The Spice Route
Originally published in The Tasting Panel Magazine
Californians love their wine. That’s a given. Californians also love their ethnic foods. Obvious, as well. Why then, is it so difficult to get a great glass of wine with your Pad Thai, Korean barbeque, or Tikka Masala? When it comes to our favorite Asian restaurants, an inspiring wine and cocktail menu doesn’t often come with the territory. The Tasting Panel caught up with Wine Director Todd Smith of San Francisco’s popular South Indian restaurant, Dosa, to get his take on the challenge.
While the drinks and wine list are both creative and extensive, the food menu is king, and Smith is a most loyal subject. He is so committed to understanding South Indian cuisine that he traveled to Tamil Nadu last November, taking the opportunity to visit the family of Dosa’s Executive Chef Vijay Kumar. More than five years of professional camaraderie and a mutual respect has lent to the ideal collaboration between the two gentlemen. Watch them in action together and the synergy is a natural, jovial even.
Dosa’s dishes contain anywhere from 25-40 different ingredients, such “massive activity in one recipe,” says Smith, where spices and herbs run the gamut from woody coriander, smoky cumin, aromatic star anise, cilantro and curry leaves, to spicy green Thai chilies and creamy coconut. The kitchen adheres to traditional South Indian cooking, which is wholly local, and entirely seasonal. This means that ingredients change with the seasons in California, in turn lending to an ever-evolving wine and drinks menu. “For me, this is a painter’s palette to work with. I never hit a wall with such diversity of flavors.”
Drinks Born in the Kitchen
A happy marriage between bar and kitchen means cocktails are infused with the same South Indian spices that drive the food menu. Dosa bartenders “spend many hours in the same kitchen with [the] Tamil chefs, boiling and toiling away, making spice-infused nectars, tinctures, and infusions,” says Smith. “It is quite the mad science lab. They emerge with little medicinal bottles filled with potent potables which become the spice racks for our specialty drinks.” Popular cocktails include the “Peony,” a gin-based drink prepared with hibiscus masala nectar, coconut milk, and chili.
While the aperitif primes the palate before the meal, Smith says, “the next step is for the wine to arrive to punctuate the spice and, if the pairing really succeeds, then the spices can elevate the fruit in the wine.”
Specific Wine Pairings
Smith likes a high acid white with good fruit, like a Verdejo or an Indian Chenin Blanc for Dosa’s southern-style vegetable samosa, wrapped in rice husk instead of wheat, and served with tamarind and mint chutneys. Dosa’s BhelPuri, a mixture of puffed rice, chopped red onions, mint, chick peas, and potatoes goes great with a Sauvignon Blanc, “not a grassy New Zealand style, but more of a Sancerre or one from Mendocino, which can have pronounced fennel notes,” he says. DahiVada is a crushed lentil dumpling submerged in organic yogurt, which Smith likes with a dry Riesling or tart rosé. The Spring Uttapam takes a different turn: the savory pancake topped with smoky caramelized vegetables is served with sambar, tomato, and coconut chutneys, pairing well with “a very light Oregonian Pinot Noir, perhaps the lighter-styled, slightly-chilled Dalmatian coast Plavac Mali, or even a good Beaujolais.”
Suggestions for the Somm
“Drink a lot,” he says. “Record your intoxicated murmurings. Don’t fear spice. Find what soothes it. What cleanses it. Be bold and don’t fear failure. Not every pairing works and I catch myself making mistakes, but be humble with that.”
Smith remembers to trust his instincts and stay open minded. He keeps his purveyors in constant rotation, always pushing to better “understand how vintages affect volatile regions and how that changes the juice in the bottle.”
As fresh California ingredients change, intermingling differently with Dosa’s traditional South Indian dishes, Smith watches the process closely. Once he knows a few things about the new menu, he calls on his purveyors to find the right wines. “There are probably tens of thousands of South Indian dishes and roughly the same amount of currently vinified global grapes,” he exclaims. “I am never at a loss for new ideas and certainly my palate is rarely bored!”