The concept of food-and-wine pairing has always aroused suspicion in me. If I like what I’m eating and I like what I’m drinking, how could one really mess the other one up?
I don’t mean to sound stupid. I get it. Big tannins counteract the fattiness of a steak. Dry sparkling wine refreshes after bites of fried food. Buttery Chardonnay brings out the butteriness of a lobster tail dipped in clarified butter (OK, never mind, I don’t get this last one at all).
But sometimes, in this hyper-curated culture we live in today, the idea of food-and-wine pairings can feel like one more thing we’re being told we should care about that we don’t actually need to care about.
In other words, sometimes it feels as if we’re taking it a little too seriously.
Parigo, a restaurant in the Marina that opened in the fall, takes food and wine pairing very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that its name translates to “pairing” in Esperanto. Owner and wine director Sarah Trubnick also owns the Barrel Room, which attracts a FiDi afterwork crowd. Here, on a quiet stretch between Chestnut and Lombard streets, she wanted “more of a neighborhood wine bar.”
The Barrel Room has always been very keen on wine education, and Trubnick saw Parigo as a chance to take that to the next level.
“I’ve always thought it would be great to have a place where you can learn how pairings work,” she says, “and learn the idea of complementary versus contrasting wine pairings.”
To order: Carnitas tostadas ($12); try it with Louis-Antoine Luyt Coelemu Gordo Blanco ($14) or Steven Kent Cabernet Franc ($18). Deep-fried goat cheese ($8); try it with Stoka Vitovska Peneče Pet Nat ($16) or Domaine Schlumberger “Les Princes Abbes” Pinot Gris ($15). Sesame-crusted salmon ($25); try it with Les Vins Contes Gama Sutra ($17) or Broadbent Vinho Verde ($15)
Where: Parigo, 3232 Scott St., S.F. 415-580-7080 or www.parigosf.com
When: 5 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, and until 11 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday.
It’s fairly self-explanatory, but the general wisdom is thus: Wine pairings can either complement, amplifying flavors found in a dish (buttery Chardonnay with buttery lobster, for example), or they can contrast, balancing out a food’s flavors or textures (sweet Riesling with spicy Thai noodles). The language of food-and-wine pairing has certain idioms — established, predictable matches like Sauternes with foie gras or Champagne with caviar. And certain foods, like asparagus and artichokes, are famous for being antagonistic toward any wine they encounter.
“Wine is an ingredient of your dish,” Trubnick says. “It’s a part of your meal.”
The best thing about Parigo is that it feels approachable: For each dish on its menu, it suggests both an obvious and a not-so-obvious wine match. (The second-best thing about Parigo is that it has an amazing backyard area with fire pits at night.) This makes it feel easy, if you’re not entirely comfortable talking to your server about wine, to start a conversation. For example, with a summer squash pasta with ricotta and basil, Trubnick suggests a Saint-Veran Chardonnay (intuitive) but also a Loire Gamay (counterintuitive). With flank steak, a Napa Valley Cabernet (duh) and an Australian Marsanne (what?).
On my visit, we put ourselves in the hands of our server, who mostly played it safe. Frankly, it seemed like every dish we ordered at Parigo was almost universally pairable, and would easily have found harmony with a range of different glasses. Delicate little balls of chevre, oozing out of their paper-thin breading, tasted great alongside an Alsatian Pinot Gris as well as a Vermentino-based sparkling wine, though I could equally have imagined them with a hearty rosé or a delicate red wine. And a seared piece of salmon had deep enough flavors — a crusting of sesame, for example — to stand up to Gamay, but its accompanying salad of peas and green beans in a minty, yogurty sauce invited a wine as light and fresh as Vinho Verde, too.
The inverse can also be true: Some wines are near-universally pairable.
“There’s a particular wine, Louis-Antoine Luyt Cruchon, a Pinot Noir from Chile, that pairs with fish, chicken, steak, pasta,” Trubnick says. The Cruchon is full-bodied but not too full-bodied, with light tannins and expressive aromas that remind Trubnick of both “baking spices and bread-and-butter pickles.” I didn’t test her hypothesis, but can attest the wine is pleasant on its own.
At Parigo, I liked everything we ate — especially the carnitas tostadas — and I liked everything we drank, especially the 2008 Dehesa La Granja, a Spanish Tempranillo. But as I carefully tried to bookend each bite of food with a forceful swishing of wine in my mouth, I had a hard time trying to calculate their combined effect.
And it made me think: How many times in my life have I really experienced a memorable pairing of food with wine?
I remember a cold, briny Kumamoto, which I bought on the beach at Tomales Bay and shucked myself, with a swig of 18-year-old Schramsberg J. Schram, no longer finely beaded but nutty and rich and funky.
I remember a single date stuffed with duck, made both smokier and sweeter by Rodenbach Grand Cru, five years ago on a bone-chilling winter evening at the now-closed Fung Tu in New York. (That’s not even wine. It’s beer.)
I remember — granted, it was just last week — a heap of lentils and carrots and tahini that my friend Alexandra made, which revealed Jolie-Laide’s pale-orange Trousseau Gris as even earthier and brighter than it had been on its own.
For me, it takes more than just a confluence of tannins and fat to make a taste memory lodge. It takes a good friend, a cold night, the sand between my toes.
In slightly more pedestrian terms, I express this to Trubnick. At the end of the day, I persist, does it really matter that your wine is perfectly matched to your dinner?
She gives a very persuasive response.
“We’re basically in the entertainment industry,” she says. “If someone comes into our restaurant, they’re coming in for our show. We’re going to give them an experience. We’re going to put out the best food and wine pairings we can.
“But, yeah,” she laughs, “at home people should definitely just drink whatever they want.”