It used to be that if you wanted good Thai food in New York, you got on the 7 train and headed out to Queens. And if you wanted wine with your meal, you brought your own.
Manhattan proper is experiencing a boom in Thai restaurants—the sort that value sour as highly as sweet; where heat is just one note in a symphony of others; in which chopsticks appear only for noodles and there is no option to pick your protein. These places are far closer to what might be called real Thai than anything previously found in Manhattan—outside of someone’s mother’s apartment.
Except these places have great wine lists.
Take, for instance, Lotus of Siam: The Las Vegas restaurant famed for its exceptionally deep wine list has opened a branch in the old Cru space in Greenwich Village. Here, the wine list is only ten pages long, but it is thick with rieslings from J.J. Prüm, Dönnhoff, Nigl and F.X. Pichler, as well as 12-year-old Raveneau Chablis, Weinbach Pinot Gris and Kuenhof Gewurztraminer. It’s an impressive list for any restaurant (although, with eight out of ten pages devoted to white wines, uniquely suited to this restaurant).
In Hell’s Kitchen, chef David Bank is waiting impatiently for a liquor license to start pouring the gelber muskatellers, xinomavros and other obscure bottles he and wine manager Susan Wilber have gathered to match the food at Pure Thai Shophouse, Bank’s ode to the food he grew up on in Thailand. And in the West Village, wine manager Alicia Nosenzo has put together a tightly edited but ambitious list—ranging from Normandy (Bordelet pear cider) to the Sonoma Coast (Failla Pinot Noir) and Alto Adige (Foradori Teroldego)—to go with the dishes Harold Dieterle is turning out at Kin Shop.
Yet, while Manhattanites might finally be ready for Thai with a bite, they are slow to warm to Thai with wine. “The first few weeks, we sold so much more beer than wine and started to get a bit worried,” says Nosenzo at Kin Shop. “The main challenge with pairing wine with Thai food is helping guests make the leap to even try it.”
Beer, of course, can taste great with Thai food—especially with really spicy dishes, which do best with cold, lower-alcohol drinks. But, Nosenzo points out, not all Thai food is spicy. “The menu is diverse and the spice level is diverse. Some of our dishes are not spicy hot, but spicy savory, which makes for interesting pairings.”
At Pure, Wilber asserts that wine brings something to Thai cuisine that beer doesn’t. “The right [wine] pairing can underscore and lift the multilayered flavors of Thai cuisine, rather than just rinse the palate,” she says. “The wines also get to show off their enticing aromas and gorgeous fruit—and that whets the palate.”
Recently at Lotus of Siam, sommeliers were pouring an Austrian riesling and a J.J. Prüm Graacher Himmelreich Riesling with a tangle of noodles in a curried coconut sauce. The Austrian riesling was cool and refreshing—no more or less exciting as a pairing than a Singha. The Prüm, on the other hand, soared with the dish. It was as if the riesling intensified every detail, accenting the complexity of the curry. Most takeout Thai in NYC isn’t anywhere near this good, and it’s unlikely that wine, no matter how good, would have the same elevating power as the Prüm did here. But great Thai cuisine is complex, concise and vibrant—just as great wine is.
So perhaps the key to getting more people to try wine with Thai food is to take the Lotus of Siam approach. Even at the Vegas branch, it can be hard to get people to order wine, says Bank Atcharawan, manager and wine director in Las Vegas. “The general public—what they have in mind is a beer.” So the restaurant always has bottles open, and if they think something will go well with a dish that’s been ordered, they simply pour a taste.
In the NYC branch, the sommeliers are also pouring freely. There are 18 wines by the glass, and a two-page “market list” of bottles available by the half or whole; sometimes they’ll pour one by the glass, too. Order the $65 tasting menu and there’s an almost giddy sense of adventure on the part of the sommelier, who, if encouraged even slightly, comes by every time a new dish appears to pour a taste of something else. Every match might not be spot-on (a true Thai meal has many different dishes on the table at once), but when a great wine meets with the right dish, it’s clear that wine and Thai beats beer.
This story was featured in W&S February 2011.
is W&S’s editor at large and covers the wines of the Mediterranean and Central and Eastern Europe for the magazine.
This story appears in the print issue of February 2011.
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