Thai cuisine offers a stern challenge to restaurants seeking to match their food with wine, so Fiona Sims went to Europe's only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant, Nahm, to seek out possible pairings
When it comes to food and wine matching, Nahm has its work cut out. Europe's only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant has to contend with some of the most challenging flavours that have ever faced wine.
But then, wine wasn't ever supposed to partner Thai food. "They've both evolved completely separately. The Thais themselves don't drink anything with their food they usually drink before or after their meal, so there's no taking account of any drink in their cuisine," explains chef-proprietor David Thompson.
But this is a Thai restaurant in London - in Belgravia, to be exact - and we drink wine with our food here. Head sommelier and wine buyer Troy Sutton undoubtedly has the toughest job in town.
Yet the list is packed with gems. Sutton has had a few years now to decide what works best with Thompson's complex cooking. And yes, as you might expect, German and Alsace varietals rule - he has more than 100 of them on the 250-bin list.
And no, contrary to what you might think, they aren't a hard sell - because people are realising that these wines work best with these flavours. If a customer dithers, then Sutton steers them towards drier styles made in the New World. Simple.
But has Sutton ever found any truly great matches for this style of cooking? (To be honest, wine has never worked for me at Nahm - beer occasionally, but water more often.) Caterer decided to find out. Using Sutton's extensive knowledge, Thompson's frank approach, and a neutral food and wine matching-savvy observer (me), we set out to find a few perfect matches - no matter that many who dine here drink whatever wines they want, regardless.
Surprisingly (or maybe not) Bordeaux and Burgundy make up a hefty section of the list. "Yes, Cabernet is popular, even though I don't think it goes," admits Sutton. Even big, chewy Barolos sell well here, amazingly. But you have to give people what they want, argues Sutton.
A good balance
But I thought tannin and chilli was a real no-go? "Well, the reds on the list are mostly Pinot Noirs, which are much softer," explains Sutton. He's a huge fan of Oregon Pinot Noir, particularly Sine Qua Non "Omega" Pinot Noir from Yamhill County. "In fact, a lot of American Pinot Noir goes well with this food," replies Sutton. "It's soft and fruity, whereas Burgundy is earthy and rich. It's a good balance between Old and New World, and these aren't bad with our braised beef curries."
"In general, yes, if you're going to drink wine with Thai food, then it's very much white wine. The more residual sugar the better," concludes Sutton. One of the biggest sellers at Nahm is Joh Jos Prüm's 2005 Riesling Kabinett (£40) from the Mosel in Germany. "Something slightly sweet actually reduces the heat of the chilli," he explains.
Not that you would ever dare ask Thompson to reduce the chilli in his dish if you felt in the mood for something a tad more delicate than the cuisine allows. "If you reduce the chilli, then the balance of the dish is all wrong. You just end up with the salt and sweet elements - the triangle is broken," he splutters indignantly.
So, down to the tasting. Both Sutton and Thompson have plenty of ideas about which wines to serve. The first wine, though, is down to Sutton, who has chosen Champagne, rather surprisingly, to kick off the session. He thinks it works - as an appetite stimulator, sure, but also as a match for many of Thompson's starters.
But which bubbly? Roederer Brut Premier - the house glug. "It's a mid-weight Champagne with a bit of body, and it can stand up to some of the dishes," says Sutton. And if you've got the dosh, then the boys also single out Dom Pérignon as a good all-rounder.
Thompson's choice is less mainstream. In fact, it's positively obscure - "Emilin" Moscatel Superior from Lustau (a sherry) - though an intriguing proposition. The dish? Ma hor, a classic Nahm amuse-bouche.
Minced pork, chicken and prawns is simmered in palm sugar and fish sauce and served with deep-fried shallots, garlic and roasted peanuts, served on pineapple slices and mandarin segments, then finished with coriander and shredded chilli.
The Champagne isn't a bad match - with the mandarin particularly but the pineapple sends the acidity levels soaring. "Maybe a demi-sec Champagne would work better with this?" Thompson asks Sutton, who replies that it probably would, but it's too hard a sell and too difficult to find.
The sherry is up next, but it overwhelms the ma hor. Thompson returns to the kitchen to tweak the dish some more. "I'm determined to make this match," he says. Version two arrives with galangal, more deep-fried garlic and a touch more white pepper: better, but still no match. Thompson pledges to try a range of sherry styles next time round, but they aren't on the list, so we can't try them right now.
Enter new dish salted chicken with longan wafers. Other ingredients include longsat, Thai basil and coconut cream - another rather complicated dish.
"The Thais delight in the complex. It's not about showing off it's about delicious embellishment - where ingredients combine so as not to create any jarring elements. It's about striking a harmonious chord without making you aware of how much is actually going on in the dish," explains Thompson.
