Wines by the Glass

Fung Tu’s bok choy shrimp paste pairs beautifully with a delicate white wine.
Fung Tu’s bok choy shrimp paste pairs beautifully with a delicate white wine. Paul Wagtouicz

Sampling, selling, and food pairings are all made easier with single-glass pours.

Beverage director Jason Wagner wants Fung Tu—on New York City’s Lower East Side—to be known for more than Chinese food. While the menu does dance around soy sprouts, fried rice, and pickled vegetables, each dish is a modern take on cuisine dating back many centuries. “The cuisine we do here is somewhat unfamiliar to people,” says Wagner. One such example is Chinese Spätzle with Sichuan Pork Sauce, which he pairs with Agnes & Rene Mosse Anjou Blanc (Loire Valley, France). “The Anjou has a touch of sweetness and some richness that counterbalances the heat and the heft of the Spätzle,” Wagner says.

Naturally, with this focus on reinvention, the wine list was poised to shine, if only customers’ palates were educated in the art of pairing Chinese food with wine. Last spring, Wagner—who cut his chops developing the wine list at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and A Voce—came up with a brilliant idea to encourage more wine-by-the-glass orders. He designed a six-course tasting menu, priced $65, with an additional $30 for wine pairings chosen by Wagner, and it is now served daily.

This approach positions Fung Tu as a wine-lovers’ destination, and customers have responded enthusiastically. “People aren’t [accustomed] to seeing Chinese food presented in the context of having it with wine,” Wagner says.

“They want us to take them on a journey. The food itself tends to be low in acid when compared to Western cuisine. When I can, I try to get wines that have a salty, nutty, caramel (quality).” Wagner also shies away from tannins and opts for wines with medium to high levels of acidity with great structure.

The tasting menu is often the gateway for new customers to become regulars. “A lot of people who are curious [about wine] do it, and people who are enthusiastic about wine, too. When they enjoy [the tasting menu], they start coming back and exploring the bottle list,” says Wagner. “It’s lifted the restaurant up to a second tier of people.”

At the Hilton Chicago O’Hare, the clientele shifts continuously as thousands of people fly in and out each day. Dante Nicastro, in charge of wines at the hotel’s Andiamo eatery, realizes the clientele won’t ever be steady. But he’s still pushing wines by the glass for the ongoing crop of solo business travelers—and doing so with a team-wide effort. All employees are in on the challenge to pair a dish with a glass of wine, especially the servers, who have the most customer contact. “We want the servers to feel more comfortable than we [the managers] are,” says Nicastro. “We’ll do a blind vote with the servers as to which wine pairs best.”

Nicastro knows that the average solo traveler, even one who has savvy wine knowledge, isn’t likely to spring for a bottle of wine. The money is in the by-the-glass list, where there are 21 selections. “We have a variety of customers who fly in and out of here, and our typical stay is one night. Business folks have a more educated palate,” Nicastro says.

To make it easier on the customer, pairing suggestions are printed right below menu items. For example, seared salmon fillet pairs with a glass of Silver Palm Chardonnay from California’s North Coast.

“We want to take the snooty out of wine. There really is no wrong wine. It goes back to ‘What do you like?’” Nicastro says. In the two years since launching the pairings on the menu, wine sales have increased by 5 percent.


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