Monday, June 10, 2013

Client Profile: Mala Sichuan

We’re delighted to announce that Mala Sichuan has a shiny, pretty new beverage program courtesy of PSA Wines. In contrast to our work with Paulie’s, which was a tune-up, this project was the creation of a new list from the ground up.  

Sichuan cuisine was a fascinating challenge to us, because most people don’t try very hard to pair beverages with it. The Sichuan peppercorn - which causes a tingly, palate-numbing sensation, has the ability to confound almost all wine and beer pairings. This is why few diners ever venture farther than Tsingtao lager with this cuisine. When we first learned about Mala Sichuan, we thought it would be thrilling to take a crack at pairing with this distinctive, intense style of food.

In terms of food and wine pairing, our researched indicated Sichuan cuisine was still largely an untamed wilderness. Much of the work done with pairing wine with Sichuan food was being done on a BYOB basis (as many wine and Chinese food pairings are). A Sichuan restaurant with a built-in beverage program that explicitly flattered the food was almost unheard of.

Our imagination was tingling, like we had sprinkled Sichuan Peppercorns on the surface of our brains. Someone needed to do this. We asked husband and wife team Heng and Cori if they were interested in letting us work with them. They accepted, and we did our best to not squeal like children with glee. Heng asked initially, “I like sweet wines. Are those considered good?”

Doing my best to conceal my excitement, I said “We’re gonna get along just fine, you guys.”

German Riesling with considerable sugar content was the only easy choice. Sugar and acid can tango gracefully with the peppercorn, and we settled on Leitz Dragonstone as a value-driven option to combat the hurricane of spice some 3 alarm dishes deliver. We also found a nice demi-sec vouvray from Pinon (which may change based on availability, but it’s a hell of a good producer to start with). Things get trickier when you remove sugar from the playing field. We knew champagne tested well, but we needed a more affordable option- not counting on champagne prices to work well. We summoned Treveri brut sparkling chardonnay from Washington as our sparkling wine. Finally, we rounded it out with an herbaceous, crispy Gruner Vertliner from Domane Wachau in Austria.

I was forgetting something, maybe on purpose. I tried to sneak by without a red wine. Heng and Cori insisted, and they were right to do so, I’m just stubborn. We brought in a cru Beaujolais from Jean-Paul Brun, which has intensity, but not so much tannin that it would be discombobulated by the Sichuan peppercorn.

We had wine down, but wine can’t carry a massive Sichuan meal by itself. It was time to call the loose cannon that gets results at any cost: beer.

We sighed a breath of relief that hops worked well here. A classic California IPA like Stone worked wonders across the board with the spiciest dishes, but came off a little heavy-handed with delicate dishes.

Wheat beer was the last thing we expected to work well. Convention says that wheat beer is meant for low flavor-impact dishes like salads and white meats, not so much the capsaicin avalanche that is Sichuan food. We were delighted to find out that it not only worked well, but it worked as well as IPA did. What’s more, the wheat beer showed more versatility than IPA: showing its delicate side with mild dishes, and capably wiping the palate clean when dishes got rowdy. We went with a pair of classics, Ayinger Hefeweizen from Germany, and Blanche de Bruxelles Witbier from Belgium.

The last thing we were floored to discover was how well cider worked with everything. It demonstrated stunning versatility that might be unrivaled on the list. It was the dark horse of Mala’s program. Samuel Smith’s organic Cider was a classic that we loved for this untraditional context.

More than the list, we have had so much fun teaching the staff about the new wines and beers. Cori warned before the first class, “Many of our employees speak English as their second language. You may need to slow down and let me translate at certain points.” Everyone had a good poker face for the first class, and while I was hopeful, I wasn’t sure if everyone got something from it. When differentiating between German and French pronunciations, I assured several staff members, “Don’t worry, I don’t speak French or German either. This is difficult for me too.” Cori pointed out that I spelled “Gruner Veltliner” incorrectly on the menu, proving my point.

My concerns were put to rest days later, when one of Mala’s beer reps texted me excitedly, “They reordered 3 cases of the Ayinger and one case of the stone!” When I returned later that week, bottle sales had surged. The staff was selling wine and beer, and I was bowled over by the palpable excitement of everyone about their new beverage program.

We definitely feel an emotional attachment to this project.

Not only did the owners let us in, not only did the staff pick up this incredibly complex subject matter quickly, but (most importantly) the guests have enjoyed the program immensely. Even guests who were bummed by the disappearance of certain adjunct lagers were won over by their introduction to Hefeweizen (the official favorite drink of Mala, it seems). Even guests who shun sweet wines enthusiastically enjoyed the demi-sec Vouvray.

We will continue to advise Mala Sichuan moving forward. We are so lucky to have them as a client. They are some of the nicest people we have ever met, and we are honored that they have taken us into their business.

And yes. They still serve Tsingtao, because it’s good.