Any restaurant with a wine list has some sort of tasting process—assessing colors, aromas and flavors, judging what will go well with the food and if people will want to drink it. Some restaurants might do this only once, when the wine list is first assembled. Others will make seasonal changes or adjust when a salesperson visits. But most of the time, wines are tasted in as neutral an environment as possible, with only water or perhaps some crackers to cleanse the palate between samples.
Hakkasan doesn’t do this. That might not surprise you if you think of the MGM Grand destination only for its mega nightclub, but Hakkasan the restaurant takes wine very seriously, touting one of Las Vegas’ best wine lists recognized not only for rare and expensive bottles but for intriguing wines from around the globe (350 labels in 17 categories). There are wines you would never guess would go well with modern Chinese cuisine, far beyond the Rieslings and Sauvignon blancs that typically pair with Asian food or California Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons that are easy to sell.
How does Hakkasan do it? All wrong, but so right. During weekly “Tuesday Tastings,” the restaurant’s wine director and other managers assess a batch of wines within Hakkasan’s moody atmosphere while enjoying a selection of the menu’s most popular dishes with mild, salty, spicy and sweet profiles, trying to find any reason to eliminate a wine.
“The point is not to find perfect pairings,” says wine director Constantin Alexander after inviting me to join the process with lead sommelier Jordan Cruz and divisional beverage manager Cassandra Brown. “The point is to find wines that don’t clash. The food needs to choose the wine.”
Think of your favorite wine—or the most expensive, critical-darling wine you’ve ever tried—and imagine how well it would go with four different flavor profiles, as it would have to if you’re buying a bottle to enjoy throughout a meal. Whether you notice or not, if a wine you selected doesn’t pair well with a certain course or dish, your experience is likely to sour ... literally.
During my Tuesday Tasting, we open a Clare Valley (Australia) Riesling and two interesting Italian whites, a mineral-acidic Sicilian Etna Bianco and rounder Pecorino from Abruzzo (all 2013) along with a restrained German Pinot Noir (2012) and a fruity, leathery 2005 Spanish Rioja that a team member has been championing. Really, a broad selection.
We enjoy a moderate feast of Hakkasan’s most popular dishes, including the gorgeous dim sum, salt and pepper squid, crispy chicken in lemon sauce, sweet and sour pork with pomegranate and sanpei chicken claypot with sweet Thai basil, stir-fry black pepper beef ribeye with Merlot and Szechuan mabo tofu with minced beef. “The sweet course is the graveyard,” notes Brown to grim, bemused nods from her colleagues. “A wine killer.”
This process—which happens at all Hakkasan restaurants worldwide under group wine buyer Christine Parkinson—actually becomes a fun game once expectations are dispensed. Aided by score charts in which each wine is graded per course, we all take turns giving feedback on pairings. And while there’s often consensus, sometimes one or two of us completely disagree, reminding that everyone’s palate is different and nobody is wrong. One wine does magnificently with two courses and awful with others, another opens up after a course but has too many off-notes soon after. Only one continues to work nicely, and it’s not the one anyone predicted.
You might expect the process to favor flabby, inoffensive juice, but all manner of outliers show surprisingly well, Alexander says, probably why three categories on Hakkasan’s list are actually anti-categories, like “Curious vines” (unusual varieties). Still, only one in eight wines tested on average ends up on the list, and the staff does the same thing for by-the glass selections.
The three we gave a green or yellow light to on this Tuesday might still not make it through another round. I could give you my guess, but maybe you should visit the restaurant and check for yourself.