Wine and Vietnamese food marry surprisingly well

Kate Chynoweth

Trying to find the right wine to drink with Vietnamese food― redolent of coconut milk, lemon grass, tamarind, and hotchiles ― can be a hit-and-miss game. It's enough to send mostof us careening back to the beer list or the teapot. But Eric Banh,who co-owns Monsoon Restaurant with his sister, Sophie Banh (withwhom he also splits chef duties), is showing his patrons anotherway, and it's all about wine.

"Beer will always be around because of price point andconvenience, but it doesn't do much for the flavor of the food,"says Eric, sitting in the spare, light-filled dining room of theBanhs' restaurant on a tree-lined street in Capitol Hill. "And teacan be too tannic to pair well with Vietnamese flavors. The rightwine, on the other hand, actually makes our food taste better."

It's this conviction that inspired Eric to expand Monsoon's winelist, which started off as a very basic selection of 10 reds and 10whites but now offers more than 130 wines that he handpicks. It'salso what motivated him to start his Art of Pairing EducationalFood & Wine Pairing Dinner Series, complete with a nine-coursemeal (including dessert), each course paired with a differentwine.

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 feltafter leaving Vietnam for Canada with his family when he was 14."In Vietnam my mom used to make a dish of beef and tomatoes thatwas my favorite as a kid," he says. "It tasted so good. But once wegot to Canada, she could never duplicate it. Now I know it'sbecause we didn't have the right tomatoes."

Executing classic Vietnamese dishes to the Banhs' exactingstandards is something of a mandate at Monsoon. But tradition getsa fresh twist, often from the addition of Northwest ingredients."It's so hot in Vietnam that there's really no such thing asmushrooms, so in the beginning, we never worked with morels andchanterelles," Eric says. "Eventually I became more open-minded andrealized that being a good chef is knowing what to buy."

As the Banh duo started experimenting with new ingredients andtechniques, creating a cooking style that would lead to local andnational culinary acclaim, Eric also began to experiment withpairing wines with the food coming out of the kitchen.

"You can't learn about pairing wine from books," Eric says. "Youliterally have to taste food and wine together." He admits that hispairings weren't always successful in the beginning. But, he says,tasting less-than-perfect combinations is the only way to find thegood ones.

It took him a while, for example, to find the right white wineto go with green papaya salad, a classic Vietnamese dish that'sboth sour and sweet. "I love Pinot Gris from Oregon, but it tastestoo sharp and dry with this salad," Eric says. "The flavors blendtogether much better with a wine with more sweetness, like GermanRiesling." He stresses that the fresh, light style of mostVietnamese food works best with white wines like Riesling andChenin Blanc.

Reinvent the rules

Eric's attempts to pair heavy red wines with Vietnamese foodwere 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 redwines, which work better with fatty foods that help cut thetannins. Early on, I started venturing into heavy CabernetSauvignon from Washington State, and the pairing just didn'twork."

Fortunately for red-wine lovers, this doesn't mean all whitewine all the time. A lighter-style Pinot Noir or a rosé can bean excellent match for full-bodied Vietnamese dishes, like thosemade with coconut milk. "The tannins in lighter-style reds are notso 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 rightbottle: Eric cautions that Pinot Noir from Oregon can be too heavyfor a good pairing, while the French version, red Burgundy, tendsto be lighter and pairs well.

Eric's own discovery of wine and his self-educated approach fuelhis interest in empowering his patrons to experiment and find whatthey prefer. The best part: There are no rules. "When you find agood match, you don't have to be a wine enthusiast to know rightaway," Eric says. "You just think, This is it!"

INFO: Dinner reservations are recommended at MonsoonRestaurant ($$$; lunch Tue-Fri, dinner Tue-Sun; 615 19th Ave. E.; www.monsoonseattle.com or206/325-2111) 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).

Matches made

White wines with good acidity, like Chenin Blanc, as well asthose with a touch of sweetness, like Riesling and rosé, pairwell with many of the flavors in Eric and Sophie Banh's Vietnamesecooking. With reds, go for lighter-style varietals, like PinotNoir.

Riesling or Grüner Veltliner. Pick up the hints ofsweetness and sourness in classic Vietnamese flavor combinations,like the fish sauce, honey, and fresh lime in Monsoon's greenpapaya salad. Rosé. Has just enough tannin to work with rich, creamydishes made with coconut milk.

Chenin Blanc. A nice complement to the rich, caramelized,slow-cooked flavors that result from clay-pot cooking. Works bestin its French form, Vouvray.

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