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Dining: Sipping into Reverse

Jack Smith

To the restaurant’s other diners, everything at our table no doubt appears in order. The crystal sparkles, the damask tablecloth is immaculate, and the sommelier hovers nearby. We look like just another happy couple about to enjoy a memorable evening at Daniel Boulud’s Restaurant Daniel, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

And indeed we are. However, we are feeling playful tonight—in the mood to order our meal out of order—and Philippe Marchal (the sommelier) and Boulud himself are prepared to indulge us. We are going to try a reverse pairing.

"It opens the way to new experiences, leading to previously unexpected combinations and interesting sequences. And for me it is simply more fun," Boulud says of the reverse pairing, an experience that the restaurant provides upon request to guests who prefer to choose their wines first, and then have the chef and sommelier suggest a menu to match those selections.

For Marchal, reverse pairings present both a challenge and the opportunity to demonstrate the variety and excellence of the wine cellar he has assembled at Restaurant Daniel, which comprises 1,500 selections from 15 countries. These wines range in price from $13 for a glass of Au Bon Climat Chardonnay 2006 to $10,000 for a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1990.

Our evening begins with Marchal inquiring about my oenological preferences and then suggesting that we begin with Champagne. "Champagne is the least intrusive of wines," he says. "And when reverse-pairing, your first wine can set the tone for those that follow."

I tell Marchal that I have an affinity for Champagnes with mild herbal flavors and light fizz; I enjoy Rieslings with a lot of minerality, but none that are overly dry or sweet; I gravitate toward classic Robert Parker–style reds that are intense and bursting with berry flavors; and I like fortified wines. Also, because I know of but have not tasted a particular South African wine called Klein Constantia, I express an interest in that as well.

Although there are no hard-and-fast rules to devising a reverse pairing, a sommelier is likely to work in the classic sequences: young to old, north to south, fresh to ripe, dry to sweet, and light to full. Marchal makes the selections based on these sequences and our preferences, and provides the list to Boulud. Shortly thereafter, the chef emerges from the kitchen to discuss the first course he plans to prepare. When he returns to the kitchen, my companion and I hoist our bubbly Pommery aloft. Wherever it leads, our reverse pairing has begun.

Boulud serves a delicate course of peekytoe-crab salad with our Pommery Brut Royal, and a chilled heirloom-tomato soup with a Tement Sauvignon Blanc 2007 from Austria. This course precedes a light-framed Albert Mann Riesling Cuvée Albert 2006 from Alsace. The wine’s stone-fruit and citrus notes cut through the heavier flavors of kataifi-wrapped langoustines with corn and roasted pork belly in bacon jus.

Our next wine, a Bouchard Père & Fils Chassagne-Montrachet Rouge 2003—a red from an appellation known for its whites—arrives with a pleasant surprise: The wine’s berry aromas and intense flavors have prompted Boulud to prepare Maine halibut baked in fig leaves, as well as a paupiette of black sea bass. The fourth pairing, however, is somewhat predictable. The chef responds to the Château Cantenac Brown Margaux’s earthy, kirschlike overtones with a roasted duck breast dressed in Bing cherries, green almonds, and wilted arugula. Marchal next pours the South African Klein Constantia. The honey and almond notes of the late-harvest wine stand up well to the foie gras served with peppered mango, Marcona almonds, and blackberries.

Our final wine of the evening is the Maury La Coume du Roy 1998 from Languedoc, a portlike libation, with an array of mini fruit desserts and chocolate desserts: a coconut-and-pineapple-curry pastry; a pastry with mango, sesame, and ginger; a hazelnut mousse with salted caramel ice cream; and finally a chocolate brownie with mascarpone and Ethiopian coffee ice cream. It all commingles into a long and very satisfying finish.

Restaurant Daniel, 212.288.0033, www.danielnyc.com

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