Sen Yai Sen Lek: pairing good Thai with wine

Last evening I sat down with the wine buyer and manager of Sen Yai Sen Lek, Nicole Pappas-Stanoch, to taste through a variety of lighter bodied red wines paired with a selection of the most popular dishes from the kitchen.  It was an eye opening evening to say the least. Those not familiar with Sen Yai Sen Lek can check out a nice article on The Heavy Table profiling chef-owner Joe Hatch-Surisook (pictured with wife Holly and kids).  Joe’s knowledge base of Thai food runs deep, and for many years his classes at Kitchen Window were some of the most popular around.  Joe’s connections in the cities go way back, mainly through the channel of Jim Grell of The Modern Cafe and Mike Phillips, now of Green Ox Meats.  The food at Sen Yai Sen Lek is complex, intriguing, and most of all an amazing pain in the ass to pair with wine … but we did it!

Holly and Joe Hatch-Surisook of Sen Yai Sen Lek

The theme was lighter bodied reds, so we tasted through a variety of Pinot Noirs (Mohua from New Zealand, Angeline from California, and Drouhin Bourgogne from Burgundy), as well as many Italians (La Valentina Montepulciano, Saladini Pilastri Rosso Piceno, Sant’ Antonio Scaia, and Cetamura Chianti).  We also had a bottle of Mohua Pinot Gris as a palate cleanser (which was absolutely delicious, by the way).

Nicole’s tasting method is very specific (years of practice have perfected the system): taste through all the wines first without food, and form general opinions.  Then taste back through the wines with three select dishes (the same dishes every time … “A perfect cross-section of our menu” says Nicole).  The dishes include fish cakes, a spicy shredded chicken with sticky rice, and a slow roasted pork dish with noodles.

Pairing Thai cuisine with wine is a tough process.  Thailand has an advanced and old food culture, but one that never evolved with grapes and wine.  As a result, the synergy of the food and wine combinations rarely announce themselves in a way like having the perfect slow roasted meat and potato dish with a beautiful wine from Alsace.  With Thai food and wine, there is a disconnect but it is not a dealbreaker (though, honestly, this is an instance where the beer geeks might win most of the time).

What we found out through the tasting was that acidity was the clear key, for the plumper and juicer wines that had lower acidity were simply blown apart by the cucumber-vinegar-chile-cilantro combinations.  However, the most acidic of the wines accented the spice even more.  A middle ground was needed.  The winner of the night for me was the La Valentina Montepulciano d’Abuzzzo, a wine made on the Adriatic side of Italy with the versatile Montepulciano grape.  With a strong core of black raspberry fruit and firm but not overpowering acids, it seemed to be able to envelop the flavors of the food as opposed to fighting with them.

Sen Yai Sen Lek is a gem, and should be explored by people wanting to get out of the box of French or Italian night after night. The wine list, like the list at Alma, is tight and carefully curated.  Good stemware is used, the staff is knowledgeable, and they can lead you on a culinary journey that will open your eyes.  Trust the staff — tell them how much food you want and the styles you wish to enjoy.  They will take it from there.

Sen Yai Sen Lek
2422 Central Avenue Northeast (just off Central and Lowry)
Google place page