Several Lexington restaurants regularly apply for, and receive, the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine, given for “lists that offer a well-chosen selection of quality producers, along with a thematic match to the menu in both price and style.” Perhaps this sounds highfalutin', and it is, sort of, because it confers bragging rights for offering what every self-respecting fine dining establishment should offer anyway. Nevertheless, there is comfort in knowing that, when approaching a list of names, dates, languages and dollar signs, the choices have been vetted by unbiased authorities.
In the coming months, I intend to contact all of the award's Lexington recipients, but let's begin with Portofino, the sexy, contemporary Cal-Italian restaurant inspired by the cuisines of the Golden State and the Amalfi coast, and updated with locavore sensibilities here and there. Its wine list has grown as clientele have become more open to experimentation.
“We have gone from 40 bottles to more than 300 in the last 10 years,” Robby Carter, Portofino's business manager, told me over a recent lunch.
Perusing the menu options, I noticed that it was not just the food, but also the wines, that were trying on the local angle. Among the broad choices that spanned countries and appellations from the Old and New Worlds — with special emphasis on France, Italy and Napa Valley — were wines from nearby vineyards, designated by the “Kentucky Proud” logo beside them.
Which got me thinking: Although books galore and portable wallet cards (and the staff at Portofino) can give guidance on what to eat with well-known varietal wines, face it, the wine hybrids that do so well in Central Kentucky are noticeably neglected. This is because sometimes, to tell the truth, they are not very good. But sometimes they are, and yet few wineries or chefs have bothered to concoct or suggest dishes to show them to their best advantage.
For example, the most affordable Kentucky wine at Portofino is the 2005 Elk Creek Blue vidal blanc for $27, making a bottle still a potentially expensive experiment. Albeit that this, like all the restaurant's wines, is served in fine Riedel stemware, what if the local approach jars the palate?
Chef Nat Tate recommended a pairing for the vidal blanc that would maximize the culinary experience while illustrating the potential of the Bluegrass's re-emerging wine industry.
Portofino's Bibb salad — Kentucky limestone Bibb lettuce with crispy Sheltowee Farms mushrooms, pawpaws and local sorghum-grain mustard vinaigrette — is designed to showcase the light, slightly sweet character of the white vidal blanc grape. This item is not regularly on Portofino's menu, but its components — earthy oyster, shiitake and royal trumpet mushrooms, tropically sweet pawpaw fruit, and the vinegar-neutralizing properties of grain mustard — are often found in other dishes and point to the chef's general principles of pairing.