Robert Mondavi was a luminary, singular among the brightest stars in the world of wine. For more than four decades, this son of Italian immigrants led the California industry with creations like his signature Fumé Blanc, a name that was synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc for decades. Wines as robust as his are best appreciated with food, of course, and, recently, Bangkok aficionados were in for a treat, as the Mondavi Winery’s very own chef, Jeff Mosher, led a decadent three-course pairing at Tables Grill.
I joined the chef for lunch. Before the food and wine started flowing, I had a chance to chat with him. He moved to Napa Valley in 2004. There, he became a sous chef at Julia’s Kitchen, the flagship restaurant of COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. Five years later, he made the move to the Robert Mondavi Winery, which had put emphasis on food and wine pairings with its “Great Chefs” series.
“I like moderately spiced food, where the chilli adds flavour without compromising the primary ingredient,” said Mosher. “With today’s pairing, I want to demonstrate that it’s how a dish is seasoned and spiced, and not the primary protein, that is the deciding factor in its success when enjoyed with wine.”
His first dish was a curried chicken with an apple and almond spring roll, a lighter take on the classic American chicken salad sandwich. “I season the chicken thighs overnight and then cook them sous-vide at 68 degrees [Celsius] for one hour,” he said, as a heady aroma reached my nose. “I then sear the chicken in a pan with Vadouvan, a ready-to-use blend of spices, a French take on masala that is a popular seasoning for chicken salad in the US.”
He paired it with a 2011 Fumé Blanc, Robert Mondavi’s shining star of the Napa Valley. A blend of 96 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 4 percent Sémillon, this wine struck a beautiful, Sancerre-like balance of citrus and herbal notes. It had a cleansing minerality and racy acidity. There was a captivating sense of lift on the palate with a lithe, creamy underpinning that carried through the long, elegant finish.
Next Mosher served slow-cooked pork belly with eggplant, rice noodles, and a ginger scallion sauce, a version of a Thai rice noodle dish, but spiced his way. The pork belly was first cooked sous-vide for 12 hours at 77 degrees Celsius, a preparation that tendered the meat without losing its texture. Its appearance elevated the dish, adding flavour and a welcome crispness. The Japanese eggplants he used weren’t bitter at all, and unlike most kinds didn’t need salt to bring out the flavour. In his ginger scallion sauce, he dolloped equal amounts of soy sauce and sherry and double the measure of grape seed oil. “I add very little sugar to my cooking,” said the chef, a subtle technique I had begun to notice.
Matching this course was a 2013 Private Selection Pinot Noir, a blend of 88 percent Pinot Noir, 8 percent Syrah, 3 percent Petite Sirah, and 1 percent Teroldego. Aged with grapes grown in the marine-influenced central coast, this cool vintage wine burst with classic varietal aromas and flavours. On the nose, lovely violet, strawberry, and sour cherry aromas mingled with complementary notes of toasted cinnamon. Soft and sound with good length and richness on the palate, this wine made a perfect pairing.
Already satisfied, my eyes lit up when the main course hit the table, a seared, spice-crusted tuna with black rice, shiitake mushrooms, and red wine vinaigrette. Mosher married the dish with a 2006 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Shichimi Togarashi, a Japanese chilli powder ideal for grilled meats, was crucial to its construction. Traditionally made with seven ingredients (red chilli powder, sansho-, roasted orange peel, sesame seeds, white hemp seeds, and ground ginger), the spice in this case was beefed up with star anise and used to crust sushi-grade yellowfin tuna. He had brought from the winery vinaigrette crafted not with vinegar, but rather leftover wines from opened bottles. Ordinarily rare tuna would be an unlikely pairing with Cabernet Sauvignon, but Mosher’s brilliant seasoning made it work wonderfully.
This special meal shared a series of wines that were indicative of Napa Valley’s benchmark terroir. Hand-selected fruit from the finest blocks of the vineyards produced drinks that were at once elegant and complex in density and structure. They demonstrated the art of winemaking on which the vintner built his reputation. Above all, they were paired beautifully by the consummate Chef Mosher, who solidified his guiding principle in each dish. Reflecting on the meal at the table, my taste buds tingling, I understood his position well and clear: when pairing wine with food, focus on seasoning and let the protein be the vessel.
By Laurence Civil