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French Chef Matches Wine with Grits

Photo courtesy of Google Images
Photo courtesy of Google Images

Those who have read the best-selling novel The Firm already know about the beautiful old Peabody Hotel in Memphis. A great chase scene takes place just a few feet from the Peabody’s elegant Chez Philippe restaurant, whose wine list has given pleasure to my plate and pain to my wallet for years.

(In 1991) near where the embaded hero of John Grisham’s thriller The Firm leaped from the balcony, a group of us had a more sedentary, but equally unusual, adventure.  Famed chef Jean-Louis Palladin came to the Peabody to cook a meal with his Gascon friend, Peabody chef Jose Gutierrez, recently honored as one of the United States’ best new chefs in Food and Wine magazine.

At his own restaurant, Jean-Louis located at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, Palladin is known for his ingenious experiments with unusual U.S. foods.  Eel is fine with me, but what wine goes with mountain oysters? Palladin promised us not only sea urchins and Georgia caviar but stone-ground South Carolina grits with the meat course. But what wine goes with grits? It promised to be a challenging meal.

We started off traditionally enough with Charles Heidsieck brut champagne, which went just flue with a minuscule mouthful of quail egg wrapped in brioche. We wondered if we could survive six courses, but when some consist of only two bites it’s not so tough.  A gulp of caviar, a bite of Maryland crab cake, two sips of champagne, and we were at the soup course.

The soup sounded like something a French man would think of sea urchin consomme. It was, however, wonderful, as subdety as the scary-sounding but delicious shark fin soup of Chinese cuisine. Some purists don’t drink wine with soup, but this one was different. In the soup were morsels of floating stuffed pastry called flans, which went beautifully with the champagne. So far, so go.

Next came a tougher challenge: seaweed salad in sessame with a croustillant of sea scallops. The wine was an inexpensive favorite of mine, a Pinot Blanc from Alsace by Gustave Lorentz, 1989 vintage. The seaweed was gelatinous and crunchy in sort of Japanese style. One disrespectful wag compared its appearance to Gummy Bears, but all praised its taste.

The scallops, however, were my favorite dish of the evening. Encrusted with a light emulsion of shaved and browned ginger, this was a dish to die for. The Pinot Blanc, poor man’s Chardonnay, equaled its subdety for half the price.

The fish course was Chesapeake Bay rockfish over basil, lemon confit, dried shad roe and tomato. Its saltines and spiciness pretty well killed the delicate Pinot Blanc at first taste, but tablemate somehow sneaked in another bottle of champagne, a Krug reserve, which made it all better.

Next came filets of lamb, and with them the grits. Now I love my cheese grits for breakfast, but with wine? Palladin’s grits instead of being smooth like I’m used to, were very coarse-ground, with a consistency like bulghur wheat, the way they like them in South Carolina.  They were served with a consommé and tasted more like barley or oats than corn or polenta. Surprisingly grits are good with red wine, in this case a Cotes du Rhone 1988 from the famed Domaine Goubert.

We polished off the evening easily with a glass of 1990 Muscat Canelli from Kendall Jackson, light and almost clear, and a crisp pastry filled with nectarine in honey.  It was worth my rapidly increasing weight in gold.

John Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories: From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at Ole Miss.

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