Top Pair: Going to the Dogs with Hush Puppies and Champagne

top pairing
by Jeff Harding with photos by Will Blunt
Vol. 21
March 2012   

We’re no stranger to Champagne and fried food, a classic high-low pairing combination. But at Bouligny Tavern in New Orleans, Chef Mike Isolani and Sommelier Cary Palmer achieve new heights, both in complexity and originality.

Small plates and bar food are often a second thought in a tavern setting, where quick and easy fried foods keep greasy fingers happy, and bread often is merely a convenient delivery mechanism for meat, cheese, or spreads. Under Bouligny Tavern’s Chef-Owner John Harris, it’s never that simple.

In Isolani’s hands, frying isn’t greasy, and bread isn’t a vehicle: it's the stuff of high-low culinary dreams. To find a bready companion for his for his delicious duck liver pâté, Isolani looks no further than the classic Southern hush puppy. Said to have originated with hunters or Civil War soldiers, who threw fried corn meal dough to their dogs to keep them quiet, the hush puppy is a down-home comfort food, ripe for highbrow interpretation. And to help elevate the dish, Palmer pops open bottles of fruity, finessed rosé Champagne to pair with the puppies.

Sommelier Cary Palmer

Wine Director and General Manager Cary Palmer keeps up with Chefs Harris and Isolani with his ever-changing wine selections, cocktail creations, and keen eye for detail (he even helped design the space!). Hosting a moderate-size list while covering all the bases is no easy task, but Palmer obviously has a knack for building a wine book which intrigues oenophiles, but isn’t too esoteric for the casual, at-home vibe of Bouligny Tavern.

Dumangin et Fils Brus Rosé Champagne, NV
Duck Liver Pâté, Duck Fat Hushpuppies, and Tomato Jam
Pairing Note

A little pyramid of hush puppies arrives with a quenelle of pâté: comfort food done right. But upon closer inspection, and with a little instruction from the server, things quickly get interesting. Break apart the hush puppy, spread on a little pâté, and dip it in tomato jam (eating with your hands is always more fun). The pâté's earthiness of cinnamon, Cognac, and truffle oil contrast with the heavenly light crunch of the hush puppy, and the sweet acidity of the tomato jam is like a savory, fancy ketchup made with nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla.

But add Palmer’s selection of rosé Champagne, and things go to the next level. It’s like the curtain rises and the soloist now has a gospel choir joining in. This full-bodied bubbly is a balanced blend of all the elements in the dish: funk, fruit, toasty yeast, and spice. The wine spends some time on the lees, giving the unctuous funk of duck liver some background singers, and the bubbles and chill balance the richness from frying the batter in duck fat. Conductor, cue the tambourines!

The secret to Palmer’s rosé? Pinot Meunier. This grape is the Rodney Dangerfield of Champagne grapes—it gets no respect. Some have called it “hamburger helper for Champagne,” and Sommelier Brent Kroll describes Pinot Meunier as “a rebellious teenager” to the mom and dad of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But here the addition of the red wine is what fleshes out the blend, adds the beautiful salmon color, and contributes to its fruitiness. As full-bodied as Dumangin et Fils makes this Brut Champagne, there’s still plenty of finesse. And while it’s got a lovely voice on its own, it’s also content to back up a lead singer: adding depth in spice, big cherry fruit, and a hint of sous-bois earthiness, cleansing your palate and leading you back to the main stage for an encore.

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