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Chopsticks on the Grapevine

by Judy Ross

Equipment and Techniques

Spring Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(1) page(s): 10

While other 'foodies' laboring in the gastronomic vineyards have been talking about raising the perception that fine Chinese fare deserves the participation of appropriate wines, restauranteur Henry Leung has been doing something about it. Indeed, the ground-breaking David K's that dared to position Chinese dining as a gourmet experience, with gourmet prices that raised a few eyebrows and elegant cachet, ventured to print a wine list in 1976. It was on this scene that Henry Lung suggested to a diner, "Would you care to see the wine list--was summarily dismissed with the dictum: "the only beverage for Chinese food is beer!"

Undeterred, Henry traveled to Burgundy and Bordeaux in the late 70's, to California in the 80's, always mentally matching his food and wine perceptions. Finally, in 1990, at his chic, upper-Eastside Fortune Garden location, he instituted a wine list that was singled out for an award by the Wine Spectator--a first for any Chinese restaurant anywhere.

Industry recognition is one thing--popular participation another. The problem was not to preach to the converted--the elite who already enjoyed wine with Chinese cuisine, but to convince and educate a broader public. No task in the restaurant world is more frustrating, costly, and historically ill-fated as that of educating your own public--but Henry went cheerfully into the fray when he set up a two-hundred-item wine list in 1991, for Chiam, his upscale, upper-Eastside showcase salon. In addition, the Chiam wine cellar--an anomaly for Chinese restaurants and not even generally available in most continental resorts in our city--boasted three thousand bottles. The bold stroke paid off. A group of wine lovers who toured the facility decided to organize a wine dinner in the privacy of the cellar instead of the dining rooms, for the sheer ambiance of the place.

The experiment of matching Chinese foods with international wines was so successful that in 1992, Henry was encouraged to open the experience to the general public. In May of that year, the first of his monthly wine dinners paired six courses of Chinese cuisine with the wines of Swanson Vineyard. The ongoing crusade subsequently featured such California vintners as Mondavi, Clos Du Bois, Chateau St. Jean, as well as some Burgundy and Champagne vintages. The list of Chiam currently features seven hundred selections, and the cellar houses nine thousand bottles.

A recent dinner featuring 'Top Gun Chardonnays' demonstrated the spirit that drives Henry Lung towards the realization of his dream: the same routine reaching for the wine list in a fine Chinese restaurant that is automatic at their continental confreres.

In one of the several intimate roomettes that comprise the premises at Chiam, a group of thirty fans convened for the 6:15 aperitif reception. The hors d'oeuvres were crisp-crocked, custard centered oblongs of turnip cake, strips of barbecued beef, plus bowls of colorful shrimp puffs, and deep-fried wontons. The accompanying wine was Ric Forman's 1992 Napa Chardonnay, notable for a distinct balance to counteract the richness of the tidbits. When guests repaired to individual tables, they found on their seats, a brief printed history of the Forman vineyard with tasting notes, as well as color maps of the Napa and Sonoma Wine Country on which to locate this and other producers of the evening. Henry's personal greeting and welcoming toast enlarged on the printed materials with some intimate reminiscences of his dealing with the wineries at hand.

Appetizers were matched to a Harrison Napa Chardonnay of the same year--a slightly less acidic and buttery blend to complement a quartet of complex flavors: a crunchy soft-shell crab; a souffle-centered shrimp ball in a deep-fried crust; a mellow bean curd stuffed with seafood and napped in tangy black bean sauce; and a steamed pork dim-sum meatball. Short printed notes detailed the location and fermentation history of the wine to the satisfaction of the most meticulous oenophiles in the room.

Henry twinkingly presented a 'win-in-your-face rich wine,' a Kistler Vinehill Sonoma, 1992; it arrived with the first of our four entrees; a pile of translucently pink shrimp sauteed in sheer white sauce. Plump rounds of grey sole garnished with red bell peppers and hreen broccoli florets, floated on a Long Napa Chardonnay 1991. Moist-centered thick cuts of crisp=skinned chicken came with a Silverado Mapa Reserve, 1992. Finally, beef strips sparked with asparagus spears and snow peas were accompanied by a particularly heady Sonoma Cutter Les Pieres, 1991.

Each course brought a page or two of printed information illuminating the history of the preseting vineyard and the particulars of the wine in the glass--including the Chateau Woltner Frederique, Napa 1992, that enhanced a dessert of fresh melon slices over lime sherbert.

Enjoy future special dinners--one each month--by calling Chiam (212) 371-2323 for the date and projected menu if you are in or coming to New York City. Expect the cost to be $65.00 to $85.00, depending upon the food and wines offered. At other times, take advantage of Henry's deliberately down-priced wine policy. At Chiam it is priced at 100% over wholesale plus $3.00. At Cafe Evergreen it is exactly whlesale plus $3.00--far less than the customary triple-pricing common in the New York restaurant scene.

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