When I was interviewing for a residency spot at Vanderbilt (waaaaay back in 1999), the senior resident took me out to a local joint for the traditional, off-campus lunch where you’re supposed to speak more openly and frankly about the training program and its faculty. We talked about the program and my personal career goals over a basket of battered and fried catfish chunks.
I suspect that most people don’t see catfish, this “fish of the south”, as the building block of haute cuisine. It may be that, like my wife, some may have an aversion to bottom-feeding fish, fearing a strong aroma or flavor (but they’ll eat carp, bass, tilapia, halibut, sole or snapper – go figure…). I don’t have that hang up, but then I’m an omnivore.
The city of South Pasadena has a number of rather good restaurants – all within walking distance of a light rail station. Most of these places are also within walking distance of our house. Firefly Bistro is one such place and we decided to have dinner there this past Friday as our bi-monthly effort to support the local economy.
Everything from the menu to the decor conveys a Southern feel. The place was rather slow on Friday . It was our first time there, but I know it to be popular so I chalked that up to the economy. The service was good and the staff was attentive and very clearly customer-oriented. Firefly Bistro has a very short wine list, but the $10 corkage is a redeeming element. All, if not most, of the wines are sold both by the glass and by the bottle.
We started off with the Spicy Butternut Squash Doughnuts and selected the Striped Bass with Virginia ham, for me, and the Pecan Coated Catfish for my wife – who was feeling adventurous. Once we’d ordered our dishes, it was time to find a wine that would suit the fish.
There is no denying that wild catfish tastes very different from farm-raised, but while the strong aromatics of wild catfish may put some people off, the textural character of the meat doesn’t change when the fish is farm-raised. It was this character that I kept in mind when looking for a suitable wine.
I remembered having a viognier and roussanne blend from Pelerin with the Sturgeon at Passionfish in Monterey a few years back. The richness of white Rhone wines tends to go with fish that is soft, fleshy and maybe a bit fatty in texture. The variable element is the spices, sauces and sides – like starches and vegetables.
I homed in on the 2007 Eberle viognier (Mill Road Vineyard, Paso Robles – a whopping 15% ABV!). It was fairly well balanced, though over-chilled at first: A strong honey character dominated the dried fruit aromas. It had some light sweetness balancing decent acidity. It was a nice, rich, weighty, wine – a good example of a warm climate version of the variety. (The honeysuckle and lychee references in the winery’s tech sheet remind me that these things are written to maximize appeal and sell the wine and don’ necessarily reflect the wine itself.)
Once it warmed up a bit, this viognier worked well with the catfish and the sides and spices of the dish – which was very rich and complex to begin with. It paired with the Striped Bass dish as well, although Bass is a lighter fish. I had counted on the wine to match the Virginia ham, which it did, while not conflicting with the bed of sautéed squash, spring tomatoes and basil.
In food and wine pairings, I seek out a synergy of flavors that comes about from the interaction of the food and wine. I want the two to produce something more than the sum of the parts. At minimum, I want textural and body compatibility. These dishes were wonderful. If I had to pick at them, I’d ask for less salt. However, this pairing was a tremendous synergistic success. This particular viognier just wrapped itself around the food and filled in all the blanks.
Most viognier pairing recommendations focus on shellfish and rich, spicy and exotic foods. I think that pairing it with catfish dishes will almost always meet with success. Others worth trying with viognier are: carp, tilapia, bass, halibut, sturgeon and similar fish. I would not exclude American Southern cooking, like creole and cajun.
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