Creative Pairings Pay Off

Wine dinners offer restaurants a way to boost revenue, foster relationships with suppliers and help patrons discover new favorites.
Photo courtesy of Commander’s Palace
Dinners in Commander’s Palace’s Wine Room are held for up to 12 people year-round. Prices range from $200 to $2,000 per person.

If you serve wine to your dinner guests, chances are you follow the old rule of thumb that recommends reds with beef and whites with chicken or fish.

This limited way of thinking is exactly why wine experts at some local restaurants – in a push to get customers to become a bit more educated and adventurous – are spreading the word about creative food and wine pairings through wine dinners.

Often a collaboration between a restaurant and one of its suppliers, a wine dinner does more than introduce patrons to a raft of new wines, it also allows the chef to prepare items that don’t usually make it to the daily menu. It then suggests unique and flavorful pairings.

Customizing at Commander’s
Three or four times a year, Dan Davis, self-described “wine guy” at Commander’s Palace, invites a winery to take part in a dinner for about 30. Together, he and the winery decide which wines to showcase, and then Davis meets with Commander’s culinary wizards to design a special menu to go with the wines.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he says.

For those that don’t want to wait for the next official wine dinner, daily dinner guests at Commander’s can order the “chef’s playground” – a menu of six to eight courses the chef whips up using the best and most interesting stuff that comes through the kitchen door. After that menu is written, Davis selects wines to match.

Most evenings, Commander’s also offers a chef’s table in the kitchen. The table seats four, and must be booked as much as eight months in advance. After the chef designs a customized tasting menu, Davis pairs the wines.

“We have three basic levels, depending on what you want to spend,” he says. “We have 45 wines by the glass and a couple hundred half-bottles to pair.”

Davis recommends a pour of about 2 to 3 ounces per course if diners are tasting a series of wines.

For a really special occasion, Commander’s offers its Wine Room. Dinners are held for up to 12 people, and the price per person can range from $200 to $2,000. Davis selects the wines, in consultation with the host, and then the chef designs a menu to match.

Galatoire’s Gets Bubbly
Galatoire’s President and CEO Melvin Rodrigue says he uses wine dinners to promote both the restaurant and the wineries it works with. The dinners give people exposure to five or six different varietals, which he says can offer a nice change from the typical practice of drinking just one type of wine with a meal.

Rodrigue says there’s so much more to wine than reds and whites. For instance, it’s important to consider the spiciness of the foods and the amount of fat they contain.

It can also be fun to try wines made in different parts of the world. California is still the dominant domestic wine-producing region, but Rodrigue says the Northwest continues to gain strength, especially pinot noirs from Oregon and cabernets from Washington.

Galatoire’s wine cellar also contains a strong representation from France, where the restaurant has its roots.

For New Year’s Eve, the restaurant is kicking the traditional Champagne dinner up a notch. Galatoire’s Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne dinner will include the brand’s Brut Reserve, Brut Rose, Blanc de Blanc and several others paired with such dishes as scallops, duck leg confit, prime filet and cheesecake.

“It’s a gorgeous menu and a great Champagne house,” Rodrigue says. The dinners will take place at the restaurant’s New Orleans and Baton Rouge locations.

Reveillon Ramps Up
John Mitchell, who became sommelier and director of outlets for the Windsor Court Hotel in February, likes to offer a wine-related activity once a month in the Grill Room. Previous events have included an all-Swiss wine and fondue dinner and a class in new California wines. In December he’s holding a Champagne class, timed to help holiday hosts make their selections.

Mitchell is also working with sommeliers at other restaurants to create a “wine dinner dine-around,” where participants can sample foods and wines at each restaurant and enjoy special talks about wines.

The Grill Room offers a daily tasting menu, with Mitchell selecting appropriate wine pairings. He’ll also be selecting wines for the restaurant’s Reveillon dinners.

In December, dozens of New Orleans restaurants offer festive prix fixe dinners in a nod to the Creole custom of feasting after Christmas Eve midnight Mass. The custom is referred to as “reveillon,” which means “awakening” in French.

Mitchell is also eager to design wine dinners for customers celebrating special events. He says that because New Orleans is a well-known wine market, sommeliers are able to get the best wines, many of which are produced by a small number of people in small quantities.

A Cellar that Sells
If you’re craving a specific type of wine, chances are good Matthew Ousset can find it in Antoine’s wine cellar. Ousset, the restaurant’s wine and beverage manager, keeps track of more than 16,000 bottles, stored by region.

Ousset says Antoine’s has established a following for its wine dinners.

Recently, the restaurant had a dinner featuring wines of Maison Trimbach. Jean Trimbach is the 12th generation of his family to make Alsatian wines.

“We sell a lot of Trimbach wines here, pinot gris, pinot blancs, pinot noirs, rieslings,” Ousset says.

When Trimbach was in town, he wanted to do a wine dinner at Antoine’s, and Ousset says he jumped at the chance.

“Most people tend to order the same wines they’re familiar with,” Ousset says. “If they are willing to try something a little different, but still in the same ballpark, the waiters can usually make good recommendations.”

John Mitchell, sommelier and director of outlets for the Windsor Court Hotel.


Surprising Pairings
Le Foret Executive Chef Brandon Felder says that his restaurant uses wine dinners to assist wineries in launching a new wine, or to showcase a particular offering the winery wants to feature in the New Orleans area.

“We close out the entire restaurant and [develop] a menu with the different wines we are showcasing and have a great time with it,” he says.

Recently, the restaurant held a wine dinner pairing culinary specialties with wines from a Napa, Calif., group named Amici – “friends” in Italian.

Felder likes the way wine dinners give him a chance to exercise his imagination. At a recent dinner, he paired a pinot noir with crabmeat ravioli.

“The winemaker said it was the best pairing of the night,” he says.

Felder takes his culinary cues from the season and the weather. In winter, for example, people love so-called comfort foods, lots of cuts of meat and hearty favorites like osso bucco.

“Stay tuned,” he says, for a wine dinner in early January.


Try This at Home

Local experts make the following recommendations to those pairing wines with food:

 Check the tannin levels of a wine. Wines with even a moderate tannin level (you’ll experience furring of the mouth or puckering of the gums) should be paired with foods with fat, such as a ribeye steak.

 If your dessert is sweet, don’t choose a sweet wine. Instead, opt for something like a red, spritzy wine from Piedmont with cleansing effervescence.

 Try pairing red wine with semisweet or semisavory desserts, such as a fruit-based buckle, and serve with cheese. Dessert wines can be great with savory courses, such as seared fois gras, for example.

Source: Dan Davis, Commander’s Palace; Melvin Rodrigue, Galatoire’s


Executive Chef Brandon Felder uses wine dinners at Le Foret to create imaginative wine and food pairings. Shown here is a view of the restaurant’s wine cellar.


Categories: The Magazine