By Allison Levine, Foodable Contributor
The proper pairing of wines with food is an art with any cuisine. But, extra challenges arise when pairing wines with ethnic flavors, such as Indian, Vietnamese and Thai. How do you pair wines to go with the bold flavors and spices while also offering selections that consumers are familiar with? At Sambar Indian Restaurant in Culver City, the wine list offers creative pairings without intimidating the customer.
The Flavors of Sambar
Sambar offers fresh, healthy dishes that are full of flavor and will satisfy a wide range of palates. Chef and Owner Akasha Richmond first tried sambar, a lentil-based vegetable stew with tamarind, spices, onions and toor dal, popular in South Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil cuisines. She worked as a personal chef for Michael Jackson and other celebrities and her love for Indian food continued to develop. Richmond opened her first restaurant, Akasha, seven years ago, which focused on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Sambar offers a variety of dishes and flavors from throughout India and Richmond has modernized the dishes by adding a fresh and seasonal California flair. Using six different spice blends, each dish on the menu is packed with flavors such as cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, vindaloo masala and more. As for the more spicy flavors, they are kept on the side so that customers can choose how much heat they want.
The Beverage Program at Sambar
When Sambar opened, the beverage program focused on beers and cocktails. There was a natural perception that beer is the ideal pairing with Indian food. And, mixologist Clare Ward created a great selection of both non-alcoholic and alcoholic cocktails using house-made syrups and infusions that complement the flavors of the food.
When it comes to wine, it is natural to think that sweet wines are what would be an ideal pairing for the flavors of Indian food. After all, the residual sugar in a wine can balance out the spices in ethnic cuisine. But at Sambar it is not as much about spice as it is about flavor. When General Manager Tim Garner took over the wine program a couple months after the restaurant opened, he initially thought that the flavors would be a challenge to pair with wine. But once Garner tasted Sambar’s flavors, “my job was easy,” he said. And, there is not a single sweet wine on the wine list.
The Wine Program
Garner began his restaurant career at Spago Hollywood where he was a server for 10 years. During this time, the Spago wine program was run by the late talented Wine Director Michael Bonaccorsi and inspired Garner’s interest in wine. Garner then worked at the former Bono’s Restaurant in Long Beach where he began buying wine. With this new responsibility, Garner began listening and paying attention and became entranced with the world of wine. Two months after Sambar opened, Garner arrived. The initial wine list paired well with the food but the selections were more esoteric and the customers did not connect with them. Over the past few months, Garner has transitioned the list, and the wine program is now flourishing. While the list is creative, it is not unrecognizable. It is more accessible now with known grapes, regions or producers. But, the list is not predictable or cliché.
“Creating a good wine list is not about ego, it is about conveying what will go with the food,” Garner explained. He has put together a small wine list with three sparkling wines, 15 white wines (of which 13 are available by the glass) and 11 red wines (of which 9 are available by the glass). The white wines include aromatic and crisp wines like Gruner Veltliner, Garganega, Vinho Verde, Vermentino, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and dry Riesling. As for the reds, while Garner is still working on this list, the focus is on cool climate wines. The red wines offered include Pinot Noir, Barbera, Grenache, Syrah, Sangiovese and even a Cabernet Sauvignon.
With almost all the wines available by the glass, customers can taste them before they order. Or they can order a few different glasses of wine to pair with the dishes instead of just one bottle. Because the food is served family style, it is a perfect option that everyone can choose a different wine to mix and match.
Pairing Wine and Food at Sambar
“It is a treat to pair wines with the food at Sambar and I get very excited when people try the wines,” Garner expressed. With bold flavors, the dishes naturally lend themselves to aromatic white wines. But, the flavors at Sambar are in balance and the dishes are savory but not too spicy. Because of this, red wines work with many of the dishes as well.
Garner selected a few of his favorite dishes to play around with wines. Interestingly enough, there is not one “right” answer when it comes to pairing the wines with the food at Sambar. This is what makes the list so much fun. In any given dish, there may be two or more white wines that will work with the dish, or perhaps both a white wine and a red wine will pair well.
The British Raj Chicken Kati Rolls, a street food wrap made with an egg-washed paratha, pickled onion, yogurt roasted chicken and pomegranate-mint and peach chutney, was a natural fit with a crisp rosé with strawberry notes. With rosé, the sweetness of the chutney shone but when paired with a Chenin Blanc, the acidity of the wine cut through the sweetness.
The Wild Isle Salmon with market greens, kachumber, crisp rice, chaat masala and a yogurt dressing paired beautifully with a fruity Pinot Noir but the minerality of the dry Riesling was also harmonious with the yogurt dressing.
The Truck Stop Goat Curry that is slow braised in a cumin, tomato, onion and goat yogurt sauce paired elegantly with the soft red fruit Syrah, allowing the spice of the curry to come through. But when paired with the dry Riesling, the aromas of cumin soared.
Playing with the food and wine pairing could go on and on. Garner encourages customers to try different wines. But customers do come in wanting specific wines, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon, and Garner tries to meet their needs while pairing the wine with the food. Garner’s passion and excitement is paying off as the sales of wine at Sambar are on par with cocktails and beer now. “It is a reward to see the process,” Garner concluded.