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Solving a Food and Wine Pairing Puzzle at Tadich Grill
- Wine & Dine
- Written by Fred Swan
- Friday, 23 July 2010 22:30
Finding a good wine pairing for cioppino is a challenge. Cioppino is essentially a stew made with tomatoes, wine and all kinds of seafood — but always a lot of shellfish. There’s usually some celery and onion in there and plenty of garlic. Some restaurants add hot red pepper, others avoid that to emphasize the sweetness of the seafood.
Normally when we think of pairing wine with seafood, our mind goes to white wines. But, cioppino is a perfect example of why one needs to focus not on the protein but on the sauce when selecting wine. Scallops, crab and white fish could go with any number of wines. But, when you start throwing in a lot of tomatoes, plus garlic and hot pepper, the list of options shortens substantially. You can forget about Chardonnay and most other medium to full-bodied whites. They won’t have the acidity to hold up to the cooked tomatoes and will have all the charm of a mouthful of mineral oil. There are white wines that do have a lot of acidity, but many of them have neutral flavor profiles. Those wines might work as palate cleansers with cioppino, but so does water. What should you choose?
Though the dish sounds like it comes from Italy, cioppino was actually “invented” by hungry San Francisco Italian-immigrant fishermen in the late 19th century. Not long thereafter, the dish moved from the fishing boats, where it was a fresh and easy one-pot lunch that warmed body and soul, to The City’s restaurants, where on cold, foggy July days it is a fresh and easy one-pot lunch that warms body and soul. It is served throughout the Bay Area, but Tadich Grill considers it one of their specialities. They serve hundreds of bowls of the tangy fish stew daily. What better place to go for advice on cioppino pairings?
Tadich Grill, which started business in 1849 as wharf-side coffee kiosk, is a busy place. Having moved to its present location in the Financial District in 1969, it’s become a lunchtime hangout for San Francisco’s movers and shakers, a mecca for well-informed tourists and a destination for truckloads of fresh fish. Tadich Grill takes no reservations, but moves people through in a hurry. Hence, conversations with the waiters are brief. “Excuse me kind sir, what wine would you suggest for the cioppino? Perhaps a crisp Sauvignon Blanc?” “No,” says the waiter. “Pinot or Zinfandel. You want more bread?” And away he trots.
Pinot or Zinfandel — that was unexpected. California serves up some rich Pinot Noir that still retains good acidity, so I could see where the waiter was coming from. Somehow though, it didn’t sound quite right. Zinfandel on the other hand seemed a brilliant call. Zesty with bold flavors yet low enough in tannins to play nice with fish, Zinfandel blends are probably also the wines the Italian fishermen would have been drinking in the 1880’s. The key, I decided, would be finding one that isn’t too high in alcohol.
While Zinfandel used to be the daily drink of Italian farmers throughout the Sonoma and Napa regions, and that of their relatives in nearby cities, at some wineries it has become like sipping whiskey. With intense flavors, heavily influenced by oak, and full body from high-alcohol levels created with extra-ripe fruit and superhero yeasts, these Zins make an impact at tastings and can easily chase a cocktail. However, they also steamroll a plate of food. Plus, drinking high-alcohol wine with food that may have hot pepper in it is almost literally throwing fuel on a fire. Reviewing the Tadich wine list, I saw four good Zinfandels, but three of them struck me as better options for a grilled steak. I chose the fourth, the 2007 Storybook Mountain Zinfandel Mayacamas Range Napa Valley ($34 retail, $50 on the wine list).
The wine turned out to be perfect for the cioppino. Fresh, dark berry flavors parried the bright tomato and soft oak-derived chocolate married with the red pepper spice. Elegant and supple for a contemporary Zinfandel, the wine did not overwhelm the white fish, scallops, crab or mussels. Smooth on the palate, the Storybook went down easy and was enjoyed by all.
This was my first time at Tadich Grill and I was pleased with the experience. The prices are fair, even low for downtown San Francisco, and the portions quite large. Plenty of good San Francisco sourdough bread is provided for each table automatically too, so take care not to over-order. Dungeness crab leg cocktail and prawn cocktail appetizers were fresh tasting and included six pieces of the named seafood for $15.75 and $11.25 respectively. The Pacific Oysters Rockefeller ($19.00) also came with six pieces, but overflowed with the tasty cheesy-spinach topping and also included a huge tomato stuffed with same. That dish could easily serve as a main course. The “cup” of Boston Clam Chowder ($6.25) is thick, hearty and comes in bowl the size of a large coconut shell. I didn’t see any “bowls” of the chowder ($7.25) but can only assume the portion is large enough to bathe in.
Speaking of main courses, at $26.25, the cioppino is one of the most expensive items on the menu. But it’s loaded with clams, prawns, scallops, bay shrimp, Dungeness crab meat and white fish and comes with two pieces of garlic bread. You don’t need an appetizer and I think it’s a good value. At $17.75, the meat ravioi with meat sauce is a full plate too. Porterhouse steak was a special that evening for $21.75. It was wide enough to cover the whole plate but very thin and somewhat overcooked — ask for it rare.
And then there were the desserts. The Cheesecake ($7.25) was large but didn’t strike us as a specialty or something made on site. However, the Mixed Berries ($7.00) was a heaping bowl of very fresh and flavorful fruit. It comes with a massive quantity of Zabaglione Sauce that was flavored with something that may have been Grand Marnier. It was very good and a single order could satisfy at least three people. The Chocolate Mousse ($8.25) was the prettiest dish I saw come out of the kitchen and, while big enough to share, can be tackled by one person. The rich, not quite fluffy chocolate, is served in a cylindrical mold made from artfully wrinkled leaves of frozen chocolate and topped with a dollop of whipped cream.
As mentioned above, Tadich Grill doesn’t take reservations and that’s a policy from which they don’t waiver. However, they have a lot of tables, especially two- and four-tops, a large bar to make the wait pleasant, and move people in pretty quickly. They were able to seat my party, a group of 11, by putting together three four-tops, within about fifteen minutes and that was at 7:30 on a Saturday night.
Tadich Grill doesn’t have a website to speak of, but they are located at 240 California Street in San Francisco. That’s between Front St. and Battery St. They are open from lunchtime through 9:30pm, six days a week. They are closed on Sundays.
Storybook Mountain Vineyards is a Napa Valley winery whose 100% organic vineyard lies on the eastern slope of the Mayacamas Range. Their vineyards get direct morning sun but the harsh afternoon sun hits the vines at an angle, sparing them from its searing heat. Cool breezes come up from the San Pablo Bay to the south and over the mountains from the Russian River to the west. This keeps the average temperate for the vineyard about 10 degrees lower than for those on the valley floor. Clay soils and relatively high rainfall (due to moist air from the ocean reaching the dew point as it rises over the Mayacamas Range) allows the vineyards to be “dry farmed” for the most part. The site and weather allow Storybook to create concentrated, yet balanced, wine. Their offerings include very well-regarded Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier varietals. NorCal Wine Highly Recommends the 2007 Storybook Mountain Zinfandel Mayacamas Range Napa Valley ($34, 14.6% alc.)
All of the food and wine mentioned in this article were purchased at full price by my friends and I.
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This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved. The Storybook Mountain Winery label art is property of that winery.