There are about as many kinds of comfort food as there are hometown yearnings. But the core of comfort food is a kind of culinary coddling, an element or ingredient that stirs up a case of the “warm and fuzzies.” And at this point in our post (or semi-post) recession anguish, enough Americans are craving nutritive nurturing to take the comfort craze viral, from the deep-fried bottom to the foie gras top of the dining heap.
As the dining world adjusts to the collective comfort crave, how will sommeliers, staid guardians of expensive wine lists (and long-standing providers of liquid therapy) approach comfort food wine pairings? It’s a question more and more of them have to answer. Whether they’re ensconced in one of Chicago’s burgeoning upscale gastropubs or part of the fine-dining scene (where elements of comfort food—whimsy, emotion, nostalgia—are ever so gently creeping in), sommeliers are now part of an expanding comfort food culture. And a cold beer just ain't (always) gonna cut it.
Sommelier Shebnem Ince might be in the most advantageous (or challenging, depending on how you look at it) position to observe diner reactions to comfort food, fine dining, and beverage pairings. Ince pairs at both of Rising Star Chef Dirk Flanigan’s Chicago outposts: modern French Henri and upscale gastropub The Gage. “When I’m on the floor at The Gage, which is much more casual and loud than Henri, I would say about 30 percent of the tables are alarmed/surprised/confused by the presence of a sommelier.” Surprise aside, diners are typically able to struggle through that initial alarm. “Because The Gage is billed as a ‘gastropub,’ people assume wine sales are lower,” says Ince. “But wine accounts for 17 percent of the yearly total sales! You look around the restaurant, and there is a bottle on almost every table.”
The Gage diners might be buying wine to go with their rugged fare, but that doesn’t mean expectations have changed across the board about what constitutes comfort food or what should be paired with it. “The fancier the dish is,” says Catalan Food and Wine Sommelier Matthew Pridgen, “the more people seem to want to ‘recognize’ the wine that is being paired with it.” But like most sommeliers, Pridgen prioritizes the connection between dish and cuisine, not cost. “The pairing should make you forget about all other things in the world at that moment, no matter how prestigious or unheard of the bottle of wine is,” which was exactly the effect when Pridgen harmonized the spice and sweetness of a Terrunos Mas Negre with Rising Star Chef Chris Shepherd’s unctuous Berkshire Pork Belly with Steen’s Syrup. Like Ince, Pridgen straddles a kind of dual pairing reality, as Catalan classics like Foie Gras Bon Bons continue to blur the line between comfort and haute.
Dressed Up, Dressed Down
That flexibility might explain the professional appeal of modern comfort food: it’s perfectly capable of looking “fancy” (as much as Shepherd’s foie gras is capable of slumming it). Sommelier Jeff Moore, formerly of Wildwood in Portland, Oregon, thinks a dish like Wild Ragout of Mushrooms with Green Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Poached Sweet Briar Farms Duck Egg, and Black Truffle could easily count as comfort food. Beyond the fab-factor of black truffle and pedigreed duck egg, the dish is essentially an earthy, rich ragout of mushrooms with bright, garlicky mashed potatoes and a gently poached duck egg (and any dish with runny-yolk potential is de facto comforting).
“Comfort foods are highly versatile,” says Moore, able to play into elements of fine dining, and vice versa. “I find myself gravitating toward comfort foods that have been upgraded by adding indulgent ingredients,” says Moore, like “truffles [and] Kobe beef.” So Moore gave the dish a taste of a similarly complex, and comparatively inexpensive, Pinot Noir (a 2005 Bouchard Père & Fils Beaune du Château Premier Cru, to be exact)—something with enough earthiness to marry (but avoid codependency) with the earthy truffles and mushrooms.
Comfort food—like most anything in this industry—is all about perception. And sommeliers get to play around, and often struggle within, diner perceptions. For instance, even as chefs continue to push comfort food into the realm of the upscale, most diners would assume a lower price point applies in pairings. But Sommelier Timothy Penick has some pretty strong anecdotal evidence to the contrary. “I remember being at a tasting with Master Sommelier Fred Dame and he told a story about drinking a 1910 Haut Brion in magnum,” says Penick, “with a pepperoni pizza.” (To compare, a single bottle of the same wine recently went for just under $1000 at Christie’s).
Of course Penick, who’ll take a good Malbec with a PB&J any day, isn’t always reaching for the most expensive bottle when pairing with the “comfort” players of (now departing) Rising Star Chef Geoff Rhyne’s local, modern American cuisine at SugarToad. “Comfort food pairings tend to be non-cerebral, pleasurable,” says Penick. “[They] help us relax.” Which is why, when pairing with a dish like S’Mores Soup, Penick found an easy friend in Madeira. “It’s rich with toasty caramel notes and plays well with the ‘burnt’ component of the S’Mores.” Penick might have reached for a more challenging or mind-blowing pairing to change diner’s hearts and minds, but as with so many mainstays of comfort food (S’Mores being a contender for the comforting-est of all time), Penick knows better than to mess with perfection.
And that’s the basic lesson of this new horizon in beverage pairings. In comfort food, as with any cuisine, the point isn’t to outshine the dish. It’s about marrying food, beverage, ambiance, and personality. And it’s as true for these sommeliers at the restaurant (“I cannot think of a more comforting idea than tucking into a Plat du Mer,” says Ince of Henri, “ [with] a bottle of good Sancerre”) as it is at home (Pridgen likes to pair a (slightly tweaked version of) his grandmother’s chicken and dumplings with Riesling Spätlese from Mosel. The rules are emphatically of the “to each his own” variety, precisely because comfort food is fair game for play (and pairings) industry-wide. “I find a good burger as comforting as anything,” says Moore. “Give me a bottle of J.L. Chave St. Joseph to go with that burger, and I’ll be extremely ‘comforted.’”