My supply of chasselas was trending dangerously low even before I reserved the one meal designed to test the limits of its versatility as a jack-of-all–trades wine. It’s all well and good to pair chasselas with fondue, raclette or even a ripe Vacherin Mont d’Or but with arbol, habañero and chipotle chiles? With lime juice? Who knows?
The wine: Dézaley, La Pertuisane 2014, J. & M. Dizerens, Lavaux, Vaud: Pale straw gold in color. Honey, dried herbs and pierre à fusil on the nose. Very slight reduction. Palate is fullish and nicely textured with more honey, quince and mealy pear on the palate. Very easy drinking and quite satisfying all by itself.
The test kitchen for this examination was the acclaimed San Francisco restaurant Cala, renowned for its interpretation of the seasons, mostly through local vegetables and seafood. It is the first enterprise for chef/owner Gabriela Cámara outside of Mexico City where her MeroToro and Contramar restaurants are celebrated fixtures.
The menu is unusual in several ways: first, while meat is not excluded entirely, it plays a supporting role when it appears at all. Second, because there is very little meat, there is a corresponding lack of animal fat used for cooking. This gives the menu a brightness and freshness that is uncommon in most Mexican restaurants. Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic commented: “I haven’t been to every Mexican restaurant in the United States, but I’ve been to many that were considered the best. From my experience none can beat the sophistication of Cala . . .” It’s fair to say that this is a lighter, dare I say healthier, style of Mexican food. Having said that, it does present significant challenges for wine.
The halibut ceviche with kohlrabi, serrano and pepitas is a great example of what I mean. This classic ceviche rolled out small chunks of impeccably fresh fish, paper-thin, silver dollar-sized slices of kohlrabi, toasted pumpkin seeds, serrano oil and a potentially wine killing bath of lime juice. Not to fear, the Dézaley was more than a foil to the bright acidity and saline, tide-pool flavors. It even grew and revealed a greater honeyed complexity than its savory beginnings promised. Indeed, an almost mezcal-like smokiness emerged with a fattened palate.
Next up, tostada with mussels, carnitas and shaved egg was as advertised—a crunchy fried corn tortilla sporting plump, briny mussels, fried pork, shaved egg and the threading theme of the evening—fresh lime juice. I questioned the balance of the dish as the lime juice obliterated the flavor of pork (it lacking fat) while highlighting the mussels. The chasselas once again flourished in this acidic environment by morphing from savory and flinty to honeyed and textured. I was actually amazed at this display of legerdemain.
Before long a fresh bean salad with pico de gallo and chia arrived to oohs and aahs. With the kind of reverence reserved for viewing the royal jewels, a pristine collection of fresh shelling beans was placed at table center. Each colorful bean was cooked to creamy perfection—nary a wrinkle in sight—with just the right amount of the toothsome give all bean lovers love. Fennel pollen and cilantro flowers punctuated this gorgeous plate with haunting flavors and eye appeal. Needless to say the Dézaley held its own again and actually helped to cut (maybe absorb) the citrus-based tang.
The only real dud of the evening—squid and corvina frito mixto—failed only because its coating suffered the indignity of a below-recommended-temperature bath in lukewarm oil. Its batter was leaden, gummy and in the process of detaching itself from the otherwise flavorful seafood. The dish came with an arbol salsa that was spicy hot but balanced and subtle. Thankfully chasselas goes very well with improperly fried seafood.
Masa croquetas with queso fresco, corn and poblano quickly redeemed the kitchen and its deep-fry skills. Beautifully fried balls of fresh masa were studded with sweet corn and fresh Mexican cheese. The earthy, vegetal poblano salsa was a perfect compliment and dipping medium. This dish brought out the minerally, savory side of the Dézaley which also demonstrated an undercover thirst slaking ability.
A showstopping, banana leaf-wrapped Mussel tamal with serrano and leeks followed. A loosely formed cloud of fresh masa provided the perfect steamy environment for mussels in their shell to release all of their sea-gotten flavor. Picking through corn and banana-leaf infused mussels was almost as satisfying as the spoonfuls of seafood-tinged masa pudding. Heaven on earth and a paradigm of the tamale genre. By this time the chasselas was gone but not forgotten. It would have been delicious.
Grilled little gems with domingo rojo beans were an afterthought. A lightly grilled head of little gem lettuce still retained a crunchy freshness. The tiny domingo rojo beans were a curious accompaniment but were tasty in their own right. I found this dish underseasoned and not so well thought out.
Analysis: Switzerland does Mexican well. Chasselas really does deserve credit for its versatility and its sheer deliciousness with all sorts of food. My thinking, by transporting coals to Newcastle (wine to California), was to test the local fare (ethnic and otherwise) against some of our most cherished wine. Chasselas, you done good.
Cala 149 Fell Street San Francisco, California
(415) 660-7701 calarestaurant.com