"My boyfriend is taking me to Schwa tonight for my birthday. Would you recommend a couple bottles to bring?" - Anonymous
First of all - Happy Birthday! This request is timely since just this morning I was reading Alan Richman's touching story about Schwa's Chef-Owner, Michael Carlson. The article made me think about my last and only dinner there so I've had Schwa on my brain all day.
Pairing wine with avant garde/molecular gastronomy inspired food from restaurants like Schwa can be somewhat challenging as each course can vary so much in flavor, cooking method, texture and temperature from one to the next. You may need a light white for the first course, a light red for the second and then switch back to a white for the third, etc. The courses are not as progressive and linear as it is with traditional cuisine where one wine can easily pair with several different dishes in a row. And then there is of course taking into account the preferences and tastes of the guest. I find that when it comes to avant garde food, sommeliers can get really creative and utilize unknown grapes and regions and they can also reach into their bag of tricks and pull non wine items such as beer, sake, cocktails or add liqueurs, bitters and other aromatics to wine to make them more complimentary to the dishes. It's hard to pinpoint a style of wine that would pair well across the board with avant garde gastronomy but overall I would say that the wine must have a high degree of acidity in order to keep the pairing clean and not overwhelming. I would stay away from heavy, oaky and buttery whites and over ripe, extracted and alcoholic reds since they tend to mask the intricate flavors and textures of food. Think about a piece of sous vide pork. Sous vide is a way to cook the meat without imparting the flavor of the cooking method. The chef wants you to simply taste the purity and texture of the pork . To pair this with an oaky, buttery chard would be like serving the same piece of pork with broccoli covered with cheddar sauce. You would totally miss the point. A good wine pairing should accent the flavor of food and not take away from it - one must not over power the other but create symmetry in your mouth where you can't tell if you are tasting the wine or the food. It's sort of like when you put on a piece of clothing that fits perfectly and it feels like it's a part of your body. With certain pairings a heavy oaky white or big, ripe red is brilliant but I don't see a place for these types of wines with Chef Carlson's food.
I took a look at the menu available on the Schwa website and was not sure if you were going for the 3 or 9 course so I'm making recommendations for both. Granted, a few of the dishes I have not tried therefore these selections are based on my past experience at Schwa and the ingredients listed on the menu.
A fresh, lively and crisp Prosecco would be a perfect way to start since it is a celebration. Prosecco does not have the toasty or nutty flavors of a Champagne which is ideal since you want something light and clean for the amuse, anchovies or the Hendrick's gin course. Look for Bisol, Nino Franco or Col Vetoraz.
Wostyntje Mustard Ale
This beer tastes like a mustard covered pretzel and would be ideal with the beer cheese soup for the 3 course menu
Federspiel Wachau Gruner Veltliner - Austria
This is my white recommendation as it is round and soft texturally with a hint of tropical fruit yet balanced with acidity. "Federspiel" is one of three Wachau specific quality designations for dry white wine: Steinfeder (light, racy), Federspiel (elegant, medium body), and Smaragd (ripe, full-bodied). Too light of a wine won't do here - you need something with a touch of weight but not too sweet. Alsace Pinot Gris or Riesling would work provided it is not too sweet. The fruitiness would counter the savory/sweet quality of the French onion soup, the acidity and white pepper flavors would play well with the white asparagus, the richness would enhance the smokiness of the bacon and molasses flavor of the black garlic and the weight and tropical flavors would compliment the smoke and watermelon from the cobia. If you can't find Federspiel then a regular Gruner would work as well. Suggested producers are Prager, Pichler, Domane Wachau, Hirtzberger and Knoll.
Bierzo - Spain
For the beef tongue, rabbit and pork this high acid yet fruit forward red would do the trick. It behaves very much like a Burgundy as it has the earth and game component of a Pinot Noir with a little more heft and weight. It's 100% Mencia which may be related to Cabernet Franc. The wines from this appellation feature a touch more acidity so it's nice with pickled meats and lighter game. The wine also tends to play more in the back ground so you can still appreciate the purity of molecular gastronomy cooking methods. I recommend the Petalos from Descendientes de Jose Palacios. If you go with the Kona Kampachi then continue drinking the Gruner.
Santa Julia Tardio Late Harvest Torrontes
I'm not sure what the cheese or dessert course may include but this is a very versatile dessert wine that will go with a wide range of sweets and savories. I discovered this on my recent trip to Argentina and absolutely fell in love with it. It's sweet yet not cloying with flavors of honey, apricots, orange peel and lime blossoms.