Sunday, March 15, 2009

Spices, Not Spicy

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Zahav, the fantastic Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood, held a spice dinner last week that I was fortunate enough to attend. But before I go into any more detail, it’s important to make a quick clarification: Just because this was a spice-centric dinner doesn’t mean that everything was spicy. It was just the opposite, in fact.

Too many people still associate spices with tongue-tingling dishes that, to paraphrase Ralph from The Simpsons, “taste like burning.” And while there are definitely some spices out there that are hot, that is not the case with all, or even the majority, of them. And in a wine world where there are precious few universal truths, the one about spicy-hot foods stands apart: They are, in general, difficult to pair with wine (German Riesling and certain bottlings of Gewurztraminer, among other, notwithstanding).

But the dishes at Zahav’s spice dinner were far more savory and aromatic than anything else. Which meant that the wine pairing possibilities were exceptionally broad and full of the potential for excitement.

And man, did they live up to expectations.


The meal was a collaboration between Chef Michael Solomonov of Zahav, Master Spice Blender Lior Lev Sercarz of La Boite a Epice, and John Toler of Boutique Wine Collection. The result of their collective efforts was nothing short of breathtaking.

My personal favorite pairings were the duck trio—rillettes, foie gras, and barbecued heart—with Champagne A. Margaine Demi-Sec, a gently sweet sparkler whose smoke and ripe fruit notes lifted each component of the dish magnificently; and the wild boar, chestnuts and cranberries with Castro Ventosa’s El Castro de Valtuille Mencia from Spain’s Bierzo region. This second pairing was like a symphony of flavors, the wine’s rich berry fruit and minerality and the food’s earthier, more aromatic components darting around the palate like instruments in an orchestra.

Each dish incorporated specific spice combinations that were given their fullest possible expression by the ingredients and cooking method
s of the food and by the wines that were selected to sip alongside them. And as wildly pleasurable as the meal was, there was also an educational component to it that cannot be overlooked: Spices, when used properly, can lead the way to absolutely stunning wine pairings. All you need is an understanding of the flavors and textures of each dish, a broad palette of wines to draw from, and, perhaps most important of all, an open mind.

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