A couple of decades ago, wine and food pairing rules were simple: white wine with fish and chicken, red wine with red meat.
But the American palate has gotten more sophisticated since then, and both foodies and wine lovers have grown more intrigued by the subtleties involved in matching the flavors in a food with the flavors in a wine.
Now Kendall-Jackson, Sonoma County's own wine behemoth, has come to the rescue with Partake by K-J, a restaurant — or is it a wine bar, or is it both? — in Healdsburg that's all about pairing foods with the company's 16 most popular wines.
The emphasis at Partake is on the wine, with each of the 16 wines available as a 2-ounce taste or a 5-ounce glass matched to a small plate called a Chef's Pairing Recommendation. The food choices are made by Executive Chef Justin Wangler and his two chefs, Lucia Gama and Sarena Stern. This team is focused on how much pleasure a good wine and food pairing provides.
For instance, Two Oysters ($5, 4 stars) were paired with a $3 taste of the 2010 Grand Reserve Sauvignon Blanc from the Mendocino coast. And while raw oysters and Sauvignon Blanc make a classic marriage, the real pleasure came from the seamless merging of the sweet grapefruit flavor of the wine with the white verjus and minced pickled-cucumber mignonette on the Drake's Bay oysters.
Another pairing that stood out like a perfect marriage was a $5 taste of the 2010 Grand Reserve Merlot with a whole Tempura Maitake Mushroom ($8, 4 stars). The sweet Bing cherry flavor of the Merlot reflected the sweetened soy sauce that was used to finish the maitake. The mushroom's woodsy notes echoed in the woody oak used to barrel-age the wine. Salt in the tempura batter and in the soy finish tied the hot mushroom's flavors together.
Partake is in the room that once was Tre Scalini, a very good Italian restaurant, and has been several incarnations since — most recently chef Doug Keane's short-lived Shimo Modern Steak. It's now painted all white, with solid hardwood tables, couches and low glass coffee tables, a second room with a bar, and shelves filled with K-J wines, which can be purchased by the bottle for takeout as well.
Good music on the sound system — Ray Charles was singing "Lonely Avenue" when I walked in — and attentive service with a smile keeps the mood light and fun. The waiter may give you a black glass when you sit down and ask you to identify the kind of wine in it. Don't be intimidated. Just say, "Obviously a 2010 Grand Reserve Chardonnay from the old Gauer Estate." If you're wrong, so what? If you're right, you'll blow his mind.
Other interesting pairings include a $4 taste of the ultra-rich and fruity 2010 Vintner's Reserve Syrah from one of K-J's Santa Barbara properties. It accompanied Turnips Braised in Red Wine ($7, 3 stars) that were islands in a little sweet and savory lake of lentils and date puree. A nutty, cheesy parmesan and hazelnut crumble topped the turnips.
A $9 taste of the 2007 Highland Estates "Hawkeye Mountain" Cabernet Sauvignon, from a vineyard at 2,200 feet above the Alexander Valley, was a delicious wine, but it seemed too brooding for the sweet red bell peppers and bright halves of cherry tomatoes in the Panzanella Salad ($7, 2 stars). The house-made bread cubes, colored and flavored with dried, ground Syrah skins, were hard. But there was a little bit of nice smooching going on as the balsamic vinegar dressing got cuddly with the big Cabernet.