Did you know that Philadelphia has been designated as the BYOB capital of North America?
USA Tourist News Magazine, DGuides.com and Zagat all tout this distinction as a reason to visit the area. Many of us take the availability of outstanding BYOB restaurants for granted, but I think it is worth celebrating our good fortune. How much can one save going to a BYOB? Restaurant markup for wine can range from 200% to 325% with wines in the lower tier generally marked up the most. Thoughtful pairing of wines with a great local BYOB restaurant can produce truly memorable and very affordable dining experiences.
I recently had just such an experience at one of our best local BYOB's, Gilmore’s in the heart of West Chester. Peter Gilmore, former Chef de Cuisine at Le Bec Fin for 22 years, is celebrating his 10th anniversary as chef/owner along with his lovely wife Sue. His longevity speaks to the consistent high quality and creativity he brings to the table. His food is divine and worthy of a splurge on the wine. Rather than wait for an open weekend reservation, which can be tough to get, I prefer to go to Gilmore's on a week night. I enjoyed a thoroughly relaxing evening of fine food, wine and conversation for less than $50 on a Tuesday. Thanks to BYOB's, I go out more and enjoy the company of friends without the work of cooking or the guilt of overspending.
My quest for that evening was to find an affordable wine with a flavor profile that matches the chef's talent, and get the wine at a great price. I opted for what I think is a State Store bargain: the 2007 Saintsbury Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir for $25. This Carneros beauty, with flavors of plums and cherries, is so nicely balanced, it's a rarity at that price. Wine.com offers this wine at $45. It could easily be priced well over $100 on a restaurant menu. While they may be different in style, I chose a New World Pinot Noir (US, AUS, NZ) because they are generally less expensive than the Old World Burgundies of France.
Perhaps the most frequently used adjective to describe Pinot Noir is “elegant”. For winemakers, it is one of the most challenging wines to produce. In California there's a saying: "God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir." Why is it so difficult? Winemaking has two phases, cultivation and vinification, and Pinot is difficult in both areas. The grapes have very thin skins making them more fragile and susceptible to frost, diseases and pests. Many vintners won't even pick the grapes after 10 in the morning because they're just too sensitive! When it's ready for fermentation, Pinot can actually go through 2 different pre-fermentation steps to develop the aromas and flavors. It takes an experienced winemaker to craft this wine and know how to turn this grape into liquid velvet. Because fruit yields are low and processing is a bit more labor intensive, Pinot tends to be pricier for the good stuff.
This particular Tuesday night, Stanly Ranch in hand, I was ready for something good. Since my last visit, Chef Gilmore had changed the menu into 3 divisions: small, medium and large plates. I like this idea more than the tapas approach where you never know quite how much to order. I was hungry so I opted for 1 medium and 1 “Grandes" portion. The Pinot was opened to let it breathe. It paired beautifully with our first course, a complimentary amuse bouche of Salmon Tartare nestled in an oversized silver spoon. For an appetizer I chose the 12-hour Pork Belly in Sauterne Poached Apples. It was both heavenly and decadent, as well as Pinot friendly. The sauce brought out the inherent fruitiness of the wine; the tender pork complemented its perfectly balanced dryness and acidity.
The next course was a breast of chicken stuffed with truffles in a Madeira sauce. It was accompanied by a truffled mac-n-cheese. Wow! The earthiness of the truffles made the soft tannins in the Pinot Noir sing and made me completely sated. I said to my friend, "That’s what good food and wine pairings are all about: when one or more ingredients in the food amplifies the flavor profile of the wine." It’s like listening to great music with and without a subwoofer. You can enjoy the music either way but when you add those bass notes, you can feel it too!
When it came time for dessert I was a no-show. I hated to pass up one of pastry chef Frank Hurley's divine creations. Maybe next time.
You can imagine what a dinner of this quality would have cost at the Four Seasons. Many of us would be hard pressed to justify that expense on a Tuesday night but fortunately we don't have to. We are blessed to be living in the BYOB capital of North America. We have the luxury of creating a memorable week night out with friends right now, right here. No need to wait months for a special occasion or deny ourselves great food and wine experiences on a frequent basis. So let's celebrate our good fortune and enjoy a great night out!