Friday, December 6, 2013
By Joe Appel
Portland's Bresca doesn't need a promotional boost. It has received glowing national press, and its 16 seats have been packed ever since it opened almost five years ago with diners who appreciate Krista Kern Desjarlais' intimate space, menu and service.
Bresca also has a terrific, unique and passionately composed wine list. This is not to be taken lightly. The lists at many of Portland's best-regarded restaurants are either afterthoughts or disappointingly staid repositories of well-known classics.
Even chef-owned spots have chefs who don't know enough or care enough about finding interesting and appropriate matches for their food.
Bresca isn't the only exception but it's in rare company, and whoever makes the wine-buying decisions at the Portland restaurants that pride themselves on their food ought to pay attention to Desjarlais' attitude and strategy.
Her attitude combines a strong personal investment in small wine makers; a passion for lesser-known varietals and wine-making regions that produce low-alcohol, food-friendly wines; and a commitment to politely, graciously nudging guests to step outside their comfort zones.
"We aim to have the guest invite us into their experience," she said. "We want to be more educated about the wine and help people and stand for what we stand for, but not make anyone feel uncomfortable about their wine knowledge."
This means diligent staff training based on respect for diners' intelligence and a refusal to play to the lowest common denominator.
"Sometimes I'll get up in arms and say I'm going to ban Chianti, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay," Desjarlais said. "People drink things they think they're supposed to like. An owner wants to give people what they want, while a chef wants to give them something good and perfectly matched. As a chef-owner, there's always that tension. But in the end, you know, we have very strong principles, but they're never forced upon the guest."
Desjarlais literally created a chart for her waitstaff so that a guest who asks for, say, a Pinot Grigio could be steered toward an unfamiliar wine that fits the conventional P.G. profile but offers something more. Also, the Bresca staff will offer tastes of both glass pours and bottle offerings – and "nine times out of 10, people say, 'that's great.' "
Desjarlais worked with traditional chefs through the 1980s. "They spoke to me about palate, about how things really work," she said. "It's the old-school upbringing, kind of the anti-(Anthony) Bourdain thing. They told me if you're going to work in the kitchen, you shouldn't be smoking or taking drugs, because you're never going to really understand this at a deep level."
At food's deep level, everything matters: Sourcing and producer, season and intention, contrast and balance, nuance and power. A good chef pays attention to all these, and creates dishes that bring harmony and originality out of disparate components. Even those who frequently alter their menus are laissez-faire with the wines, which often remain the same month after month regardless of changes in the menu. Bresca doesn't work that way.
A dish such as Desjarlais' famous Braised Tuscan Black Kale with soft egg, pancetta and kombu-butter-smeared toast is both simple and ingenious, yet diners with a lifetime of eating experience who read its menu description have a pretty good idea of what they'll be getting.
With wine, though, how many people know that the Pares Balta Calcari 2010 is a good match for that dish? The reason such a wine is even on the list is a collaboration including Desjarlais and her small staff as well as the smaller-scale state distributors with whom she prefers to work.
"The guys I like to get wine from know where I like to go with my menu and say, 'Krista, winter's coming and I know you want to cook with this particular ingredient: Taste this wine,"' she said. "The larger distributors would often bring me wines where there's not always that appropriate connection. We have a relationship of trust established, and we work together. Bresca has always been a home for sort of oddball though delicious wines. We make it a hand-sell, and we sell it."
(Continued on page 2)