be found in a place like Majordōmo is, to me, a bellwether of how Americans are finally shedding some of our remaining hangups with wine and food. Majordōmo’s menu—bing with Benton’s ham, tapioca lo mein—sounds as willfully off-kilter as Hargreave’s wine choices, which I think is the point.
There’s also a larger cultural statement underlying these wine programs. All the social and economic layers would take several columns to peel back, but the short version: Most Americans still view all these cuisines as willfully casual. They’ve been presented to us that way. Chinese-American cooking in particular is still largely cheap and uniform, so that your kung pao chicken tastes more or less the same in Ohio or Oregon. When these restaurants have bothered to serve wine, it’s almost always been cheap and low-grade. (There’s also a more complex and racially dicey history of tiki-esque cocktails in Chinese restaurants.) And not to make excuses, but there’s an obvious fact at work we often don’t like to discuss: Wine—grape wine—has until recently been entirely a Western tradition. It simply wasn’t something most first-generation immigrants from Asia would have thought to bother with in the restaurants they either opened or patronized.
The normalization we’re seeing with these new restaurants is crucial—in part because some key differences define them as a generation beyond Slanted Door, if you will. Their clientele is young and multicultural. If once it might have been tougher to get young Asian-Americans interested in wine, specifically wine’s avant-garde, there’s now ethnic parity, or nearly. And the cooking in these restaurants reflects the extent to which Asian cooking—whether it be Thai or Szechuan or Goan or Vietnamese—has become part of the fabric of American food. So when Naba says, “I don’t think we’re looking to make huge ripples” with the Mister Jiu’s wine program, the normalcy itself makes an important statement.
That said, one bit of progress remains. Yes, there is wine in these restaurants, but many of the wine programs, even in restaurants with Asian chefs, are run by white men and women. That, too, is a complex bit of ethnic politics. And it is evolving; Park and Yu are examples of how Asian proprietors want to own the wine part, too. Same with co-owner Jin Ahn of New York’s neo-Hawaiian restaurant Noreetuh, which boasts a remarkably affordable collection of top Burgundy alongside verticals of Lebanon’s famous Château Musar. (Park once worked for Ahn, who in turn worked at Per Se.)
I’ll admit that the first time I ate and drank at Noreetuh—or Fung Tu, or even Slanted Door, back in the day—I fell into that trap of defining it as novelty. And candidly, such things were novel for a while; they were rare on these shores. So these new wine programs, and the restaurants that cultivated them, reflect how quickly American dining has transformed. Yes, there’s more work to be done, but if Slanted Door’s wine list surfaced today, I’m not sure it would be greeted with the same sense of wonder. And if Parachute or ATOBOY or any of the others feel like a reflection of America today, that’s as it’s supposed to be. It means our boundaries, in wine and food and how they align, are being challenged in a wonderful way—and that America is becoming a wine-drinking nation for everyone who wants to partake.