Catfish and viognier.

April 27th, 2009


Pecan Coated Catfish.

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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4 Responses to “Catfish and viognier.”

  1. Dylan Says:

    I understand what you mean by omnivore. I consider myself a foodie with range. I don’t scoff at any particular protein, grain, fruit, or vegetable. They’re all well worth exploring in their different preparations. The way I look at any flavor exploration is the same–give it at least one honest try. It’s okay to not like things after having had them. I just can’t stand when there’s snobbery behind wines or foods that have never been experienced to receive such reactions.

  2. The Wife Says:

    For fear of being judged and labeled a “snob”, let me explain my “aversion” to catfish, which has more to do with my overactive imagination than with me being a snob.

    I grew up in downtown Los Angeles (hardly snob breeding grounds) and I spent a lot of time playing in MacArthur park. Throughout my childhood, I would see the locals fishing in the lake in the middle of MacArthur park. I would sneak a peek into their white buckets and see fish with whiskers and the catch of the day was always catfish. Several years later, the main inhabitants of MacArthur park were drug addicts and homeless people. I found out from the local police department, that the lake was drained from time to time to fish out (no pun intended) the skeletons and corpses of drug addicts and homeless people who fell into the lake. Here’s where my over active imagination kicks in. Catfish are bottom feeders, there were dead bodies at the bottom of the lake, catfish nibbled at those bodies. I am indirectly eating homeless people at the bottom of a lake. See where the active imagination kicks in?

  3. Larry Stanton Says:

    Whew, “the Wife” just put a damper on my high school memories of the San Jacinto Inn, site of the battlefield where Santa Ana was defeated and Texas was born. Back in the late fifties it was one of THE places in which to eat. No more than an hour from downtown Houston, SJI was famous for its “all you can eat” dinners…I believe it was $4.50 back then. Man you could get fried catfish, fried ‘taters, fried oysters(raw ones too), fried chicken, fried Gulf Coast prawns, Texas fried bread…the whole sheebango. At $4.50 a head, the waiters probably hated to see us coming. But Viognier? Heck, besides never hearing of it back then, no self respecting Texan would go to SJI and order anything but Lone Star or Pearl beer. While at UT, we’d go home sometimes just to fill up at SJI, and I guarantee you, Viognier may be good with fried catfish, but Lone Star is the best. Long necks to be precise. There isn’t anything that can cut grease like a Lone Star long neck, and that is something I’ve never heard said about Viognier. Pearl was a close second…as a grease cutter, I mean.

    But then “the Wife” spoiled all that for me with her bottom of the pond story. It made me think of my dogs, who after a fine meal come and sit next to me while passing the most horrible gas one should ever have to endure. “The Wife’s” comments made me think of “you are what you eat” …or in the case of Cazadora & Cartucho, Cerro Prieto Vineyard dogs, “you are what you smell”. She might want to think about that next time her dog fills the room with green air. That smell is tiny little particles of dog gas going up the nose to the olfactory sensors. And the gas actually is part of, well… you know what.

    The point: if one looks hard enough there are dozens of scenarios like the two mentioned above, and true, if you think about them you won’t like fried catfish, and you may end up not liking your dog, etc. But the real bottom line here is the Viognier. Arthur, you show me an article which claims Viognier cuts grease half as much as Lone Star, I just might consider changing drinking habits next time I fry up some fresh catfish, farm raised on turkey entrails. For “the wife”: next time you see catfish on the menu near a stream or at a clear water lake, trust me…it will be just fine…with a Lone Star, tho.

  4. Arthur Says:

    Hi Larry,
    I think Texas is growing a bit of Viogneir these days…