IN A SEARCH for the very model of a model meal combining wine with food, I would be tempted to nominate one served recently at Narsai's, a restaurant near Berkeley, Calif.
The host was Narsai David, owner of the restaurant and a guest chef on the television series "Over Easy." That David is an ardent wine collector is evident from the restaurant's impressive wine list. The menu is French accented, but reflects the owner's Middle East heritage in the imaginative use of grains, fruits and nuts.
On the evening in question, Veni David, Narsai's wife, had planned the meal, choosing dishes from the restaurant's regular menu. Their guests were Belle and Barney Rhodes, a couple prominent in California wine and food circles, New York-based wine writers Alexis Bespaloff and Barbara Ensrud, my wife and myself.
Narsai David had choosen the wines. In honor of the Easterners, he made an all-California selection, although we didn't know that. For the amusement (and education) of everyone, he served wines in decanters during two courses, allowing us to play games of identification. As usually happens on such occasions, several shots were off the mark, but guided by the Rhodes, who among their other achievements planted the famous "Martha Vineyard" in the Napa Valley, truth eventually emerged without any loss of dignity.
In the meantime the meal proceeded apace. Each course served contained food that matched well with the wines and evoked comment itself. The Davids succeeded in what surely should be the first goal of entertainments of this kind: The evening turned out to be a dinner with wine, not a wine tasting, and a social occasion as well. There was wine, and wine talk, but not too much of either.
Here is the menu:
Apertif: Sparkling wine: 1976 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs
First Course: Red and Black Caviar from Columbia River Salmon and Sturgeon, Wine: 1975 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs
Fish course: A Cube of Salmon with Sorrel Sauce, Wines: 1969 and 1975 Spring Mountain chardonnay
Entree: Roast Squab with Oregon Morels and Madeira Sauce, Wines: 1968 Louis Martini cabernet sauvignon, Lots 1, 4 and 5
Dessert: Blueberries and Raspberries with Sour Cream and Ginger, Wine: 1875 Angelica from the Hellman collection, assorted nuts and fruits
The caviars, processed at the restaurant, were served with thin, toasted croutons and optional sour cream. Both gave that crunch or popping sensation when chewed, the hallmark of freshness, but the "red" -- from a steelhead salmon -- was a revelation. Each egg was nearly clear. Only a rouge mark of orange provided the color. Like the color, the flavor was distinct but not strong. I've not tasted its equal. Beyond its value as a symbol of celebration, the chilled champagne provided a complementary touch of acidity for the chilled caviar. Though none of us realized it, presenting two vintages from the same producer established the theme for the wine that followed with the next two courses.
The fish recipe follows. It differs from the now classic recipe of the Troisgros brothers in that the salmon is cut in a 2-inch cube rather than thin escallops and the sorrel is bright green because it is incorporated into the sauce only at the last moment. The rich, buttery quality of chardonnay makes it a fine companion for the assertive flavor of salmon, but the wines differed to the point that there was some speculation that one (the 69) was French and the other California.
The squabs, like the salmon, were cooked just past rare and, therefore, were particularly juicy and flavorful. Happily, restraint was the hallmark of the evening because too much of the somewhat sweet sauce could have overwhelmed the birds and the wine. Sauteed snow peas and broccoli florettes garnished the plate. No starch other than bread was served. Everyone seemed to agree that the middle wine of the three, Lot 4, was the best, but it took longer to realize their family relationship. Each of the three contained a different blend of grapes. The wines were aged and bottled separately.
The dessert was light, fresh and stimulating, clearly the way for a rare treat. Angelica is a sweet white wine fortified with brandy popular before Prohibition but rarely produced these days. Frank Schoonmaker's "Encyclopedia of Wine" calls it "one of the poorest and cheapest of American fortified wines." The wine Narsai David served, bought at auction, was neither cheap nor poor. It was delicious and not at all faded with a taste that fell somewhere between nectar and an elderly sweet sherry.
It would have been a memorable end to a memorable dinner had not one guest (me) been overbold. The deserts at Narsai's, particularly one called "chocolate decadence," are famous. As it seemed unlikely I would have another meal there for some time, motived by curiosity not hunger, I tampered with perfection. I asked for a sampling. Artistically, it was like taking a baseball no-hitter into extra innings. But, as they say of sports fans, we ate it up. Somehow the desserts disappeared.
While the exact menu and wine list would be almost impossible to reproduce, several of the Davids' principles can be applied. The meal was conducted at a leisurely pace. Neither food nor wine was subordinate. They held back in terms of the number of wines, the size of portions and the amount of blind tasting. A full night of wine games can tire both the palate and your guests' patience. There were no demands for "right" answers. In sum it was what the British would call "a very civilized evening." ROAST SQUAB WITH MORSELS AND MADEIRA SAUCE (4 servings) The sauce base: 2 chicken or duck carcasses 1 small onion, sliced 1 bay leaf 1 cup medium sherry or madeira 1 cup chicken stock
Cut up and roast the chicken or duck carcasses at 400* until medium brown with onion and bay leaf. Deglaze the pan with sherry and chicken stock. Simmer on low heat for 45 minutes. Strain, then reduce juices to syrup consistency and set aside. The squabs: 4 squabs, innards removed Salt 4 tablespoons clarified butter 2 tablespoons minced shallots 12 dried morels, rehydrated 1/4 cup sweet madeira
Pat squabs dry, salt lightly. Preheat oven to 450*. Select an ovenproof frying pan and melt butter in it. Brown squabs very quickly on all sides over high heat atop the stove. Transfer pan to oven and roast 8 to 10 minutes (for rare).
Remove birds from pan and discard all but 2 tablespoons pan fat. Saute shallots and morels until shallots are softened and morels are heated through. (To be thoroughly extravagant, rehydrate the morels in madeira instead of stock or water. About 1 cup is needed.) Deglaze pan with 1/4 cup maderia. Add reserved glaze to pan and boil again to syrup consistency.
Debone each squab (or halve it) and serve skin side up after spooning sauce and morels over each portion. Garnish with a mixture snow peas, thinly sliced carrots and yellow squash, plus a rice pilaf. FILET OF SALMON WITH A CREAM SORREL SAUCE (4 appetizer servings) 1/2 pound center-cut fresh salmon filet, cut into four cubes of approximately 2 inches 1/2 cup fish stock or bottled clam juice 1/2 cup dry white wine 1/2 cup whipping cream Beurre manie (1 teaspoon flour blended with 1 teaspoon butter) 2 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup finely shredded sorrel
Place salmon cubes in a small saute pan with fish stock and wine. Cover and simmer 5 to 6 minutes after liquid boils. (The fish will be fairly rare). aRemove to a platter and keep warm. Add cream to pan. Rapidly reduce liquid to 1 cup. Thicken with beurre manie, whisking vigorously until blended. Remove from heat and whisk in 2 tablespoons butter. Check salt level and season to taste. Stir in sorrel, pour sauce over salmon and serve immediately. (Sorrel discolors quickly, so it should not be added on heat and served at once.) BLUEBERRIES RUTHANN (4 servings) 2 tablespoons finely chopped conserved or candied ginger 1 cup sour cream or creme fraiche 1 pint blueberries Raspberries and 4 mint leaves as garnish
Stir ginger into sour cream. Spoon carefully into 4 tulip wine glasses and cover with blueberries. Garnish each portion with a few raspberries and a leaf of fresh mint.