Frasca Food and Wine: to thine own self be true

Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, CO

(Blind tastings)... seem such tomfoolery... Such tasting conditions have nothing to do with the conditions under which the wines will presumably be drunk, which is at the table, with food.  When a woman chooses a hat, she does not put it on a goat's head to judge it; she puts it on her own.  There is a vast difference, an insurmountable difference, between the taste of a wine next to another wine, and the same wine's taste with food. - Kermit Lynch, Adventures on the Wine Route

What does it take to become – like Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, CO – a #1 restaurant in the eyes of both critics across the country and your surrounding community?  This past January 2015 I took two sommeliers, three executive chefs, and four general managers employed by the TAG restaurant group in Denver to Frasca for dinner.  Our mission:  to get a feel for what makes a restaurant like Frasca work.

Since 2004 Frasca has been owned and operated by Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey and his Chef/Partner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson.  What makes Frasca unusual is that it is focused almost exclusively on the cuisine and wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.  If there are influences from outside the realm of Northern Italy, the emphasis still rests squarely on the delicacy, subtle earthiness, and sense of balance, clarity and delineation similar to what you find in dishes and wines from Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

At a Master Sommelier's restaurant, uncompromised crystal

This means no long lists of Bordeaux grand crus or the usual big-name American brands associated with “serious” restaurant wine programs.  Instead, you find wines that are comparable, on a sensory level, to the lighter, crisper styles of Friuli-Venezie Giulia:  white and red Burgundies, German and Alsatian Rieslings, Grüner Veltliner from Austria, and smatterings of alternative style American wines such as Ryme Vermentino, Arnot-Roberts Syrah, Scholium Project Rhododactylus, and Pinot Noirs by a Copain or Eyrie.

Yet in 2013, Frasca garnered a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service.  The locals also get it, because every year since 2010 Frasca has been voted Colorado’s top restaurant by Denver’s 5280 Magazine.  As TAG’s Davin Tata put it, after our experience:  Is Friuli a town of great culinary traditions and innovation?  Possibly.  Was anyone in Boulder clamoring for Friulian food and wine in Boulder before Frasca opened?  Probably not.  Is their commitment to their identity unwavering?  Absolutely!”  

The author with Frasca sommelier Carlin Karr

At Frasca, adds Tata, “you find the narrowest of focus” – from pasta handmade daily and company sponsored trips to Friuli each year, to13 different kinds of stemware cleansed in a dishwasher devoted exclusively to wine glasses, housed in a 20 x 20-foot “polishing room,” complete with a “sommelier’s table” (there is also a chef’s table in the kitchen).

Our dinner at Frasca started off with a match that would strike a theme throughout the night:  a dish that is not terribly complicated, and a wine that might be considered light and simple by today's standards, where 90-something points are awarded to the biggest, brashest, most oak driven wine.  

Yet together, the wine and dish made a powerful statement in respect to the aforementioned qualities of delicacy, subtle earthiness, balance, clarity and delineation:  a plate of salumi and frico caldo (cheese crisps) served with the 2013 Scarpetta Frico Bianco – the wine made from the Friuliano grape, which delivers an equilibrium of minerally, flowery and peach skin sensations that unfailingly enhances the palate slaking salty/sweet taste of Italian ham.

Divine simplicty:  montasio and Miani Ribolla Gialla

This was followed by a montasio (creamy cheese soup), which was given a lift by a fleshy, modestly tart edged 2011 Miani Ribolla Gialla Pettarin from Colli Orientali.  Frasca sommelier Carlin Karr explained, “Ribolla Gialla is a rare, thick skinned varietal that delivers the 'heft' that the soup begs for, and the wine itself elevates the match.  Miani, arguably Friuli’s most legendary winemaker, always gets a laser-like focus and intensity in his Ribolla.”

For the next course of gnocchi served with slivers of cotecchino (charcuterie), Ms. Karr chose what she calls a modern day “fantasy field blend” from Colli Orientali:  the 2012 Ronc di Vico Titut Blanc – a silken, seamless blend of Friulano, Chardonnay and Sauvignon, which had just enough viscosity, weight and acidity to carry the gnocchi and fatty sausage.
Our final course was a meaty, lean yet pillowy pork loin, served with the 2011 Petrussa Merlot from Colli Orientali, which combined the delicacy of a white wine with the deep, savory note of classic reds.  Karr explained, “I know many sommeliers think of Merlot as passé... but Merlot has been grown in Friuli since the Napoleon era, and we love the Petrussa for its pure, light, feminine qualities, and scent of red apple skin – a natural for pork loin.”

There are many reasons why Frasca is a #1 restaurant:  unerring wine/food mentality, fanatical team service, perfect lighting, luxurious crystal, uncompromising wine service.  But above all, observed TAG General Manager Jason Borders, “What struck me most was that they hire the best talent in the industry, and stick to what they do best.”

So stop and think again, and let that sink in:  what Frasca Food and Wine does well is live up to its full name, food and wine.  The focus is not on powerful wines or landmark dishes, meant to stand on their own.  Perhaps some of them do at Frasca, but that's besides the point.  Frasca's only real ambition is to present wines and dishes that taste divine with each other.  

What a concept - not exactly original, but so very rarely tried or executed.  In fact, I can count the number of American restaurants that do this on one hand.

Just goes to show how far you can go when you remain true to yourself! 

The TAG team at Frasca


Back Burners

The state of Syrah, its ideal food matches, and a short list of inspiring American producers

Chicken (recipes & wine matches) everybody loves

The acid test: sauvignon blanc food matches of our dreams

Cabernet sauvignons past & present, and the foods we love to eat with them

Is Pinot Noir the ultimate food wine?

Culinary matching 101: wines for classic blackened tuna

The underappreciated joys of Zinfandel and cheese matching

Is Riesling the ultimate white wine for food?

Not your daddy's zin (zinfandel's amazing food affinities)

Reconsidering the oyster (and its sensible wine matches)