Todd Smith, the wine director of DOSA South Indian restaurants in San Francisco, is more than a curator; he’s an educator. From opening diners’ minds to the pairing possibilities of spice-rich, coconut rich cuisine of southern India to continually finding surprising, delicious combinations, Smith has helped the much-lauded DOSA become a destination for wine as well as food. Here, he shares his process for finding perfect pairings, gives tips for building an accessible wine list, and gives us details on DOSA’s own private wine label.
What are some of the major challenges of pairing wines with South Indian cuisine? I am faced with that question quite a lot, which suggests to me that it must still be so outside of the box that wine writers and other sommeliers keep trying to decode it. For me, the great challenge is trying to gain the confidence of our many diners. They see the list but wonder if what they are reading really pertains to the marriage of food and wine. That said, I have a blast tasting and finding wines that work with our wide spectrum of flavors. The first criteria is that the wine needs to be delicious. Next, it should show great balance, have a good texture — either soothing or mouth cleansing, as well as have some bright primary fruits and developing secondary profiles too — such as licorice, tobacco, herbs, earth, spice, etc. Those are the elements of taste that really unite with our food in the guests’ palates.
Do you find that diners have a lot of preconceptions about wine and Indian food? Are diners surprised to find such an extensive wine selection? Yes. Diners’ preconceptions are what we are here to turn on their heels. The simple fact that the vast majority of our diners still aren’t aware of the distinction between South Indian cuisine and culture with that of the rest of the sub-continent shows that we still have much work to do. A day at DOSA is a day at school. Folding wines into the discussion has become part of the same conversation. I rarely divorce food and wine anyway, so when I start to discuss the prominent spices in a dish, I also include what wines would best work with those. Spices like coriander and cumin, which work so well with bright red fruited Grenaches, Sangioveses, Pinot Noirs and Plavac Malis, while star anise, cinnamon, and black pepper lean more toward darker fruited Cab Sauvs, Syrahs, Saperavis, Mourvedres and so forth.
The important caveats to respect are keeping alcohol levels down, seeking wines with higher acids, great sense of terroir (earthy minerals often are the bridges with our spice-laden food) and proper serving temperature — which is where many restaurants of any origin often fail. You absolutely must serve most reds at cellar temperature, since heat inflames the use of chiles in our dishes.
What are some of the major flavor cues that you’ve worked with on this menu? Since we are just getting out of spring and into summer, it is a great time for California produce, which are some of the building blocks for our South Indian dishes. Curries are all about the spices and that, combined with the ever-changing bounty of California agriculture, means that spring and summer expresses itself very well with our current menu. This also affects my by the glass offerings, including which wines that I choose for our wine on tap program at our original DOSA on Valencia location.
What’s been the most surprising (and delicious!) pairing that you’ve found? Maybe the first time I properly chilled a Plavac Mali from the Peljesac in Croatia and was super surprised and how it really coaxed out the tropical notes in a Kerala Fish Moilee — a coconut-based curry from the Southwest Coast of India.
Any tips for sommeliers looking to tackle a wine list accompanying a cuisine that might be considered more “unexpected” in terms of wine? Call me! Truly. I am very accessible by email too. Over the years, I have been contacted by young wine directors that realize that they have new challenges to face that were never addressed in their traditional wine pairing training.
Otherwise, surround yourself with great suppliers, wineries and importers. For our modestly-sized list, I have over 35 people procuring wines from around the globe and here at home. Since we live in an unprecedented time of access to wines from all corners of the planet, one must not discount anything until they’ve tried it. Even with my experience with South Asian cuisine and culture (I traveled to several countries) my intuition isn’t always water, or wine-tight!
The other side of things is finding great deals. We do not have a high-end list. There are some regions that produce amazing wines, but their economies are struggling and/or their operating costs are so low that they offer top-flight wines for a fraction of the cost of certain unnamed wine producing regions. This is why I love countries with a wine industry such as Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Hungary, Georgia (mostly!), India and Chile, Argentina—-and the lesser-regarded corners of California and Oregon, Washington, New York and Arizona.
In the end, talk to your diners. A good wine is one that is liked by the one with the glass in their hand.
This time of the year, light and bright reds, tangy rosés and vibrant whites are what I hope to offer to our guests.
We also make wine! I have created, alongside some of my favorite California winemakers, a DOSA Private Label series named, Sujātā. Currently, we have a Sujata WHITE, a blend of sustainable Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc; Sujata RED, a blend of organic Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc,Petit Verdot and Malbec and the new-this-Spring, Sujata ROSATO, made with sustainably-grown Corvina Veronese and Sangiovese from Clarksburg and Lodi. These wines cut right to the chase and are specifically created for the dishes on our menu from the enchanting states of South India