Trying to find the right wine to drink with Vietnamese food ― redolent of coconut milk, lemon grass, tamarind, and hot chiles ― can be a hit-and-miss game. It's enough to send most of us careening back to the beer list or the teapot. But Eric Banh, who co-owns Monsoon Restaurant with his sister, Sophie Banh (with whom he also splits chef duties), is showing his patrons another way, and it's all about wine.
"Beer will always be around because of price point and convenience, but it doesn't do much for the flavor of the food," says Eric, sitting in the spare, light-filled dining room of the Banhs' restaurant on a tree-lined street in Capitol Hill. "And tea can be too tannic to pair well with Vietnamese flavors. The right wine, on the other hand, actually makes our food taste better."
It's this conviction that inspired Eric to expand Monsoon's wine list, which started off as a very basic selection of 10 reds and 10 whites but now offers more than 130 wines that he handpicks. It's also what motivated him to start his Art of Pairing Educational Food & Wine Pairing Dinner Series, complete with a nine-course meal (including dessert), each course paired with a different wine.
Dare to pair
If the fancy wine list makes you doubt Monsoon's authenticity, think again: The food here is as good and genuine as it gets. That's partly because Eric is a stickler for traditional flavors ― a trait he attributes to the culinary bewilderment he felt after leaving Vietnam for Canada with his family when he was 14. "In Vietnam my mom used to make a dish of beef and tomatoes that was my favorite as a kid," he says. "It tasted so good. But once we got to Canada, she could never duplicate it. Now I know it's because we didn't have the right tomatoes."
Executing classic Vietnamese dishes to the Banhs' exacting standards is something of a mandate at Monsoon. But tradition gets a fresh twist, often from the addition of Northwest ingredients. "It's so hot in Vietnam that there's really no such thing as mushrooms, so in the beginning, we never worked with morels and chanterelles," Eric says. "Eventually I became more open-minded and realized that being a good chef is knowing what to buy."
As the Banh duo started experimenting with new ingredients and techniques, creating a cooking style that would lead to local and national culinary acclaim, Eric also began to experiment with pairing wines with the food coming out of the kitchen.
"You can't learn about pairing wine from books," Eric says. "You literally have to taste food and wine together." He admits that his pairings weren't always successful in the beginning. But, he says, tasting less-than-perfect combinations is the only way to find the good ones.
It took him a while, for example, to find the right white wine to go with green papaya salad, a classic Vietnamese dish that's both sour and sweet. "I love Pinot Gris from Oregon, but it tastes too sharp and dry with this salad," Eric says. "The flavors blend together much better with a wine with more sweetness, like German Riesling." He stresses that the fresh, light style of most Vietnamese food works best with white wines like Riesling and Chenin Blanc.
Reinvent the rules
Eric's attempts to pair heavy red wines with Vietnamese food were less successful. "We don't have butter in Vietnam," he says. "All our food is lean and fresh. It's tough to match with some red wines, which work better with fatty foods that help cut the tannins. Early on, I started venturing into heavy Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington State, and the pairing just didn't work."
Fortunately for red-wine lovers, this doesn't mean all white wine all the time. A lighter-style Pinot Noir or a rosé can be an excellent match for full-bodied Vietnamese dishes, like those made with coconut milk. "The tannins in lighter-style reds are not so powerful that they overpower the food," Eric says.
Of course, the wide array of styles within a single varietal, such as Pinot Noir, can make it complicated to find the right bottle: Eric cautions that Pinot Noir from Oregon can be too heavy for a good pairing, while the French version, red Burgundy, tends to be lighter and pairs well.
Eric's own discovery of wine and his self-educated approach fuel his interest in empowering his patrons to experiment and find what they prefer. The best part: There are no rules. "When you find a good match, you don't have to be a wine enthusiast to know right away," Eric says. "You just think, This is it!"
INFO: Dinner reservations are recommended at Monsoon Restaurant ($$$; lunch Tue-Fri, dinner Tue-Sun; 615 19th Ave. E.; www.monsoonseattle.com or 206/325-2111) and required for the Art of Pairing Educational Food & Wine Pairing Dinner Series (Mar 7, May 16, Jul 11, Aug 29; $80 per person per evening).
White wines with good acidity, like Chenin Blanc, as well as those with a touch of sweetness, like Riesling and rosé, pair well with many of the flavors in Eric and Sophie Banh's Vietnamese cooking. With reds, go for lighter-style varietals, like Pinot Noir.
Riesling or Grüner Veltliner. Pick up the hints of sweetness and sourness in classic Vietnamese flavor combinations, like the fish sauce, honey, and fresh lime in Monsoon's green papaya salad. Rosé. Has just enough tannin to work with rich, creamy dishes made with coconut milk.
Chenin Blanc. A nice complement to the rich, caramelized, slow-cooked flavors that result from clay-pot cooking. Works best in its French form, Vouvray.