When asked how chefs and sommeliers work together to achieve perfect wine pairings in a restaurant, Brent Kroll has this to say.
“It either burns up in flames, or the relationship matures over time.”
Luckily for Kroll and business partner and chef Michael Rafidi, they’ve experienced the latter.
“You just start to build chemistry and get to understand the relationship better,” Kroll says.
“It just happens over time,” Rafidi adds. “Working together, tasting, eating together.”
They met after Kroll experienced a memorable meal cooked by Rafidi, and they soon partnered in each other’s ventures – Kroll’s wine bar Maxwell Park and Rafidi’s Levantine restaurant and café, Albi and Yellow.
After more than a year of planning and pop-ups, they opened their mini empire in Navy Yard earlier this year, just before the pandemic changed everything. Through the shutdowns and takeout and pivots, one thing hasn’t wavered: their intuitive partnership in producing perfect pairings.
Both Kroll and Rafidi have clear visions about their own concepts, so the process of pairing wine and food flows naturally.
“At Maxwell, Brent takes the lead on what kind of wines he’s serving and then I pair the food with it,” Rafidi explains.
“At Albi, there’s the sofra, the tasting menu, and we find wines that go with it,” Kroll continues.
As a sommelier, Kroll says Rafidi’s cooking style makes it fun to choose complementary pours.
“He gets intensity of flavors; he layers flavors. His stuff is never mild on seasoning. Intensity in food needs intensity in wine.”
For Rafidi, crafting dishes to match Kroll’s unique wines at Maxwell Park is an opportunity to step out of his typical space and play with French technique, Spanish ingredients or new American trends.
“[I’m] digging into the arsenal. I’ve been cooking all kinds of food my whole career, not just Middle Eastern.”
Pairings will be in the spotlight in an even bigger way starting this month, because Kroll has debuted a new pop-up concept in the Maxwell Park space called Russell Island, named after an island where he went fishing as a kid.
“This is trying to take the vibe that Maxwell has, which is a house party, cocktail party kind of vibe, but then doing sommelier-focused pairings,” he explains.
The menu offers a selection of small dishes paired with wines – like lamb tartare with a salty Canary Islands rosé or truffle parmesan popcorn with an oily Austrian grüner veltliner.
“If you want three, five or 10 pairings, you would just pick which ones you want and they would just flow to you,” Kroll says. “So you’d have a bunch of half glasses and snacks.”
Kroll’s casual answer to formal, high-end beverage pairings will stick around for at least a month, or potentially until there’s a vaccine.
“I’ve always wanted that premise for a wine bar,” he explains. “I almost did that concept instead of Maxwell Park, but it seemed a little too high maintenance to do a bunch of volume with it. But during Covid, when you can’t do a lot of volume, it’s a better concept.”
When crafting his combinations, Kroll says he tries to move beyond what he calls “Switzerland pairings.”
“If you take white Burgundy and buttered lobster, or if you take amarone and chocolate cake or something, you tend to be adding in similar flavors and they don’t really change, they just kind of go well together,” he says. “I think that is a benchmark for pairings – you can only try to get better from that.”
Without stopping to think, Kroll can rattle off a list of some of the widely accepted rules for wine pairings.
“The level of fat to the level of tannins coincides,” he says. “Weight with weight; the texture is really important. The body in terms of the wine and the food should go hand in hand.”
He continues, noting that acidity likes acidity, so acidic wines like acidic food.
“Spicy food likes sweet things or fruit-forward things. And creams tend to like things with oxidation.”
Instead of going for what’s expected, Kroll aims to surprise the palate.
“I typically try to shoot for contrast pairings,” he says. “If you did a sweet sparkling rosé like Bugey Cerdon with a spicy sorbet, the sorbet would change and the wine would change and they wouldn’t taste the same afterward. I think those are the coolest ones.”
For those looking to experiment with pairings at home, Kroll advises keeping an open mind.
“I’d say maybe around 20 percent of the time, there’s some wine that makes no sense but just ends up pairing well,” he says.
He suggests trying different combinations until you hit the perfect one, with the goal of layering flavors.
“If there’s a dish and it has some particular flavor that could be olives,” he muses, “then you put forth a wine that has lavender and plum notes to it. You’re just layering in these kinds of flavors.”
That said, don’t overcomplicate things.
