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d OstertagWhy it took so long for me to cross paths with one of the most dynamic indie/natural wine producers, I’ll never know, but in all my time between restaurant and retail gigs, pleading with Kermit Lynch reps to crack a bottle of Domaine Ostertag’s deep roster, in hopes of saving my billfold an extra flex, the moment never materialized. It was high on my list of things to try and I would read about the Alsatian producer frequently as if to sate my parched lips vicariously, stubbornly clinging to hope for a chance encounter. That all changed on my latest trip up north.

After tasting at Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, turned on by the prospect of natural wine, and close enough to the Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant—the importer’s retail outpost and wine lover’s Candy Land—to hope that the stars would align, I thought about closing ceremonies of my San Francisco trips upon entering the iconic shop; shouldn’t a traditional late lunch at Mission Chinese be paired with a Domaine Ostertag Pinot Blanc, punctuating a sensational weekend spent eating through the Bay? To get there one had to first find the bottle.

General TsoStrewn with open cases of varied offerings from the importer’s reputable lot, I rummaged like a record collector in Pasadena to find the most fitting candidate. Striving for a modest introduction, not wanting to get ahead of myself, I purchased a basic Pinot Blanc “Barriques.” As I would learn, little was basic about that wine.

My friend and I stuck to the script, toting a chilled flûte d’Alsace into Mission Chinese as a fond farewell to San Francisco. Shellfish had been sidelined (taken off the menu), so we went heavier, ordering General Tso’s veal rib, egg-egg (sic) noodles and broccoli beef brisket, skirting what would have too easily paired with the wine, in order to challenge it.

egg egg noodlesChilling on the side, the Pinot Blanc exhibited buttoned-up traits, youthful notes of green apples, a squeeze of lemon and spice. The first sip followed the nose, but the medium-body had been graciously toned by the use of barrique (a 228 liter used barrel), rounding it out on the tongue—giving a textural omnipresence.

It was when the spicy food arrived that we saw what the Pinot Blanc wielded. A lot of fat and a hearty dose of capsaicin in General Tso’s veal rib was perfectly fit for the lush white wine to demonstrate its capacity. The medium-plus acidity inherent in the wine was able to squelch the heat while handling the fattiest elements of the entree. Interspersing veal tidbits with the mouth-coating egg-egg noodles, the Pinot Blanc squeegeed our taste buds clean, leaving a candied green apple, mineral and slightly herbaceous finish. It didn’t mesh too well with the broccoli brisket combo (the greener parts of a dinner [asparagus, artichoke, etc.] can prove difficult for most wines and it was no exception here), but that was no drawback, since by then we were already sold on the results.

Perpending our full bellies in Dolores Park, not quite sold on fate in our post-meal torpor, but not resisting it fully either, it seemed that these two things—an exalted producer in a far-off place at the side of a great meal—were meant to go together. Whatever the reason it took so long for me to cave and actually purchase a bottle of Domaine Ostertag, I’m grateful, because I couldn’t imagine that midday meal without it.

It wasn’t all snow cones and hamburgers during my time in San Francisco; no, there were varied eateries—acclaimed and under-the-radar—scattered about many different districts in the city. Also available was a surprising amount of shellfish, clams and mollusks,  a category of food I never fully embraced until my last trip (in December) to the Mission District.  A chance  to rekindle the flame arose with the very same indie Chinese eatery that was responsible for sparking my fancy for shellfish initially, by recreating a past meal. This isn’t meant to dwell on awesome Chinese food, or to revel in an unknown spot (Mission Chinese“[is] bonafide” and well-known), but to make my selections for food/wine of the month clear… because they were born together.

Under the auspices and awning of Lung Shan Chinese Restaurant, a formidable and inventive chef re-purposes Chinese flavors and recipes with regularity in his Mission District pop-up. Mission Chinese Food is the brainchild restaurant of Chef Danny Bowien. It would be hard to miss this eatery or at least escape the magnetism of the area because it is so stark, pitting seemingly out-of-place people against the boarded-up facades and less glamorous environs, waiting for their chance to eat the reinvented Chinese delights. The food is inspired but the prices are grounded, encouraging family-style ordering with a wealth of options to choose from, and escaping without hurting your finances.

We met up with a friend who had already waited her fair share for a table* before we entered the restaurant to a Pixies song. The tables were stuffed and the vapors from Sizzling Cumin Lamb enveloped my nostrils. I had brought a chilled and elongated green flute of Picpoul de Pinet (2010 La Croix Gratiot) for the sole purpose of pairing with the Tiger Clam dish that had me ensnared.

Our service was curt and bogged down by bad moods. Their funk was visceral and clearly the staff was having a tough time dealing with the heavy Sunday traffic. No matter how harried the service, all three of us were too excited about filling our bellies with spicy Chinese fare to be bothered by it.

We ordered rather expeditiously as we were prodded to do so, requesting the Tiger Clams, Sizzling Cumin Lamb, Broccoli Beef Cheek, Mongolian Long Beans and the Mai Po tofu. Between tunes from the Pixies and Dr. Dre, we chatted about professions and school to pass the time. From our vantage point we saw dishes carted quickly from kitchen to nearby tables, watching interestingly-coiffed patrons inhale plates piled-high with foods with mere chopsticks. Moments later we had our first two plates: the lamb and long beans. Our own chopsticks spun like pinwheels as we devoured everything but the crockery. We would take sips of Picpoul that tried very hard to marry the flavors of cumin and lamb belly but it was not meant to be. We deferred to our tea in the meantime. The broccoli beef cheek with poached oysters and smoked oyster sauce was next up, the flavors changed dramatically. The Gai Lan was perfectly prepared as were the fork-tender cheeks and the salinity in the foods made us reach for our glasses. Our penultimate dish (the tofu) landed shortly after, which is where the bright acid white wine from the Languedoc shined. The spicy tofu built momentum with each bite and the flavors meshed well with the citrus-tinged wine. We were content to this point but I was still waiting to be swooned by the Tiger Clams. There were musings amongst our table that they had forgot the order. Once we finished all the dishes and almost at an equal pace to the check, the Tiger Clams arrived, plated with aromatic Thai basil and lemongrass, stewing in a broth of Serrano peppers and garlic. We took a collective sigh—we were full—but we rolled up our sleeves and began separating the clams and soaking up the spices from the broth. I took one sip of wine, a couple clams in, and it was just as I imagined—perfection.

Despite the order of the dishes and the irked staff, the meal was an ideal end to the epicurean trip. The Tiger Clams and Picpoul de Pinet worked in concert and became the pinnacle closure to an already stellar meal as far as food was concerned. I thank Mission Chinese and the people I went with the first time for ordering the shellfish because without them I might have gone on missing what has clearly become one of my favorite plates. Xiè Xiè.

*No reservations—just have to stand ‘n wait.

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