Element of Surprise

Element of Surprise

While some restaurants depend on signature dishes and classic wine pairings to keep customers coming back for more, eateries from coast to coast are embracing an outside-the-box approach to dining out—in some cases, changing menu items by the hour. See how sommeliers at top restaurants navigate the challenge of pairing wines with ever-evolving dishes.



The menu at FT33 changes on a weekly basis, allowing the Owner and Executive Chef, Matthew McCallister, to work with items that are hyperseasonal—like Porcini mushrooms and ramps—a tactic that has quickly put the Design District-area restaurant on the Dallas dining map.

“The constant evolution of the menu is definitely welcomed by the vast majority of our diners who enjoy the chance to try a new selection of dishes each time they visit, rather than selecting from a static selection,” says Jeff Gregory, wine director and general manager.
“New menu items also challenge us to keep a sharp sense of what wines are working well with the season’s bounty,” he notes. “Right now I’m in the market for rustic Old World whites and lighter reds. Heavier reds tend to slow down once the temperature climbs above 90 [degrees] here in Texas.”

The Catbird Seat


At this cutting-edge Nashville eatery, 32 seats surround a U-shaped kitchen, where menus aren’t determined until guests are in house. “We add two or three new dishes every week to keep it exciting for us as well as for our guests,” says Chef Erik Anderson.

Admittedly, it’s a challenge for Beverage Director Adam Binder. “[It] starts every week with the short amount of time I have to choose the wines,” he says. “Then, not only do the local distributors have to have the product in stock for next day delivery, but they also have to have enough of it. I’ve discovered you need to find a balance each week between adventurous wines and pairings that are sure winners.”


Washington, D.C.

Diners who sit down at this modern American restaurant can choose from a four-course prix fixe menu, a six-course chef’s tasting or a six-course vegetarian menu, each of which change every six weeks. That makes for a lot of dishes, and a multiplicity of potential wine pairings. Luckily, the Washington, D.C. restaurant has a deep wine cellar.

“With over 600 selections at our disposal, last-minute changes don’t present too many challenges,” says Sommelier Andy Myers. “Often times there are several different wines that each could work well. It really depends on how we want to solve the individual puzzle [of the] dish while simultaneously making the pairing fit in the overall ebb and flow of the entire meal.”

“We can always find something that would make for an exciting pairing,” says Myers.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Pocantico Hills, NY

It doesn’t get more “farm-to-table” than this: Uniquely located on a working farm, dishes at this restaurant are culled from produce sourced directly from the surrounding fields and pastures, a method that necessitates constant updates to the kitchen’s offerings. That means customers have little idea what to expect when visiting, though they’re presented a list with more than 100 ingredients, updated daily.

“There are no formal menus at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Dishes change not only every season or every week, but every day, and sometimes every hour, depending on the availability from the farm,” says Wine Director Charles Puglia. “This forces us into a unique dialogue with the kitchen, which we pass on to our diners though a wide range of pairings.”

The Restaurant at Meadowood

St. Helena, CA

There are no traditional menus at this restaurant; rather, custom menus are created for each table, a process that starts when guests call to make a reservation. Diners list likes, dislikes and allergies, along with specific meal preferences. Then Chef Christopher Kostow creates a menu for each table.

Given the always-changing nature of meals at Meadowood, Sommelier Benjamin Richardson focuses on the chef’s overall flavor profile for wine pairings. “Chef Kostow often offers lighter, more delicate flavors, so I try not to overpower those attributes with the wine,” says Richardson. “I’ve recently come across a few wines from California that feature varietals off the beaten path that also have the structural elements that play well with the flavors.  [Having] these wines at my disposal allows me to change a pairing at a moment’s notice…plus I get to turn the guest onto something new and out of the box.”

Maple Thyme Custards

Recipe courtesy Chef Erik Anderson, The Catbird Seat, Nashville

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
¼ cup Blis Maple Syrup
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
Truffle oil, to taste
Pine extract, to taste
12 eggshells
12 bacon chips, for garnish
Maple syrup, for garnish
Fresh thyme leaves, for garnish

Preheat an oven to 300°F.

In a saucepot, mix the heavy cream and milk with the maple syrup. Bring the mixture to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Add the thyme sprigs to the mixture and let steep for 15 minutes in a warm place.

Remove the thyme sprigs. Whisk together the egg yolks and whole eggs, and temper in the custard base. Add the truffle oil or pine extract to custard, if desired.

Fill the hollowed out egg shells ¾ of the way with custard and bake until set, approximately 20 minutes. Garnish with maple syrup, bacon and fresh thyme leaves. Serves 12.

Wine Recommendation: Adam Binder, beverage director at Catbird Seat, likes to serve a Alvear Solera 1927 Pedro Ximenez with the custard. “This wine has strong aromas of prune and baked walnuts with flavors of raisins, chocolate covered cherries and a light accent of candied orange peel,” says Binder, which compliments the sweet and salty character of the maple-bacon custard.

Grains Primavera

Recipe courtesy Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, New York

½ cup asparagus tips, blanched
½ cup fiddlehead ferns, blanched
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ onion, peeled
1 celery stalk
½ carrot, peeled
1 cup farro
1 cup freekeh
6 cups of water
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
1½ cups stock (chicken or vegetable)
2 cups parsnip purée (recipe to follow)
2 teaspoons Sherry wine vinegar
3 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese

Blanche the asparagus and ferns, and set aside.

Heat the oil in a medium saucepot over medium flame. Add onion, celery and carrot, and sauté for 5 minutes. Add farro and freekeh and toast for 2 minutes over low heat. Add water and bay leaf, and season well with salt and pepper. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes until tender and all the liquid has cooked off.

Carefully remove the onion, celery, carrot and bay leaf, and discard. Add the stock to the pot and bring to a simmer.

Stir in the parsnip purée and Sherry vinegar, and cook gently over a low flame for 3 minutes.

Add the asparagus and fiddlehead ferns and continue to cook for another minute. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Serves 4.

Parsnip purée:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
4 parsnips, peeled and diced small
1 glove garlic
Salt and pepper
1 cup water
1 cup milk

Heat the oil and butter in a medium saucepot over medium heat. Add the parsnips and garlic and sweat for 5 minutes, seasoning with salt and pepper. Add water and milk and bring to a simmer. Cook for 15 minutes, until the parsnips are very soft. Transfer the parsnips and remaining liquid to a blender and purée until smooth.

Wine Recommendation: Blue Hill at Stone Barn’s Wine Director Charles Puglia recommends Müller-Catoir 2007 Kabinett Weissburgunder, Pfalz. “The richness of the wine is a great textural match for the grains,” says Puglia, “and the fruitiness of the wine highlights the natural sweetness of the spring vegetable and parsnip.”

See the full list of America’s Top 100 Best Wine Restaurants here >>>

Published on June 28, 2013
Topics: Best Restaurants