It’s a good party, even though some of the guests are friendlier than others and only one of them really speaks English. They come from different social strata and countries and they’re here to sing for their supper. Or rather, with their supper. They are wines: Christine Parkinson, buyer for the Hakkasan group, and a few of her sommeliers are holding their weekly tasting, the object of which is, she says, to find good wines that go terribly with great food.
This is more sensible than it sounds, which wouldn’t be hard. Hakkasan and Yauatcha serve fancy Chinese. The dishes are small but made to share. I may want to drink white, you red, while both of us tussle over the first bite from the mushroom clay pot and the last scrap of prawn cheung fun; in which case, what will we drink? A less courageous spirit would chuck us an obvious Riesling, a flavourless Pinot Grigio or an insipid Pinot Noir and tell us both to shut up and finish our dinner. But Parkinson has this crazy notion that consumers of expensive food should be able to drink something nice without their taste buds taking more of a battering than their wallets. (They are careful to keep wines affordable, she says, but in Fitzrovia and Mayfair, that’s a very different thing to cheap.) So an array of bottles are invited here to show what they can do and then the revelry begins in earnest: eight wines, all either new options or new vintages, and a menu carefully selected to go with as few of them as possible. Categories are mild, savoury, sweet and spicy and each wine gets marks out of five: two or less and the bottle gets bounced.
The wines range from Nyetimber 2008 to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, La Nerthe 2006. The former is sparkling English white that has a sociable knack of mixing well with more or less anything; the latter an imposing Frenchman that demands the dishes line up to bow and scrape in the manner of courtiers in the presence of their king. It’s a wonderful wine but gets dethroned by truffled duck: what’s needed here is the common touch.
The 2011 La Nerthe white, however, is the life and soul. It wows roasted cod in honey and champagne sauce; three-style mushroom swoons at its approach. Even the killer spicy dishes can’t phase it. Galic, head sommelier at Hakkasan Mayfair, already has a white CdeP by the glass but wants it (“different style and price point”, he says, smitten).
Of the reds, a Languedoc blend does fine and a burgundy sails through, being another sort of aristocrat: the kind that transitions graciously to a constitutional monarchy without kicking up a fuss. A charming Sicilian also gets the chop. The two other Italians are from the same producer: Il Chiuso, the entry-level wine, does reasonably but not splendidly; the other is my favourite guest. Castello di Ama Chianti 2006 might not be the ideal match for scallop shumai; it wouldn’t choose black pepper ribeye in merlot sauce. But it manages, and elsewhere – with tofu clay pot, spicy morning glory stir-fry – it dances, even gracefully negotiating sweet and sour pork (“a graveyard dish for wine,” says Christine, gleefully).
This entertaining exercise makes a virtue of the unfeasible choice that a high-end London restaurant can offer diners. After all, if you like strong food flavours, why wouldn’t you prefer vital wines to accompany them? Any guest of honour can shine in a roomful of sycophants. But that’s a place of worship, not a restaurant – and certainly no kind of a party.
Nina Caplan is the New Statesman’s drink critic