Wednesday, February 1, 2012

When the Wine Chose the Food: Casa Lever

Brunello di Montalcino, Poggio Antico, 1990

 We chose the restaurant.  They chose the wine.  The wine chose the meal.  That is how dinner went down last Friday at Casa Lever in New York.

We’ve all had those nights where we look at the menu and instantly feel a pang of desire for the fish dish.  Maybe it’s a nicely charred whole branzino.  Perhaps it is a meticulously prepared black cod in an envelope of paper-thin potatoes à la Daniel Boulud.  Or maybe it’s just a simple Colorado trout with cornmeal crust.

And against our better judgment, in addition to that light white fish, we also long for a hearty red wine.  Sometimes we give in, to the detriment of the wine and the fish, neither tasting exactly as they were intended.  But we eat happy nonetheless.

Friday was not one of those nights.  The wine won, and we were happy for it.

To celebrate John’s birthday, friends Dave and Elsa were taking us out to dinner.  Knowing that all parties involved love Italian food, and fresh off a rave review from a trusted friend, we suggested Casa Lever in midtown.

The last time I stepped foot in that restaurant space it was called the Lever House, a restaurant famously lampooned for its Star Trek circa William Shatner interior.  With its resurrection as an Italian restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised by the change of space.  The pod-like booths still line the left wall but the colors have softened, warm woods and gentle lighting make the restaurant genuinely inviting. 

Whole Wheat Gnocchi with Filet Mignon and Cherry Tomato Sauce
Dave is a lover of Italian wine so the list went right to him.  As fate would have it, one of the bottles on the list came from a winery where our dining companions had experienced one of the most memorable meals of their life.  After consulting with the sommelier in hushed tones, a bottle of the 1990 Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino was ordered up.  For fondly remembering the past and creating new happy memories, this would be a special bottle for the whole table.

To pair with a Sangiovese of this age, with a rounded mouth of dark fruit and a smooth lingering taste on the palate, there would be no fish entrée.  As intrigued as I was by the spaghetti with Santa Barbara sea urchin, crab, and peperoncino, it would have to wait for another visit.  This wine called for meat. 

I have to thank Dave and the wine for my main course selection.  Were it not for Dave’s wine choice I might never have ordered the whole wheat gnocchi, a dish that defied the imagery that “whole wheat” conjures of dense, health food. These morsels were fluffier than any pillow I’ve ever laid my head on.  But it was the sauce that truly complimented the nuance and depth of the wine- bits of filet mignon, seared just till cooked but still tender, were tossed in with an intensely concentrated sweet tomato sauce balanced with the sharp bite of grated Pecorino cheese. 

I am not often one for giving up control on a meal, but this time I was happy to oblige.  If Dave could choose the wine and the wine could choose the food, I might never drink hearty reds with fish again. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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