Is the sommelier's the most misunderstood role in a restaurant? The chef, we know, cooks our food. Waiters bring it to the table. But what exactly does the guy or girl walking the floor with a bunch of grapes on their jacket lapel do? Does their job begin with "do you want any help with the beverage list?", or well before that?
According to Olivier Gasselin, chief sommelier at Hakkasan in the Middle East and Asia, every beverage goes through a thorough tasting process before it's allowed on the menu. This is true of not just every bottle of grape, but every type of tea, too. Lately, Gasselin and his colleagues at Hakkasan Dubai have been working on a new tea pairing experience, matching China’s favourite beverage with dishes on the Hakkasan menu.
Expecting endless cups of tea, I'm not really ready for how different, and intricate, tasting for a pairing session is. Immacolata Cannavo, head sommelier at Hakkasan Dubai, begins to explain the selection of four teas that have been chosen for today. A white tea, Silver Needle from Taiwan. A green tea, Dragon Well, also from Taiwan. A roasted blue tea or "oolong", AnxiTie Guan Yin, from the Anxi mountains of Fujian, China. And a dark, aged puer tea, the Old Puer Ya Jian from Yunnan in southern China.
I sit down to a menu divided into four sections, with two dishes served per "course". These are divided into flavour categories of mild, savoury, sweet and spicy. During the session, we create a matrix of scores, whereby every single tea is tasted together with every dish. Each tea will be rated from "Out" (meaning the match is undrinkable), through to "Pass Plus" (meaning it's an excellent match). If any tea is ranked "Out" by anyone at the table, it will be removed from the menu. Since everything at Hakkasan has to work for sharing across the table, Gasselin says that all beverages must work for a range of dishes.
It suddenly seems much more complicated than just sipping tea for the afternoon. When the first round of dishes arrive (a platter of dim sum and crispy prawn fritters with truffle), the professionals at the table begin picking up pretty and perfectly formed dumplings and carving them up into four pieces with a knife and fork. Each staff member then tastes a small quarter of their dumpling with a sip of tea, another quarter with a sip of the next tea, and so on. This, says Gasselin, is why the tasting sessions take place with a knife and fork and not chopsticks.
Everyone is mindfully engaged in this process, zooming through all dishes and teas, with the speed of someone for whom this is second nature. After every round of dishes, the cups of tea are discarded into a spittoon, and fresh tea is poured into all of the 24 tea cups on the table. The matches are also discussed in detail, and it's fascinating to see how each member of the team has very different opinions on which tea they prefer and which matches work best. Delicious as it is on its own, the Silver Needle white tea is not doing well… with anyone. It's far too delicately floral and light to really sing out in conjunction with the dishes. Until, that is, we reach the chilli mud crab in the final spicy course. Inexplicably, the light tea fights against the strength of strong chilli and spice to bring out a beautifully fruity and aromatic match.
Throughout the process, the Dragon Well is quiet and unassuming against each dish. It doesn’t jar, but there is no great harmony either. The Old Puer is so bold in its own right, it fights against the flavours of the dishes. In the savoury round, it drowns out the tofu claypot, but the slightly spicy quality in the tea stands up proudly to meet the strength of the peppery Monglian-style venison, making it the only Puer match I enjoy.
The Anxi oolong, however, is the gem throughout the session. Rich in flavour, but not heavy, it works well enough with each of the dishes served. From the roasting process, this tea takes on a woody, smoky quality, and with the restaurant’s jasmine-tea-smoked wagyu beef ribs, the duality of aromatic smoke is the most divine and harmonious match of the day.
Hakkasan’s Harmony food and tea tasting menu is due to launch in mid-November. Hakkasan, Jumeirah Emirates Towers (04 384 8484).
Four to try Tasting experiences
This Mediterranean restaurant is showcasing grape from Catalunya. Turn up on Mondays for a pairing dinner (four glasses with tapas and cheese for Dhs310 per head). You can also sample four varieties from Catalunya for Dhs95, available at any time in the restaurant.
Dhs95 (four glasses). Daily noon-1am. Ongoing. DIFC (04 323 1833).
A juniper beverage tasting experience is offered daily at this new specialist bar. Try three different types of juniper, alongside a variety of tonics and flavoured ice cubes.
Dhs99 per person. Daily noon-1am. Until December 30. InterContinental Dubai Marina (04 446 6669).
Sabado Coffee Club
Try premium varieties from across the globe at this monthly tasting club. The next event takes place at the Grand Hyatt Dubai on Saturday November 7, with a "caffeine-crawl" on the cards in January.
Dhs30 per person. Dhs40 for Sabado tasting booklets. www.fatnancysnewdiet.com/category/sabado-coffee-club-2/.
This Italian restaurant has found a new and unique way of doing a grape tasting session, by pairing each of the four glasses selected with premium chocolate.
Dhs140 per person. Sun 7pm-midnight. Ongoing. Raffles Dubai, Oud Metha (04 370 8999).