NEW YORK • A recent dinner at Indian Accent began in typical fashion. Papadum and other crisp wafers arrived with an assortment of sweet and spicy chutneys, though the wafers were presented vertically, their edges anchored in a bed of dry lentils.
Next came something unexpected: a small circle of warm naan stuffed with blue cheese as an amuse-bouche, a delicious union of soft, lightly smoky South Asian bread and pungent European funk. Then, a surprise: the wine list, a world-class collection of bottles spanning the world, including inexpensive obscurities and fine, pricey Burgundies and Champagnes.
Many people, conditioned by the vast majority of Indian restaurants, would never imagine ordering fine wine with Indian food. Beer, they insist, is the go-to, especially with spicier dishes.
Over centuries in European and Middle Eastern wine-drinking cultures, wine and food developed in tandem, dovetailing naturally at the table. Some cuisines outside historic wine regions, such as Cantonese and Vietnamese, have proven themselves amiable companions to wine. But Indian food, with its rich, integrated sauces and occasional chilli heat, has often posed a difficult riddle to wine lovers.
Yet a growing number of Indian restaurants are offering lists of wines intended both to flatter the food and to create unexpectedly delicious synergies.
Along with Indian Accent, other recent arrivals include Pondicheri, which offers an appropriately casual selection of well-chosen bottles with its informal menu of dishes from all over the subcontinent; Paowalla, Floyd Cardoz's longawaited return to Indian cooking after the closing of Tabla in 2010, which has a list that is quickly developing a point of view; and Babu Ji, another easy-going restaurant that opened in the East Village last year with a good selection of carefree bottles.
But the process of integrating wine and Indian food is not easy, nor is it intuitive. For one thing, it is a ludicrous generalisation to speak of Indian cuisine, which comprises many different regional styles and traditions, as if it were one thing.
Mr Michael Dolinski, wine director at Junoon near Madison Square Park, suggests that classic European dishes were constructed with wine in mind. They leave openings for wines to fill with their range of fruity, sweet, bitter flavours and their acidity and tannic structures.
In the various Indian cuisines, that vacuum has often been filled with chutneys and other sauces, which add acid and sweetness; spices, which provide tannins; and raita, which cools and refreshes.
The challenge is to figure out how wine can bring balance to a dish.
Often, this can lead to counterintuitive pairings. For example, the reflex desire to pair lamb with a red wine, Mr Dolinski suggests, would be a mistake. "I think that with virtually any lamb curry, white wine is the best choice," he said, singling out dry rieslings and gruner veltliners as wines that would go well.
A lamb kebab, cooked in the tandoor and served with a spicy sauce, he said, would benefit from a moderately sweet riesling, like a German feinherb or kabinett.
When Mr Daniel Beedle, beverage director at Indian Accent, took the job, he had eaten a lot of Indian food, but had little experience in pairing wines with the dishes.
He examined the many spices used in Indian preparations and realised they can often be surprisingly tannic. As others concluded, the best wines were often moderately sweet whites high in acid and fresher, savoury reds with few tannins.
Reds from Languedoc-Roussillon, particularly those with grenache and carignan, can be very successful, he said, as can Rioja Gran Reservas with enough age to have mellowed the tannins. As for that other sparkling beverage, beer, few sommeliers believe that it enhances Indian dishes.
Mr Dolinski said: "When the British arrived in India, it didn't have an alcohol tradition, so they brought Scotch and beer," he said. "Beer wipes out the spices and destroys the flavours. To the British, that was great."