Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Grill Room and Grower Champagnes

Editor''s Note: The last 4 months in New Orleans have given many of us ample opportunities to drink champagne. From New Year's Eve to the Saints winning the Super Bowl (that still sounds awesome!) to a new mayor, great weather, and the continued dominance of gravity, you name it, we have celebrated it. This weekend the International Champagne and Sparkling Wine Invitational will bring Champagnistas from around the globe to New Orleans to celebrate the glories of bubbly. So for the next two days, let's live the high life.

Sara Kavanaugh, left duh, and Chef Drew Dzejak inside the beautiful cave of wines at the Windsor Court's Grill Room.

In the inner confines of The Grill Room at The Windsor Court Hotel, there is a small stairway which leads to a heavy door. Open the door and a blast of cool air greets you as welcoming as a snowball in August. In this lair, one could plan an invasion of a neighboring country or store 600 different labels and over 5,000 bottles of some of the world's best wines.

Luckily for Mississippi, The Grill Room chooses to do the latter. Sara Kavanaugh, the caretaker of these wines, is a sommelier with a personality that makes Jerry Lee Lewis look introverted. Raised in Shreveport, she left for the big lights of LSU, but soon found her way to Charleston for culinary school. After a few years of cooking, she made the transition to the front of the house. A wine program in Europe, a stint at the famous Charleston Grill, and now she is here. Drew Dzejak also worked at the Charleston Grill prior to he and Ms. Kavanaugh moving to New Orleans at the end of 2008.

In today's culinary world, every young chef seems to experiment more than cook. Not Mr. Dzejak. His food shows a reverence and respect for not messing with what nature, taste, or tradition has established. You wont find bacon dangling from a miso swing, or expressions of tangerine air and marshmallow sky, but instead a carefully arranged trio of ripe cheeses or perhaps a savory boudin dressed up just enough to make it match the elegant surroundings. When asked if he made the boudin in house, Mr. Dzejak responded, the only way I imagine he knows how, honestly, "No. Why would I? The people I get it from make it better than I could ever do."

Together Kavanaugh and Dzejak have labored with a judicious mixture of fun and elegance to return The Grill Room to one of the top tables in a town of top tables. On Thursday night, as a sort of unofficial invocation to the ICSWI, The Grill Room will host Kevin Pike of Michael Skurnik wines for a Grower Champagne focused dinner. Kavanaugh describes Grower Champagnes matter of factly, "These are champagnes which a winemaker grows, makes, manages, and maintains their own champagne. It is the difference between buying a carrot at the supermarket and growing a carrot yourself."

Grower Champagnes carry price tags similar to the big house label champagnes, but with more integrity, refined flavors, and finesse. To showcase these beautiful wines, Dzejak spent hours researching what foods best showcased champagnes. He came to a well-reasoned conclusion: the classics are classics for a reason. His menu for Thursday night reads, not surprisingly, like a Who's Who of perfect accompaniments to bubbles.

There will be oysters, smoked salmon, and caviar to start, then a prosciutto wrapped halibut with spring peas. Followed up by, butter poached lobster, parmesan gnocchi, and a broth of truffle and champagne. For the final savory course, Dzejak chose veal tenderloin ("a light meat which won't outshine the wine") with fava beans, mushrooms, a splash of olive oil, and little else. For dessert, an almond cake bedecked with the jewels of Ponchatoula.

Because Kavanaugh has worked with Dzejak for years, pairing her wines with his food has become second nature. "I have a good grasp of what Drew's dish will taste like - be it something sweet, or something acidic. And I take that background into my pairings in the restaurant on a nightly basis."

"So, you see, most wine that people want to drink comes in a bottle. Not a box."

For Kavanaugh the weight, mouthfeel, and texture of champagnes makes pairing them with food unique. The smaller the bubbles, she explains, the more effervescent, clean, and crisp the wine will be and the better it will pair with explosive flavors. For the oysters, salmon, and halibut, Ms. Kavanaugh will pour blanc de blanc champagnes. Blanc de blanc means the champagne is made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. Such champagnes when made correctly taste light, crisp, and lemony.

The lobster and veal dishes will highlight the earthier and fruitier qualities of blanc de noirs champagnes. These wines, continuing our French lesson, are champagnes which take traditional red wine grapes (like Pinot Noir) and turn them into a "white" champagne. There are also Rose Champagnes, which are not made from grapes, but roses.

Putting on dinners such as Thursday's Grower Champagne fete give both the chef and the sommelier an opportunity to cook food they would not normally cook and pour wines which too often are relegated to museum pieces. Oftentimes the dinner evolves into a feast more resembling a fun party than a formal dinner, which is a plus in my book.

The dinner is $135 a head and reservations are still available by calling 522-1994. Full menu here

No comments: