Even newbie wine drinkers know the standbys to order by the glass when dining on classic dishes: cabernet sauvignon with steak, chardonnay with roast chicken, sauvignon blanc with chilled shrimp or raw oysters.
But even if you're an adventurous and confident wine fan, offbeat dishes on a restaurant's menu can give you pause when you turn to the wine list.
Maybe it's something you've never tasted, a chef's invention with a wild assemblage of ingredients. Or maybe it's a dish that most people don't drink wine with, one whose standard accompaniment is beer or a soft drink — but you're in the mood for wine. How to choose?
For me, one of the many joys of restaurant dining is finding a list of wines by the glass that's as interesting as the menu. I love trying new combinations by thinking about how the ingredients and textures in a dish might work with the flavors typical of a wine varietal. And wines by the glass make it easier to take a little risk — if it turns out that malbec really isn't great with that grouper sandwich, at least you're not out the cost of a bottle.
Following the rules of wine-food pairings is a good place to start, but the fun comes when you chance upon a perfect pair that stretches or even breaks the rules but makes your palate do a dance. So here are four of my recent favorite pairings from local restaurants. Cheers!
200 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
Rum Braised Lamb Belly With Jerk Hoe Cakes, Makhani, Local Mint, 61 Degree Egg, Crispy Smoked Onion Petals
Newton "Claret" Red Blend, Napa
Although this eclectic dish is classified on the Mill's menu under "second plates" (smaller than the full-entree "third plates"), it's hearty enough to make a meal — and has enough flavors for several. The lamb is braised until it's fork-tender, its meaty richness kissed sweetly with rum. The earthy hoe cakes have just a hint of jerk spice. The dish is topped with a lush soft-poached egg, crunchy smoked onion petals, fine threads of mint and the Indian spices of makhani sauce — although, as with the jerk spices, these are used subtly, so the dish is lively but not at all hot.
What to pair with that little riot of flavors? I found several possibilities on the Mill's list but went with Newton "Claret" Red Blend. It's predominantly merlot, blended with cabernet sauvignon and small amounts of several other varietals. That yields a wine with its own subtly spicy notes of allspice and juniper. The main flavors, though, are dark fruits — mostly blackberry and plum — that combine with structured tannins to make the wine sturdy, almost austere, and a great choice to round out all the spicy-sweet and savory flavors of the lamb. If you have a few sips left, it will also be great with a humongous slice of the Mill's sinful dark chocolate tart.
1810 N Highland Ave., Tampa
Native Chili: Alligator, Wild Boar, Venison, Duck, Ground Chuck, Cranberry Beans, Chili Spices
Parducci True Grit Petite Sirah Reserve, Mendocino County
Ulele specializes in contemporary takes on the ingredients and foodways of Florida. On a menu with lots of tempting seafood options, you might overlook the Native Chili, but it's well worth considering if you're in search of hearty fare. The menu positions it as a starter, but the 8-ounce bowl is a plentiful portion.
This chili is, as chili should be, all about the meat and heat. The description mentions cranberry beans, and there were a couple in my bowl, but this chili comes close enough to genuine chili con carne to pass muster in the West (where among purists beans in chili are taboo).
And the meat isn't just beef, although it's in there. Wild boar, venison and duck bring richness and a touch (but not too much) of game flavor. The alligator bits don't really add anything (although I'm sure they thrill the tourists), but they don't hurt, either. The dominant spice aroma is cumin, but there's peppery heat in the bowl, too, building slowly rather than scorching at first bite. You can order the chili unadorned, or go the whole (wild) hog with the loaded version, topped with white Cheddar, fresh jalapenos and scallions.
One of Ulele's own brews would be a fine match for this chili, of course, but game and wine are a classic combo. True Grit Petite Sirah Reserve has a range of bold flavors that marry beautifully with the complexity of the chili: dark plum and blackberry, white pepper and cedar, mocha and even a touch of caramel. There's nothing sweet about this wine, though — its firm tannins give it balance and a strong finish. It's a hearty partner for a classic Western dish and worthy of the True Grit name.
Fodder & Shine
5910 N Florida Ave., Tampa
Cornmeal Fried Chicken With Black Pepper and Butter Mashed Potatoes and Bacon Braised Greens
Wild Horse Pinot Gris, Central Coast
Wine with fried chicken? I know, the usual quaffs are sweet tea or icy beer. But fried chicken, one of my all-time favorite foods, is a more complex dish than it gets credit for, and not all that easy to cook well — fast-food fried chicken is a mushy, mediocre shadow — so when it's this good, why not pair it with wine?
Fodder & Shine aims to serve authentic Southern food, and its fried chicken is the real deal: juicy, flavorful meat enrobed in a golden-brown, crunchy, grease-free cornmeal crust. The cornmeal has an earthier, more memorable flavor than a flour crust; its seasoning of salt and pepper is simple but assertive.
The sides are as stellar as the yardbird. The mashed potatoes are unapologetically creamy with butter, zippy with black pepper. And those greens — oh my. Collards on my visit, they were braised until they turned tender and bittersweet, with a fat smooch of bacon.
So, meaty, crispy, creamy, bitter, sweet — what to drink? For such an all-American dish I went with an American wine, Wild Horse Pinot Gris from California.
American pinot gris, from vineyards in California and Oregon, is made from the same grape as pinot grigio, but I'm much fonder of the pinot gris style — to me most pinot grigios taste thin and, oddly, too sweet and too sour at once.
Not so this pinot gris. It's bursting with fruit flavors: pear, peach, Golden Delicious apple, with a clean finish of Meyer lemon. Fruit and acidity balance nicely and complement all those sophisticated down-home flavors and textures on the plate, tasting as delicious with the greens as with the chicken.
224 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg
Shrimp and Grits: Key West Pink Shrimp, Bradley's Country Store Cheddar Grits, Creole Wine Butter, Okra, Andouille, Scallions
Morgan Metallico Unoaked Chardonnay
The Stillwaters take on this Southern classic has details that elevate it above the usual version: for one, smaller shrimp, always sweeter and more tender than the big bruisers, and deliciously cheesy grits laced with spicy bits of andouille for another. I really like the treatment of the okra: young pods, thinly sliced (none of the goo that puts off okra haters), and cooked just until crisp-tender. The hot-sweet Creole butter that tops it all seems to have a zip of mustard.
It's another dish with a lot of contrasts in flavor and texture, and I like to pair it with a glass of Morgan Metallico's Unoaked Chardonnay. A typically oaky or assertively buttery chard might overwhelm this dish; I prefer the unoaked style with most foods because it plays with other flavors rather than squashing them.
This California chardonnay, made with grapes from Monterey and other nearby areas, is a clean, well-balanced example. It's all about the fruit: bright notes of apricot, pear, green apple and clementine, with a bracing mineral finish. Put it together and it rounds out the shrimp and grits admirably.
Stillwaters' by-the-glass list offers a thrifty option of choosing a generous 6-ounce pour or, for a few dollars more, a 9-ounce that's basically two glasses of wine at a bargain price.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.