Thursday, June 24, 2010 at Jackson Hole, Wyoming

We’ve been devotees of Chicago’s Blackbird restaurant for at least seven years. So we were thrilled when the restaurant’s gifted chef, Paul Kahan, was asked to showcase the wines of Peter Sisseck’s Dominio de Pingus at a private home dinner that we attended during the recent Jackson Hole Wine Auction weekend.

We love what they do at Blackbird and its sister restaurants, Avec and Publican. There's a common element to the food in all three places: though it seems outwardly simple, there's a real depth to the flavors and a surprising complexity beneath the surface. This is not flashy cuisine, yet it appeals on so many levels that Blackbird must surely offer one of America's most consistently complete dining experiences.

In Jackson Hole, Chef Kahan and his team had to come up with a menu based on wines they'd barely tried! As Pingus' national importer, The Rare Wine Co. was asked to give some guidance. We sent Chef Kahan a bottle of '06 Flor de Pingus to sample, and some very simple notes on what we thought worked as pairings with these wines (i.e., meat, meat, game, meat). We also arranged for a bottle of Peter Sisseck's one white wine, Clos d'Agon Blanco, to be delivered, but unfortunately, it never got to Chef Kahan's hands. Given the constraints, we didn't envy Paul's job in the least.

The menu that Paul and his very engaged brigade came up with blew everyone away. What's more, it was fascinating to hear the low key chef break down each dish between courses—and to realize how much thought and craft went into building these seemingly uncomplicated plates.  You can download a .pdf of the official menu here, but each dish had several modifications as finally plated.  We didn't keep any detailed notes, but the highlights included:

2007 Clos d'Agon Blanco

This wine, from Spain's Costa Brava, is made of Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussane. It's similar to a Northern Rhône white, but seems a little fresher and less nutty than some of those wines. The Kahan team came up with an off-the-charts combination of grilled octopus confit with Dungeness crab. It was served with a little whipped brandade and a couple of last-minute substitutions. The pairing was dazzling—with the earthy/smoky quality of the octopus playing off the more overt fishiness of the brandade and crab—with everything finding a mirror in the wine.

2001 Flor de Pingus

 This wine is really entering a great drinking phase, with a touch of secondary development but still plenty of youthful energy. A beautiful piece of aged Pekin duck breast was served with small slices of seared foie gras with baby turnips. For palates jaded by too much foie gras, this course would be a relevation.  The foie was used like that finishing pat of butter so common in French food. It added some mid-palate richness to the dish without overwhelming anything else. The hint of fruit lightened things up without overwhelming the dish, and really mirrored some of the fruit in the wine. Another fantastic pairing.

2004 Pingus

Still an infant, but many in the crowd remarked that it deserves its 100-point Wine Advocate  rating  … or it will when it matures. The pairing—with oysters—was, for me, a shocker. Coincidentally, before we learned of the menu, we actually joked with Paul at the morning intro meeting that I wouldn't serve Pingus with oysters, but it should work with just about anything else. Paul replied, We're serving it with oysters. It seems wildly counter-intuitive, but the dish absolutely hit the bull's eye. The trick was to bring the oyster into the red wine realm. The oyster was smoked (or grilled?) which lessened its brininess, and then served on a glorious cube of wood-grilled pork belly surrounded by some smoked bonito broth. The descriptors aside, it's not clear why this worked so well … but it was a dish that more than held its own with the powerful Pingus.

2000 Pingus

This was the wine of the night. From some of the lowest yields in Pingus' history, it was always a black hole of a wine: full of promise but very reticent. On this night, it finally showed a hint of what's coming. There was a real core of fruit, but the texture had mellowed and the aromatics were billowing from the glass. It'll never match the sheer scale of the 2004, but it rivals it for completeness. Paul toned down his fireworks with this dish: a beautiful piece of lamb served with bitter chocolate, leeks, and a little blood sausage. It was a really satisfying course, and a subtle way to let the final wine show its stuff.

Pingus assistant winemaker Patricia Benitez was on hand to comment on the wines, and the beautiful Teton mountains were framed by the windows of host Baird Garret's home. It's hard to imagine a better setting for this dinner, or a better chef to pull it all together.

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