Why a cherry?

Pub date June 12, 2007

Chili, most of us would probably agree, is beer food rather than wine food — if we are to make such odious distinctions — and that would make a winery an unlikely setting for a chili cook-off. Still, wineries can have their chili-friendly atmospherics on early-summer afternoons; the air is warm and fresh but not hot, and small planes drift through it on their way to and from the Petaluma airport, just a few flat miles away, across the vineyards. That, at any rate, is the view if one is standing on the grounds of Sutton Cellars, which did host such a cook-off recently and does bottle a Rhône-style red table wine sturdy enough to stand up to all the associated meat and spice.

Chili, it turns out, is surprisingly adaptable. None of the four restaurants from the city involved in the cook-off (Nopa, the Slow Club, the Alembic, and Maverick) used a recipe, nor, for that matter, do they offer chili on their regular menus. Yet each entry was strikingly different — one quite spicy, another perfumed with smoke and fruit from a combination of (pre)grilled skirt steak and lime juice, the third friendly in a rather ordinary way, and the fourth devoid of meat.

I liked this last one, from Nopa, the best. Ground calamari was used in place of meat, and with long braising, the cook told me, the flesh acquired the texture of cooked hamburger. More interesting was the deployment of rice beans, which indeed looked like fat grains of rice and are a close relation of azuki beans. Nopa’s chili struck me as being, in its overall effect, a close relation of gumbo, while the lone non–San Francisco restaurant’s effort (from L Wine Lounge in Sacramento) was so thick with pork, duck, and duck fat as to resemble a cowboy cassoulet. That chili was also served with a cumin-and-coriander cherry on top — pitted, of course — for a touch of tasty weirdness, or maybe a nod toward dessert?

There were no desserts, of course, unless you count a block of cheddar cheese that quickly disappeared, leaving behind plenty of forlorn sliced bread. A loaf of bread, a jug — or goblet — of wine, and thou, thou being chili in many guises, scarfed happily at picnic tables while little planes buzzed in the distance.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com