Sherry has enjoyed a vogue in Washington in recent years, thanks primarily to Mockingbird Hill, the sherry-themed bar in Shaw opened in 2013 by Derek Brown and Chantal Tseng. But one of the drink’s strongest traits — its affinity for Asian cuisines — has gone largely untapped. Now Tseng and two friends are trying to change that with a pop-up supper club of dinners matching sherry’s various styles with Asian flavors.
Redeye Menus is the brainchild of Tseng, Holly Barzyk — who has worked in restaurants and media — and cocktail specialist Carlie Steiner, who last shook a shaker at José Andrés’s Barmini. They chose the name because flights from sherry’s homeland of Spain to East Asia typically are overnight, or red-eye, journeys.
The trio launched their sherry supper club series in late July at Crane and Turtle in the District’s Petworth neighborhood, matching the Japanese-accented cuisine of chef Makoto Hamamura with sherries of Gonzalez Byass, a major producer most famous for the Tio Pepe brand. Future efforts still in the planning stages will match sherry with Korean barbecue and other Asian dishes.
What makes sherry an ideal partner for Asian foods? The same characteristic that helps it pair with any other cuisine.
“It’s like MSG,” Tseng says, with a smile that seems to acknowledge monosodium glutamate’s controversial role as a flavor enhancer. “There’s a reason chefs have been cooking with sherry in their recipes for centuries. It makes everything taste better.”
True sherry is grown in southwestern Spain around the city of Jerez and is one of the oldest wine styles of the modern world. It’s a fortified wine, but not usually as alcoholic as port or Madeira. Sherry is aged via a solera system that blends wines over several vintages — even decades — for a richer, sweeter result.
Most sherry is bone-dry. The two most common styles, fino and amontillado, are aged under a layer of yeast called “flor” that gives the wine a nutty, savory character. Oloroso is a darker, richer, more oxidized style, ideal for pairing with hearty foods such as Western-style meat dishes and savory Japanese ramen.
These are not fruity wines. Even the sweeter sherries, such as cream style or Pedro Ximénez (often called PX), tend toward flavors of roasted nuts, perhaps with a note of dried citrus rind.
In previous columns, I’ve argued that sherry’s flavor similarity to Chinese Shaoxing rice wine makes it an ideal match for festive Chinese banquets. Its richness also pairs well with hearty dishes, such as ramen.
That ability to match a wide variety of cuisines makes sherry a “world traveler” of wines, Tseng says. Indeed, travel and an open mind seem to help make consumers more receptive to sherry’s charms.
Melissa Gervais of the District discovered sherry during a trip to Spain. After returning to Washington, she explored sherry’s diversity and versatility at Mockingbird Hill.
“It’s different,” Gervais, 34, told me during the dinner at Crane and Turtle. She described Tio Pepe, a fino sherry whose brand name was the first registered trademark in Spain, as “something my grandmother might drink and a younger generation may not appreciate. But it’s really like a pinot grigio in its flavor profile.”
But don’t think all sherry is light and crisp. We also sampled a Tio Pepe “en rama” — or “from the barrel” — a recently bottled, unfiltered version that shows a youthful energy; an amontillado, essentially an aged fino; and two styles of Palo Cortado, a spicy, rich type of sherry that paired well with salmon and Thai chilies. A dessert of roasted pineapple on sesame shortbread was a nice foil for a sweeter cream sherry from a solera begun in 1847.
Although we were drinking these wines and some of Steiner’s sherry-based cocktails with a Japanese-themed menu, reflecting Redeye Menus’ global perspective, Gervais struck a more traditional tone when I asked her to explain sherry’s charm.
As if reliving her travels, she thought for a moment and said, “It’s Old Worldy.”