Pairing Witness

Matching fine wines with Chinese-American food is a tricky business.

Serious as a surgeon, Nick Liang assembled our order of Peking duck tableside. He separated the boneless breast meat with spoons as if they were shiny, clicking claws, splitting bao (pale, steamed buns) into open-face platforms, smearing them with plum sauce, arranging hunks of flesh and shreds of cucumber on top. It was a performance of almost ritualized precision, a gesture with the patina of Old World tableside service.

But then, Liang is an Old World kind of guy. The manager of Uncle Yu’s at the Vineyard, a Livermore restaurant that fuses classic Chinese-American cooking with a serious appreciation for wine, has the demeanor of a seasoned French waiter. Assembling our Peking duck, he was dressed in a shirt and tie. But he had the air of a man who seems perpetually to be wearing a tuxedo.

In a way, the six-month-old restaurant is Liang’s stage, even as it builds off a formula forged by owners Jennifer and Daniel Yu. The couple opened the first Uncle Yu’s in Lafayette in the mid-1980s, followed by another in San Ramon in 1990. In affluent towns where Chinese food was a cheap, off-night option, the Yus offered plush amenities: service as crisp as the table linens, and wine lists far beyond blush Zinfandel and Chablis-in-a-box. The food didn’t stray from the Cantonese and Szechwan dishes — wonton soup, mu shu pork, kung pao chicken — with which Americans already felt comfortable.

Liang, who helped launch the San Ramon restaurant in 1990, persuaded his bosses the time was right to give their well-worn formula an even glossier sheen. Uncle Yu’s at the Vineyard is steeped in Liang’s own particular sense of the romance of wine. The walls are the russet brown of faded, twenty-year-old Burgundy, and white, jowly heads of the Buddhist goddess Kwan Yin gleam in a series of niches. A series of floor-to-ceiling bays hold hundreds of wine bottles laid on their sides, the labels perfectly aligned. You can imagine Liang meticulously straightening them.

It must have seemed like a slam-dunk to launch a wine-themed restaurant here, at a time when the Livermore Valley’s reputation as a wine destination is surging. But Liang’s tastes are unapologetically Eurocentric. His passion for Alsatian Rieslings and French Burgundys seeps out of his lovely wine list, bound in copper-colored leather.

Can a menu based on quick stir-fries punched up with sugar, vinegar, and chiles coexist with wines developed next to a cuisine that builds flavor through caramelization and slow braising? Does a La Tâche have anything to say to Szechwan beef? And will anyone in Livermore pay $1,200 (Uncle Yu’s price for a bottle of 1987 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti) to find out?

With the Peking duck on those bao as evidence, Liang has some delicious food to build wine pairings with. The duck itself was awesome: fat, gray hunks of velvet breast meat glowing with the sweet camphor of Chinese five-spice. It clearly had been hung to dry before roasting — the fat suffusing the meat tasted aged, with a delicate little funk like the smell of beef tallow.

But what to drink with it? Liang steered us to the list’s one Barolo, a 2001 Pio Cesare from Piemonte in northern Italy. It was a magnificent pairing. The wine’s new-cardboard smell and dry-sherry sweetness blended with the duck’s perfume like a shadow.

But considering that our bird-plus-wine pairing cost a hundred bucks, magnificence should have been merely a starting point. Its $32 price tag nudged the duck into splurge-y, Valentine’s Day or birthday-ending-in-zero territory. And at $60 for the half bottle of Barolo, we had an impulse to take the empty home, just to make us feel we’d gotten more for our money than a taste memory and a slight buzz.

To be honest, the pairing worked only when we blotted out one of the dish’s major components: the plum sauce. Pre-smeared on the bao, it was unavoidable unless we picked off the duck pieces. With its shrill blast of sweet and sour, the thick, dark sauce was problematic, making the wine seem sour and seriously out of balance.

Liang’s list offers about a hundred wines not only by the glass, but also by the three-ounce half-glass, a good choice for meals designed as a spread of multiple dishes. Still, it’s hard to imagine wines capable of spanning the variety of dishes you’re likely to find on your table at any one time. Our Barolo and a BBQ Chilean sea bass both suffered from the encounter. The wine lost its fragrance, and the coarse-flaked fish, painted with salty, yeasty-tasting miso, tasted muddy.

The effect on crispy salt-and-pepper calamari was more neutral. Coated with egg-white-inflated batter and deep-fried, the calamari pieces had a texture as smooth as cold butter, only softer. On its own, aged orange-peel-flavored beef was fantastic. It looked like a nest of twigs, wisps of beef thickly coated in batter that turned rusky in hot fat, before being glazed in a wok with a sugary coating that didn’t taste cloying. The beef had a melting softness inside its rugged coating, and dark pieces of dried tangerine peel exploded with perfume.

Appetizers like Laura Chenel goat-cheese wontons seem designed to indulge Liang’s love of Riesling, except that they had overly sweet garnishes. Smears of cheese were baked on crisp-fried wontons with tiny cubes of sweetened apple reminiscent of pie, and nestled into a salad tossed with a jarringly sweet dressing of honey and cider vinegar. Same with Chinese gougère, crisp-baked wontons filled with a pleasantly beery-tasting mixture of cream cheese and Gruyère, and drizzled with a thick, sugary glaze. Unsweetened steamed spinach dumplings (chopped shrimp, chicken, and mushrooms inside spinach pasta) were far better.

A glass of crisp-tasting rosé from Alois Lageder seemed wrong next to a Dungeness crab salad. The stringy crabmeat and chunks of underripe mango were fine, but the syrupy dressing and handful of candied walnuts made the wine taste prickly and alcoholic.

That salad might have tasted better with one of Liang’s favorite Rieslings, a 2004 Graacher Josephshöfer-Spätlese ($8.50 per half glass), a wine so good we wanted to dip our face into it. It tasted like viscous liquid sunshine, a flash of dazzling acidity filtered through a prism of sweetness. Liang’s description of it on the wine list is a juicy string of free association: “petrol, marmalade, and minerals — Baroque music.” It’s a lovely wine, and Liang’s passion is irrepressible. But the game of matching food and wine here has a complexity that approaches baroque. Chef Peter Tang knows his way around a wok, but the probability of ruining an expensive wine with a dish seared with extremes of sweet or sour can end up stressing you out. It’s enough to make you crave a Tsingtao.

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