“You can find the most casual random pairings,” he adds, citing Cool Ranch Doritos with Sonoma pinot noir or a stick of salami with lambrusco. “Pairings can be very simplistic. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant and people overthink them a lot.”
He says global influences can also serve as inspiration and guidance if you follow regional trends in pairings. Right now, it’s a fun way to engage in a little armchair travel and relive past experiences while we’re homebound.
“If you’ve traveled somewhere, pay attention to it and bring that knowledge back with you,” he says. “If you’re in Santorini and they’re giving you whole fish with assyrtiko or you’re in Tuscany and you have sangiovese, there’s always tomato dishes.”
During Rafidi’s research and developement trips in the Middle East, he enjoyed many a meal accompanied by arak, a Levantine distilled spirit. Albi’s menu offers a selection of arak, but Kroll has also put his own spin on beverage list, devoting two sections to categories of wine that he feels perfectly complement Rafidi’s cooking.
For example, the mezze-style snacks that lead off the menu are great with savory white wines, while the hearth-cooked meats for the main course lend themselves to smoky reds.
Creative combinations like these are abundant at both Albi and the Russell Island pop-up at Maxwell Park, but if you’re looking to try some out in your own kitchen, Rafidi and Kroll have shared their recipes and pairing suggestions for two highlights from their menus.
Albi: 1346 4th St. SE, DC; www.albidc.com
Russell Island at Maxwell Park: 1346 4th St. SE, DC; www.maxwellparkdc.com/home-navy-yard
Chef Rafidi’s Recipe: Cinnamon Stick Kefta with Pomegranate Glaze + Arabic Tahini Salad
Albi Wine Pairing: 2017 Ànima Negra |Callet, Mantonegro, Syrah |“AN/2” | Vi de la Terra Mallorca, Balearic Islands, Spain
Kroll’s Pairing Notes: “The wine has a lot of ripe fruit to contrast the savory and spice notes. There are vanilla and dill notes from the oak that layer into the flavors in the dish. My favorite part is this wine is a little funky, which lends itself to the game flavors here.”
For the Kefta
1 pound lamb, ground
Half a red onion, minced
1 tablespoon mint, chopped
1 teaspoon sumac
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon za’atar
Cinnamon sticks (for skewering)
Pomegranate molasses (for glazing)
Mint, torn (for garnish)
For the Salad
½ cup tomato, diced
½ cup cucumber, diced
½ cup red onion, diced
¼ cup mint, chopped
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup tahini
1 teaspoon garlic, micro-planed
Crumbled feta (for garnish)
Prepare the Kefta
In a mixing bowl, salt the red onions for 30 minutes and then squeeze out excess water.
Mix the lamb with the onions and remaining spices. Portion the kefta mix into 1-ounce balls and place on cinnamon stick.
Grill the kefta on the cinnamon stick skewer and glaze with the pomegranate molasses. Garnish with torn mint.
Prepare the Salad
Mix all ingredients together. Season with salt to taste.
Plate the Dish
Place kefta on top of salad with crumbled feta.
Chef Rafidi’s Recipe: Smoky Boquerones Toast with Piquillo Pepper Butter + Black Garlic Confit
Russell Island Wine Pairing: NV La Cigarrera | Amontillado | Jerez | Spain
Kroll’s Pairing Notes: “I went with amontillado here as savory, dry sherry that compliments the boquerones. The oak on this is good for the smoky and garlic flavors. It also layers in a rye/pumpernickel bitter note for added complexity. It’s salty food, with salty wine!”
For the marinated boquerones
4 ounces boquerones
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon pimentos
2 ounces piquillo peppers, julienned
For the piquillo butter
4 ounces butter, softened
2 ounces piquillo peppers , finely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the black garlic confit:
1 tablespoon black garlic, chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Note: Piquillo peppers must be from a jar.
Baguette or sourdough boule
Extra virgin olive oil
Parsley or dill leaves
Marinate the Boquerones
Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Mix gently so as not break up the boquerones. Set aside.
Prepare the Piquillo Butter
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside.
Prepare the Black Garlic Confit
Combine black garlic and extra virgin olive oil in a small pot on very low heat and cook for four to five minutes. Set aside at room temperature.
Plate the Dish
Slice a piece of baguette or sourdough. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toast or grill until golden brown.
Spread a layer of piquillo butter, a small amount of black garlic confit and lastly top with the marinated boquerones.
Garnish with fresh parsley or dill leaves and another drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.