Chow Town

At Kansas City’s wine bars, it’s not always the wine that comes first

Cheese Board at Louie’s Wine Dive
Cheese Board at Louie’s Wine Dive Louie’s Wine Dive

The age-old question has always been, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

I started thinking about that question recently while visiting one of my favorite watering holes, Tannin Wine Bar & Kitchen in the Crossroads District.

I knew Tannin did an excellent job with both its wine selections and its culinary creations and the two programs match rather seamlessly. But I was curious about the process. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or, in this case, the dish or the wine with which it will be paired?

Tannin’s general manager Barry Tunnel is the driver behind the restaurant’s terrific wine selection. Tunnel has a masterful command of all things vinous from the mainstream to the esoteric, grape varieties from Aglianico to Zinfandel, and everything in between.

Executive chef Brian Aaron handles the menu, from recipe creation to the specific courses for Tannin’s winemaker dinners and other special wine events. I quizzed them both on how and when they put their heads together to match Aaron’s vision with Tunnel’s and create that perfect food and wine experience for their customers.

“We’ve been together a long time, and over the course of that time — six years — we’ve gotten a pretty good sense of what we each like from a food and wine standpoint,” Tunnel said. “We’ve gone away from certain things that provide wine challengers, like artichokes and vinaigrettes, and we both know it’s much easier to building a tasting menu from light to heavy than going back and forth.”

Aaron pointed out that sometimes the goal of his food is to play rhythm to the wine’s lead guitar.

“At winemaker dinners, the menu is crafted not just to pair with the wine and build from light to heavy, but we also want the wine to be in the spotlight,” he said. “The food should go with the wine, of course, but the wine is what we’re featuring.”

Other times, Tunnel says he’ll have options in mind for Aaron’s cuisine. What he recommends can involve any number of factors from what, if anything, the customer is already drinking to their preference for a particular color, grape variety, and weight in their wine. He gave me an example of his approach for the Grilled Duroc Pork Chop I ordered.

Tunnel poured me three wines for the chop: a California Chardonnay, a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, and a Chave Mon Coeur Cotes du Rhone.

So, there was a fairly full-bodied white, a lighter bodied red and a medium-bodied red from which to choose. Since my preferences run mainly to red wines and mostly to foreign red wines, I figured the Cotes du Rhone would be my favorite with the chop. Turns out, it was not. To my surprise, the oaky, creamy Talley Chardonnay was my pick.

The sweetness of the wine matched perfectly with the butternut squash, spiced apples and candied walnuts that accompanied the pork chop, and there was enough acid in the wine to refresh our palate after each bite and sip. It’s important to consider the secondary elements of the dish as they can often determine which color, weight and style of wine you will chose.

Whitney VinZant knows a thing or two about wine and food pairing. The president of the rapidly expanding and extremely popular Louie’s Wine Dive has been involved in the restaurant business since college.

What started out as one Louie’s has grown to seven and with the opening of a Louie’s in Liberty later this year, there will be three in the Kansas City metro alone. I sat down with VinZant at the latest Louie’s on 119th Street in Overland Park.

The culinary aspect of Louie’s is growing about as quickly as the chain itself. You need no more evidence of that than to notice the addition of the words “and Kitchen” to the name of the new Johnson County location.

“We don’t cut any corners,” VinZant said. “We use only authentic recipes and methods. Ours is truly a ‘scratch’ kitchen.”

VinZant said it’s all about making their customers happy, which includes offering a huge selection of wine in both style and price. One of my personal favorite parts of the Louie’s wine experience is the fact that the by the glass selection changes daily.

Guests will find additions to the regular offerings on Louie’s famed wine board. Bottles that have been opened — and Louie’s will open any bottle of wine on its list — but not finished, go up on the board with a by-the-glass price.

They’re not inexpensive, but where else could you find a Vietti Barolo available by the glass? That’s just one of hundreds of possible examples, but you get the idea. Louie’s caters to the wine lover.

“The wine board is fun, accessible and educational,” VinZant said.

Like Tannin, the dishes created in the kitchen are crafted to play to the strength of the wine offerings. VinZant says the Louie’s breakdown is 55 percent food, 45 percent beverage, but the food side of the business is growing monthly.

I can’t wait till the Louie’s opens north of the river. As a wine lover, it’s great to have restaurants like Louie’s Wine Dive and Tannin Wine Bar in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.