Barry Himel began his career with the Dickie Brennan Restaurant Group as a server at Palace Cafe. In 15 years, he's risen to the job of beverage director at Brennan's four French Quarter restaurants and has become a certified sommelier. At each restaurant, Himel creates wine lists to match menu offerings with both high- and low-end options. With the array of different offerings at the restaurants, he's had plenty of experience pairing wines with traditional and contemporary Creole dishes.
At Tableau, opened adjacent to Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, eggplant batons are a popular family-style starter. It's a simple dish of lightly fried aubergine sticks dusted with Creole-spiced powdered sugar. As an accompaniment, Himel recommends an uncomplicated, quaffable Italian white wine, Falesco Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone. The wine is a blend of trebbiano, malvasia and roscetto, and Himel says it "has nice acidity to cut through the fat component."
He also suggests a French Alsatian white, Albert Boxler pinot gris.
"The Boxler has the boldness and enough body to balance with the weight of the dish," he says.
"When it comes to pairing wine with food, there are many diverse elements to consider, but the similarity of the dish weight and the wine weight is one of the most basic prerequisites," he says.
Both wines also go well with grilled eggplant rounds, salads with eggplant croutons or eggplant Parmigiana, Himel says.
One crowd-pleasing dish that many people prepare at home is crabmeat ravigote. At the restaurant, he pairs it with Emile Beranger Pouilly-Fuisse from France. "It's an affordable Chardonnay with apple and pear character and some richness to complement the richness of the sauce," he says.
A challenging dish to match is traditional turtle soup with sherry. Himel says he'd pair it with a glass of sherry. "We have several (options) by the glass, but I would suggest La Cigarrera Manzanilla, Sanlucar de Barrameda," he says.
"Sherries are the stepchild of the wine family," he says. "They're amazing, unappreciated and pair well with so many foods." For those who prefer wine with the soup, he recommends a glass of sparkling wine or Champagne, such as Nicolas Feuillatte.
Sauvignon blanc is one of the best choices to match with salads. For the classic Lyonnaise salad with frisee lettuce, caramelized onion, fingerling potatoes and bacon topped with a poached egg, Himel selects Domaine Vacheron Sancerre from France's Loire Valley. "The wine is bright, clean, steely and mineral-driven with a lot of zippiness and energy," he says.
For eggs Sardou, Himel likes the grower Champagne Pierre Pallard Grand Brut or the Henriot Brut Rose. Another option is Patz & Hall Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir for its aromatics, excellent acidity and elegant style.
"Shrimp and grits is an easy dish to prepare at home for both brunch and as a main course," Himel says. "Our version involves serving the shrimp in a beer-spiked New Orleans-style barbecue sauce." Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse serves a slightly different version with jalapeno and cheddar grits cakes. For both of the dishes Himel chooses a Feraud-Brunel Cote-du-Rhone Villages for its soft fruit and low tannin profile.
"The wine shows some herbs de Provence and typical garrigue that pairs well with the dish," he adds. He also notes that the wine would go well with grits and grillades.
Himel stays in the Rhone for a pairing with grilled lamb chops, choosing a Domaine St. Damien "La Louisiane" from Gigondas, a grenache and mourvedre blend with that same regional herbal character.
At Palace Cafe, Himel turns to Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, to pair with the oysters pan roast with rosemary and herbed breadcrumbs.
Herb-roasted chicken is another dish common to both restaurants and home dinner tables. With Palace Cafe's rotisserie chicken, Himel recommends Hartford Court Russian River Valley Chardonnay or, for red wine lovers, Roco Winery Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley. "The pinot exudes a classic Burgundian personality, with nice aromatics, soft tannins, red fruit and a little spice."
For Palace Cafe's signature pepper-crusted duck breast with seared Hudson Valley foie gras, Himel likes Domaine Anne Gros & Jean-Paul Tollot's "Fontanilles" from Minervois in France's Languedoc-Roussillon wine region.
Crispy braised pork shank with warm sweet potato salad and a seasonal berry barbecue sauce calls for an elegant Mauritson Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, Himel says.
"The zin embodies blueberry and raspberry fruit with cocoa powder, a hint of vanilla subtle spice and soft, integrated tannins," he says. Himel also recommends Northstar, a medium-bodied wine with plum and other dark fruit from Washington's Columbia Valley.
At Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, the most popular dish on the menu is the house filet, which is topped with flash-fried oysters and served with creamed spinach, Pontalba potatoes and bearnaise. Himel selects Chakana Malbec from Lujan de Cuyo in Argentina's Mendoza province. "The wine has a meaty character with subtle spice, blue and black fruit and soft tannins," Himel says.
Bourbon House calls for wines to go with fried seafood platters including shrimp, oysters and catfish. Himel recommends either of two white wine styles: the rich, texured buttery style found in Lioco Chardonnay from Sonoma County or the Ramey Platt Vineyard from Sonoma Coast. The other style features bright acidity, minerality and stone fruit and is embodied by Chateau du Valmer Vouvray. Himel says the Vouvray goes well with boiled seafood.
At Antoine's Restaurant, sommelier Matthew Ousset helps guests choose wines to drink with its traditional Creole dishes, and he oversees a large wine cellar. Ousset began his career at the restaurant as a busboy 33 years ago, and worked his way up to waiter and now wine and beverage manager.
For seafood gumbo, Ousset selects Trimbach Riesling. "I'm also fond of the crisp Austrian Hermann Moser Gruner Veltliner Karmeliterberg, Kremstal with the gumbo," he adds, explaining that it balances gumbo's smokiness, spice and herbs.
Oysters Rockefeller, created at Antoine's in 1899, go with Louis Latour Meursault, Ousset says. He also recommends Chateau de l'Hyverniere, de Sevre et Maine, which is often paired with oyster dishes.
Ousset changes direction for Antoine's famous oysters a la Foch, which features fried oysters on foie gras-buttered toast with Colbert sauce. He recommends Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir — or Chateau Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling for those who prefer a white wine.
With shrimp remoulade, Ousset selects the Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone blanc with its blend of viongier and southern Rhone white varietals, offering citrus zest, some minerality and white pepper.
German Monchhof Robert Eymael Estate Riesling is Ousset's choice to pair with escargots a la Bourguignonne. The fruity, spicy and acid-balanced wine works well with the garlic, parsley, herbs and butter.
Crabmeat au gratin calls for Domaine Bachelet-Monnot Chassange-Montrachet, says Ousset, who likes the wine's brightness and lemon peel and dried apple character.
"I am also a fan of the more affordable Saint-Veran Domaine de la Croix Senaillet from the Maconnais," he says, citing its citrus and mineral notes.
A longstanding simple favorite are Antoine's pommes de terre soufflees, fried, puffed potatoes. What does Ousset suggest?
"Champagne, of course," Ousset says. He recommends Henriot Brut Souverain, Nicolas Feuillatte Brut or Piper Heidsieck.
Although many classic Creole dishes are seafood based and often pair best with white wines, Antoine's serves dishes that call for red wines.
Rare steak and red Bordeaux wines are a classic combination, and those wines can be costly. But there are affordable options.
Ousset suggests pairing beef entrees, particularly the Delmonico center-cut rib-eye steak with Grand Bateau, a Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot from Chateau Beychevelle, which Antoine's offers for $35.