To pair with it, Sutton chooses a 1997 Condrieu from Perret. We try the wine first - it's stunning, but we wonder whether it's an issue for the coconut cream. "Coconut, generally, is a big no-no with wine - the fat in the coconut kills it," says Sutton. But the wine is so powerful that it carries off the match - almost. "Texturally, it is quite similar, but I have a problem with the basil," ponders Sutton.
"You're going to be screwed over this next dish," Thompson challenges him. Banana blossom salad with a chilli jam - think artichoke, wine's number-one enemy. "This is where Thai food and wine just don't meet", predicts Thompson.
Sutton produces a 2004 Pinot Gris from Zind-Humbrecht, Herrenweg de Turkheim (£51) and a 2000 Gewurztraminer - Trimbach's Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre (£58).
Thompson and Sutton start sniggering suddenly while we help ourselves. Apparently, I've landed the "scud" - their affectionate name for a bird's eye chilli (Thompson cooks with six different fresh chillies and three different dried chillies) - which renders you speechless for a good few minutes if you happen to chomp on one. But my fork misses it, thankfully, and we continue, crisis averted.
The gewurz actually works: our first successful match. You can still taste the wine - which is glorious, by the way - and the dish's flavours are oddly enhanced. "I think it's because the Gewurztraminer is low in acidity and so is the sauce," ponders Sutton.
A green mango salad is up next. "You always get a green mango salad in some guise on a Thai menu," explains Thompson. His salad includes shallots, fresh mint, toasted coconuts, dried prawns and Thai basil. "And I think it needed some fat for the wine, so I've added minced pork, lime juice, chilli and fish sauce," he reveals, with a grin.
We try all the wines we've had so far. Nothing works. "Do you think a beer would be good here - maybe a wheat beer?" asks Thompson. "The beers are only here for the Americans," scoffs Sutton, who serves an Aussie Riesling, from Jim Barry, the Florita 2005. Another hit: perfect, in fact. It's steely, mineral fruit tempers the heat and the acidity of the dish.
"That's a bit smart, that is. It had no right to work, but it did. Its austerity shot through the dish, blowing away any misconceptions, proving once again that the mind can be deceived," observes Thompson.
Now we're on a roll. The stir-fried cured pork salad (naem), served with white sticky rice, is left at warm room temperature for up to a week before being cooked with garlic and chilli then served with slices of fresh ginger, spring onions, coriander and chillies. The Jim Barry Riesling wins again. "It picks out the smokiness of the wok," agrees Thompson. "It cleans everything up," concludes Sutton.
Only two more dishes to go. Geng Krua is a grilled beef curry which is cooked with smoked fish (plaa grop - a bit like a sardine, dried, then smoked and ground into a powder), dried chillies, shallots, garlic and wild ginger. "Wild ginger is a wine's worst enemy," warns Thompson. Sutton selects a Barossa Valley Grenache - Magpie Estate's the Gomersal. It's actually not bad - but the ginger somehow makes the wine taste too jammy.
"What about whisky?" asks Thompson. After all, Mekhong is the Thais' national drink. But that doesn't work either: we try a 15-year-old Laguvulin, thinking its peaty flavours would work well with the smokiness of the dish, but it just makes it all taste too medicinal.
We give up on this one and the next. The black ash pudding is just too much for any wine: its gluey, sticky, sweet liquorice and coconut flavours try their best with a late-harvest Riesling from Mount Horrocks but fail miserably.
Result? Well, to a point. Yes, we found some great matches, but it required a lot of thought and would have been virtually impossible without Sutton's expertise. Maybe it's best to stick to beer - or do as the Thais do and drink wine or whatever before or after the meal. Fun, though, and something all chefs should be trying.
• Head chef Matthew Albert is doing masterclasses at Nahm on a range of subjects. The final two classes concentrate on pairing Thai food with wine and also star Troy Sutton, who discusses how to choose elegant wines with this challenging cuisine. For information call Alison Donovan at the Halkin hotel on 020 7333 1191 or go to www.nahm.como.bz.
Thai food, such as this minced pork salad with dried prawns, green mango, peanuts, betel leaves and chillies, has evolved in a culture where wine is not normally drunk with a meal
Five ultimate Thai food wines
- 2005 Joh Jos Prüm Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Germany (£6.67, 37.5cl, Justerini & Brooks, 020 7484 6400)
- Louis Roederer Brut Premier, Champagne, France (£20.75, Maison Marques et Domaines, 020 8812 3380)
- 2000 Trimbach Gewurztraminer, Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre, Alsace, France (£15.99, Paragon Vintners, 020 7887 1800)
- 2005 The Florita, Riesling, Jim Barry, Clare Valley, South Australia (£12.09, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7609 4711)
- 2005 Zind-Humbrecht, Riesling, Alsace, France (£17.17, Coe Vintners, 020 8551 4966)
All prices are per bottle, excluding VAT, unless otherwise stated