Brabo’s chef de cuisine and sommelier dish on the food and wine synergy behind the menu.
Any restaurant whose cuisine focuses on creative, harmonious pairings doesn’t get there by creating its food and wine menus independently in a vacuum. The process is infinitely more seamless if the chef knows his way around the wine cellar, and the sommelier a thing or two about kitchen ingredients and cooking techniques. At Robert Wiedmaier’s Brabo in Alexandria, chef de cuisine Harper McClure and sommelier Matthew Carroll are equally complementary in their praise for each other. “This is the first restaurant I’ve worked in where I’ve had the benefit of collaborating with a chef who is this savvy about wine,” muses Carroll, who goes on to point out that he and McClure write the menus progressively, taking into account the weight, texture and density of a dish and the wine. For his part, McClure says he’s “fortunate to work with a sommelier who also brings an in-depth food knowledge to the table.”
The duo’s playful, complementary pairings certainly make for a fun evening sampling the tasting menu at Brabo. We asked them to explain the process behind some of the restaurant’s winning partners on the plate and in the glass.
How do you go about working together on Brabo’s food and beverage programs?
HM: Typically, Matt and I sit down and say, “What do we want to see on the menu?” We tend to write the food first, and [Matt] will often suggest two to three ingredients that might be a jumping off point for pairings.
MC: We tend to start by saying we know this of that protein will be coming in this season, and then we talk about basic pairing ideas. If we’re talking duck, we narrow it down to five or six varietals. Then we might tweak the accompaniments and plating to match the wine.
HM: I don’t write menus based on technique; they’re all based on flavor. We work the techniques and the dish around a specific flavor that we want to feature. For instance, we might want an element of brightness in the first course, so we start talking about acidic components.
MC: We start with the menu as a very macro idea. We talk about food elements broadly in ways that lend themselves to those general components, like, “What is dense and weighty?” Some of those parameters are also defined by what we have to work with seasonally in the region.
Give me a few specific examples when you worked together on food and wine pairings.
Roasted Long Island rockfish with rock shrimp risotto, sea beans and Meyer lemon butter, paired with the 2009 Domaine Mestre-Michelot ‘Montmeix’ from Burgundy, France.
HM: We knew the rockfish was coming back in, so we started talking about how we wanted to feature it. We discussed white Burgundy and Chablis and some of those profiles.
MC: With the rockfish, we chose the white Burgundy and were tweaking it out a little more with the Meyer lemon butter. We played off the minerality that comes with white Burgundy because there’s that briny, almost alkaline taste.
HM: We were able to make it work because we’re comfortable with that style of wine. I have always been a big white Burgundy fan, which has a nice acidic balance but also has a bigger Chardonnay profile like Chablis.”
Farm egg one-eyed Susan with wild mushrooms, lardo and red wine jus, paired with the 2009 Château du Chatelard, ‘Cuvée Traditio’, Gamay from Fleurie in Beaujolais, France.
MC: This was a course that we originally thought would be a second course option, but we realized we were flipping between red and white and that it would have been followed by a much more delicate fish course.
HM: We made this the third course after a crispy skinned loup de mer. In collaborating, it’s like we look at the courses with different eyes. Overall, a defining part of the experience we offer is the tasting menu at Brabo.
MC: The tasting menu is a chance for people to experience what Harper’s doing in the kitchen and what I’m doing with the beverage program on a slightly deeper level. It gives us a chance to play and to be more creative.
HM: There are some wines that Matthew doesn’t feel comfortable putting on the list because they won’t sell, but they work great as a pairing. We love to use wines like that in the tasting menu.
What are a few of your favorite food and wine pairings from the current menu?
Barcat oyster velouté with celery root, arrowhead spinach and Hackleback caviar paired with the 2011 Monastero Suore Cistercensi ‘Coenobium,’ Malvasia/Verdicchio/Grechetto/Trebbiano, Lazio, Italy.
MC: This wine is the epitome of oddball, geeky wines. When they pour it, some servers give it a disclaimer. They say, “Taste it now, but wait till the food comes to see if you like it.” This wine locks in so well with the dish because it has that briny, caviar component. The wine is oxidized intentionally so it has some of the same sherry flavors.
Cervena venison loin with horseradish potato purée, cipollini onion and huckleberry paired with the 2007 Domaine Saladin, ‘Chaveyon 1422’, Syrah/Viognier, Northern Rhône Valley, France.
MC: The venison and huckleberry was just so classic, and the Syrah with that is a classic way to present it. It’s an example of something you know theoretically, but when you get to taste it, you automatically realize, “That’s why it’s a classic.” This was also a neat wine that fell into my lap. I picked it up on a whim, and it was just waiting for the right course. Sometimes distributors have items they don’t know how to sell or somehow missed in inventories, and this was an ’07.
Matt, how do you go about selecting new wines for the list?
MC: On a list like Brabo’s, which is fairly extensive at about 700 bottles, I want to represent pretty much every major style and region to some extent or another. We may not have many red wines from Sicily, but the ones we have will be the ideal example of the style. I think almost anybody could walk in here and find what they like to drink in terms of a certain grape, a certain style, a certain country. There’s that curator piece to the job: filling slots and making sure everything is accounted for. We also like to find wines that are off the beaten path or similar to more familiar options. As big as our list is, we carry only one Pinot Grigio. It’s the best one there is! But it also gives us an opportunity to turn people on to new wines.
Harper, what is your culinary focus and inspiration, and how does it fit into Brabo?
HM: The way I construct dishes and the way we try to put menus together is about featuring very specific flavors within the context of a modern European interpretation of classical cuisine. I write all my dishes to be wine friendly. For instance, I try to keep acid levels down. We don’t do a lot of pickling, and if we have vinaigrette, it will have a low acidity level. You don’t want to kill a $200 bottle of wine by pouring a lot of vinegar in it! Instead we work with white and red verjus and Minus 8 ice wine vinegar.
What is most rewarding and most challenging about your roles?
MC: My most challenging issue is not always having enough time to spend in the kitchen. I try to spend 20 minutes in the kitchen when I first get in, just following Chef around and talking. Having a connection with those guys is important. That’s where we can see overarching ideas in action, watch the process of making something like espresso jus, and taste those things, which is really important and rewarding.
HM: I’m very fortunate to have a partner at Brabo who is just as into food as I am and is willing to listen to different perspectives on beverages. Someone open to that input is awesome. Our most fundamental challenge is putting together a new seven-course menu every three weeks. We’re constantly thinking about what’s going to be on the next menu and how we’re going to make sure it’s amazing.
Brabo is open for dinner Monday to Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m, Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. They are also open for Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The seven-course tasting menu is available for $85 per person ($50 more for wine pairings). For more information, visit their website.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.