Mention the words Cloudy Bay around Sauvignon Blanc lovers and mouths start watering. Cloudy Bay is the producer that not only introduced Sauvignon Blanc to a generation of wine lovers but also helped put New Zealand on the map. No, really – aside from The Lord of the Rings, Cloudy Bay is why people know that New Zealand even exists. OK, I’m exaggerating, but my point is that the words Cloudy Bay are important to wine lovers, the same way that the words David Burke are important to foodies.
So put David Burke’s Townhouse and Cloudy Bay on the menu and I’ll be there. New Zealand-wine fans like me made it to Townhouse on Sept. 14 for a four-course meal paired with four Cloudy Bay wines, at least two of which are rarely found in the States. Three of my wine-loving friends joined me. I was a little ashamed to say, going in, that Sauvignon Blanc was the only Cloudy Bay variety I’d had before. Turns out that that was the case for many folks at this dinner. So I was jazzed about getting ahead of the curve with some CB rarities.
We started the evening with assorted hors d’oeuvres and a sangria aperitif. The hors d’oeuvres came out rapid-fire among the bustle and excitement, so it was wasn’t always clear what each one was. Gorgeously presented, these amuse-bouches were paired with sangria – not the kind of wine I was salivating for, but still a good match for the tiny serving of savory duck riette and of the tasty porcini and crusted goat cheese with fig and honey.
Cloudy Bay winemaker Tim Heath then presented the wine for the first course, the one most of the diners were familiar with, Sauvignon Blanc. The 2011 was everything I love about this variety: lip-puckering grapefruit, grass and appealingly pungent vegetal aromas and flavors supported by sturdy acidity. This knockout was paired with a light fluke crudo, grapefruit bites and avocado puree. Tough to imagine a better match – the cool, smooth-textured fluke with the grapefruit and grassy avocado melded so beautifully with the near identical flavors of the Sauvignon Blanc that it became difficult to tell where the food ended and the wine began. Magical.
The next course got our table revved up with the 2007 Chardonnay. New Zealand isn’t known for its Chards, but one sip of this beauty left me wondering why the hell that was the case. Granny Smith apple and vanilla flavors danced in the mouth with this fuller-bodied white, which was rich and round but benefited from great acidity. Nothing in the wine was overdone or out of balance. The Chardonnay’s lovely weight complemented the beautifully ribbed Scottish salmon – so tender you could breathe on it and it would separate into perfect sections. The Chardonnay also paired well with the sunchoke, on which the salmon sat, and the escarole, and the subtle flavors of the tender cippolini accented the Chardonnay’s modest oak.
I couldn’t wait for the next wine, another new Cloudy Bay variety for me, the 2010 Pinot Noir. Grilled cherry and strawberry, dark plum, spice and light smoke swaggered across the nose and palate. And what was paired with this wine? Duck, of course, Long Island duck. But this classic Pinot pairing had innovative side servings of roasted figs, porcini and – wait for it – foie gras corn cake. If anyone at my table had compunctions about foie gras, they kept it to themselves as they devoured the delicious chunks of foie gras nestled within the moist yellow corn cake.
In fact, most at my table found this unique “side” the most fascinating pairing of the course. I preferred the Pinot with the duck, which, though a bit dry, complemented the wonderful smokiness of the wine, and the roasted figs and porcini (I seemed to be the only one who liked these) brought out the wine’s earthy, savory side. But in the end, the foie gras corn cake with the Pinot had the entire table marveling at the genius of the pairing.
The last wine of the evening came with a dessert of poached pear mousse served atop an almond dacquoise with carmelized apple. The wine was the luscious and complex 2007 Cloudy Bay Late-Harvest Riesling, oozing with honey, dried orange rind and apricot flavors. Tim Heath explained that most of the grapes used for this wine were not just harvested late but had experienced botrytis, which shrivels the grapes into tiny sacs of honey-flavored sweetness. Some non-botrytized grapes were used as well, however, allowing a bright ray of acidity to shine through the rich ambrosia. The light pear mousse dissolved dreamily on the tongue as the Riesling melted the biscuity almond dacquoise into a fine-grained paste that reminded me of the first time I tried marzipan.
The meal had generated such animated conversation that we decided to have a nightcap a block away at Townhouse’s seafood-themed sibling, Fishtail. There we met with Chef Burke, who gave us a tour of Fishtail’s upstairs dining room as well as the kitchen. For our late-night refreshment we decided on a bottle of Schramsberg Brut. Slightly bleary-eyed, we offhandedly asked Chef Burke what on the menu he would recommend with the sparkling wine – besides oysters, because how can you resist oysters and bubbly? Impossible. He suggested the pastrami salmon and something called a pretzel-crusted crab cake. We asked our waitress to put our order in for those two apps, plus the oysters, only to be told – to our horror – that the kitchen had closed. But just as a heavy sigh rose from our table, she smiled (after a glance from Chef) and said the kitchen had been reopened to prepare our apps. We protested vehemently and insisted that the staff be sent home for the day. But I gotta be honest – I didn’t protest all that much. I wanted those oysters.
And the oysters? Impeccably fresh and succulent, I mean really just beautiful along with their three sauces. But they ended up coming in second among the table’s favorites. The pretzel-crusted crab cake – with its crunchy, lightly salty exterior and tender crab insides, with a dollop of tomato marmalade on top – floored everyone present. And while eyes were rolling over the crab cake, I surreptitiously took possession of the third plate. The heavenly smoke of the melt-in-your-mouth salmon pastrami was the one that got my vote. The Schramsberg bubbles lifted the smoky, salty flavors of the pastrami and filled the mouth with savory effervescence.
My friends and I could have, with a little effort, continued the evening over another bottle of Schramsberg and platter of oysters. But after five and a half hours of extraordinary wine and food – and the kitchen closed for real now – we called it a night. We have, however, already made a date to return to Fishtail’s Happy Hour for $1 oysters.
Enormous thanks to photographer Talisman Brolin for generously lending her talent to my anemic picture-taking efforts and for giving my crude iPhone photos the patina of professionalism. Visit her website at www.talismanphoto.com.
David Burke’s Townhouse
133 E 61st St., New York City
135 E 62nd St., New York City