Food Arts — “Asian Matchmakers”

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Wary customers can be shown the way to ordering wine with Asian food. Just ask the can-do An family of Crustacean in Beverly Hills.
Merrill Shindler reports.

According to conventional wisdom, fine wines and Asian cuisine have only a fleeting relationship with each other. Faced with the sodium-rich, highly seasoned dishes of China, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, most wine drinkers simply throw up their hands in frustration. Confounded, they may opt for beer, which as a rule, complements Asian flavors while slaking a salt-induced thirst. Or, perhaps, they sip sake. They may even quaff a soft drink or tap water.
To be sure, some progress has been made in convincing a wary public that wine can marry with Asian cooking. A notable effort is being made by Mark Miller at his new Asia-informed Loongbar in San Francisco (see WINE REPORT, Food Arts, May 1998). And now Crustacean, an upscale Euro-Asian restaurant cloned by chef/owner Helene An in Beverly Hills from its San Francisco parent, is taking steps to present wines that can co-exist with and even enhance the food.
The two Crustacean restaurants—the one in San Francisco opened in 1991, Beverly Hills in 1997—grew from the tiny Thanh Long in San Francisco, where Helene’s mother-in-law, Diana An, the wife of a wealthy Vietnamese businessman, brought Vietnamese home cooking to the Bay Area in 1971. As the youngest of 17 children of a provincial ruler and royal family member in prewar Vietnam, Helene was brought up in a household filled with servants—including Vietnamese, Chinese, and French chefs who were asked to cook according to which foreign dignitaries would be dining at the house. After marrying Danny An, a South Vietnamese air force pilot, she learned from Diana how to entertain in the grand home the family maintained in Saigon.
But Helene’s life changed dramatically on April 6, 1975, when she and her three oldest daughters escaped Saigon one hour before the city fell to the North Vietnamese army. With nothing more than the clothes on their backs, the once-privileged An women joined Danny in the Philippines before coming to California. There, Helene earned a second accounting degree and then took a job as an accounting supervisor for the University of California. All the while, she was helping in the kitchen at Thanh Long, expanding its menu to encompass the Vietnamese, French, and Chinese dishes she had watched her household’s cooks make as a child.
At the two Crustaceans—as will also be the case at the two more being planned, one for Newport Beach and a second one for Beverly Hills—Helene cooks within a box of sheet metal set up inside the main kitchen in order to keep curious staff from learning the secrets to her two best-selling Dungeness crab preparations (simmered in sake, Chardonnay, and Cognac, or roasted with garlic sauce and “secret spices”) or her tiger prawns charbroiled with “secret spices.”
“Opening in Beverly Hills, our goal was to have wines that went with foods that we perceived as complex and elegant,” says Elizabeth An, who manages the restaurant. “We wanted the same complex elegance in our wines. Beer doesn’t offer that; it’s not perceived as being elegant. We use many herbs and spices, and our cooking is very complicated. Only wine can properly bring that out.”
Helene, her daughters Elizabeth, Hannah, and Monique (there are also two teen-age daughters, Jacqueline and Katherine), along with sommelier George Skorka and wine consultant Dennis Schaefer, set out not just to create a great list but also to offer a remarkable by-the-glass selection, with a four-ounce tasting size of wine available for virtually every dish.
“It’s an evolving process,” says Schaeffer, author of Vintage Talk (Capra Press, Santa Barbara, CA 1994) and Touring the California Wine Country (Gulf Publishing, Houston, 1997). “The wines on the matching list keep changing as we evaluate dishes. Right now, I’m at the restaurant every Monday and Tuesday. Helene sends out small portions of the dishes, and we start tasting them with the listed wines. Then, we bring out new wines I’ve found or distributors have brought in. We’re always tasting, always comparing.
“And I’ll tell you, the best palate in the restaurant belongs to Helene. She works daily with the food, so she has a great taste memory. After we settle on a wine and a dish, we’ll take it to her, and she’s always right in her evaluation.”
According to Elizabeth, mom keeps the process constantly challenging by “coming up with new herbs no one has ever heard of before. And we want wines that work well with those herbs.”
The result is a menu that’s almost surreal in the complexity of its pairings. Under the section entitled “Asian Tapas,” for instance, a preparation of rice paper encasing poached shrimp, rice noodles, green mango, and the coriander-like herb rau ram that comes with a spicy peanut sauce gets matched with a non-vintage Chandon Blanc de Noirs. The charbroiled lemon grass- and sesame-flavored beef satay with Asian pickles pairs remarkably with a Swanson Sangiovese Napa Valley 1994. A seafood dumpling steamed with a tamarind/ginger fumet gets paired with an Edmeades Gewurztraminer Anderson Valley 1995. Even soups get wine mates—an Argyle Chardonnay Willamette Valley Reserve 1990 with the yellow corn soup with crabmeat and a Bonny Doon Riesling California Pacific Rim 1996 with the lemon grass-scented Asian bouillabaisse.
“We’ve found that mussels go well with acidity,” says Elizabeth. “Sancerre has a lot of acidity, so we’ve matched the Guy Saget Sancerre Selection Premiere 1995 with our New Zealand green lip mussels with Asian pesto. By contrast, grilled calamari have a smoky taste, so they go well with the Joseph Drouhin Mersault 1993, which has an oaky aroma.”
Elizabeth says 98 percent of the customers who try the matched wines, at $4 a glass, have been satisfied. She says that about half of them settle for a pre-selected tasting wine, which has helped to account for a 15 percent increase in wine sales since the program was introduced late last year. Wine accounts for nearly 67 percent of total liquor sales.
Where customers might not order a whole bottle, they have little problem with a single glass, Elizabeth notes. “And after they find that a particular wine works with a dish, they order a whole bottle, even a higher ticket one.”
Among the better sellers on the 189-selection list are Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut Champagne Gold Label 1989 ($90), Sanford Chardonnay Santa Barbara County 1996 ($35), and WillaKenzie Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Pierre Leon 1995 ($46). Skorka, the sommelier, says that the prices of wines that aren’t moving quickly are dropped to less than twice wholesale. Prices are constantly being adjusted to reflect the market, he adds.
The wine program has been so successful that the Ans have adopted it as the model for their newly introduced  Asian Martini menu. The drinks are made with rice wine, plum wine, and vodka or gin flavored with lemon grass, Tahitian vanilla, Fijian ginger, etc.
“We want Asian flavors in everything,” Elizabeth proclaims. “We want this to be a total culinary experience.”