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OFF THE CLOCK: Philly Cheesesteaks And Racy Red Wine With Arthur Hon

By Erin Drain in Food on Feb 8, 2013 5:40PM

Photo via Shutterstock

Over the phone, sommelier Arthur Hon laughs and says this pairing is "pretty hard." But he doesn't mince words, and quickly launches into his strategies for pairing wines, whether within the fine dining atmosphere of his West Loop Sepia Restaurant, or the new Chicagoist series Off the Clock, wherein we ask the city's best wine brains to pair wines from their lists with foods that exists in the average Chicagoan's diet off the white tablecloth.

Hon has three strategies for approaching wine pairings, no matter the dish, and all three begin by asking himself, "How do I want to accentuate this dish?"

1) Complement the dish, which is more of a "like with like" scenario. In the case of a cheesesteak, which is rich [okay, greasy] with meat, melty cheese, caramelized onions, and, for many, ketchup, one inclination is to pair a wine with weight. While the typical thinking is red wine with red meat, he notes that a rich, weighty white wine could be a good option for this category.

2) Think of the wine as the last ingredient. Sometimes, argues Hon, we should think of the wine in the same vein as a dose of black pepper, or a squeeze of lemon - that one last kick that transforms the dish onto another level.

3) Contrast. What's the opposite of greasy and savory? Light, bright, and fruity. Sometimes a wine's function is to "take your mind off the dish," and let the palate cleanse and refresh itself in between bites. This is where wine chemistry is probably the most at play, and the keyword here is acid, acid, acid.

As far as the actual pairing, Arthur favors taking a look at context. This theoretical experiment is a vacuum compared to the lively bar-and-grill atmosphere of Chicago's best source for a great cheesesteak, and that's why for this dish he prefers the "contrast" strategy. The pairing is already outside of the context of a) his wine list and b) a sandwich shop, so why not groove on that? Thinking, for a minute, outside the realm of wine, he considers what people normally drink with this type of junk comfort food: beer. But, more likely, soda.

But there are still some constraints for this series, and he has to make a recommendation from Sepia's wine list. He chooses a wine with sweet fruit, lively and spicy body, and a refreshing aftertaste. The wine, like the car company whose family owns the winery, is bold, hedonistic, much like the dish itself. It could be a Cherry Coke, but it should be the Lamborghini "Trescone" 2009, a Tuscan blend that's sangiovese-heavy, with a splash of merlot and a little bit of ciliegiolo, an Italian varietal known for its "cherry-like" qualities.

Coincidence? We think not.

We welcome ideas for the next Off the Clock pairing. Mister Hon would love to see someone step up to the plate with the fatty-salty-sweet-sour banh mi sandwich. What's your favorite down time food?