Tocai

Tocai

601 W. Sixth, 457-8880

Mon-Sat, 11am-2pm; Mon-Thu, 6-10pm; Fri-Sat, 6-11pm

When someone names a restaurant for a wine grape, you can assume he or she has some serious thoughts about how wine will meld with food. Tocai, an obscure Italian varietal, is also the name of a local restaurant owned by Anthony Garcia, a wine fanatic, a man especially excited by the obscure and untried. While most restaurant owners get excited to see other chefs come in (it's a sign of peer respect), Garcia feels triumphant when wine sellers dine at Tocai. In most restaurants, the chef decides what is on the menu and the wine steward has little or no input. At Tocai, chef Betsy Johnson and Garcia work in tandem to create a menu and wine list that work together. This is also a place where they train the wait staff in the extreme about wines. Rule No.1: Don't ever B.S. a customer. If you don't know the wine, don't act like you do. Rule No.2: Any time someone asks for a wine Tocai doesn't carry, find out what they love about it and try to steer them to a new discovery that fits their palate. Rule No.3: Have fun.

Nowhere in this restaurant is there a feeling of wine snobbery. The list has headings like "Why the Spanish Kick Butt" or "A Whole Bunch of Killer Rhone Wine." During a recent visit, I surreptitiously listened as Ty, a waiter, recommended wines to a table full of business people who only know Kendall-Jackson and Beringer. He recommended the Pra Soave ($26) with the herb and potato gnocchi ($7) because the acidity from the wine clarifies the potato starch and the fat from the butter. He matched a fruity and peppery Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel ($53) with the braised cabbage and meat in the bistro pork ($16.95). He gave a perfect description of the benefits of each wine, never using any traditional wine terms; both are terrific recommendations.

However, if you are a wine lover, the best person to talk to is Garcia. He is passionate about wine; talking about it, drinking it, learning about it, and especially searching for new ones. Forty to 60 times per week, he breaks open a new wine looking for those that display acidity and purity of varietal character. "Most California wines lack acid. You can always tell a person that likes to combine food and wine because they love acidic wines," he says unequivocally. Which probably accounts for the fact that he carries only one California white wine. A great example of an acidic wine that mates perfectly with the food at Tocai is the Kunstler Riesling Halbtrocken ($23), a mouth-puckering experience without food, but when combined with blackened shrimp with Stilton and pecans ($9), the merger is manna.

Of the 60 wines on the list, 20 come by the glass and almost all are obscure and interesting. Tocai's prices are impressively low by restaurant standards. As an example, they serve two of the best inexpensive sparkling wines on the planet: Zardetto Prosecco ($19) and François Montand Brut ($19). When was the last time you saw a good bottle of sparkling wine in a restaurant for less than $20? Domaine de la Garrigue Vacqueyras ($25, $6.75 per glass) is another great bargain. It works magic with the noisette of lamb ($23.95), bringing a cedar and pepper character to bear on the strong olive sauce, while the fruit balances the lamb flavors. Moving up the price spectrum, the Albert Mann Tokai Pinot Gris ($37) is a huge, perfumed wine, very complex and food-friendly. The most exciting find on the list is the 1997 Seghesio Barbera D'Alba ($32). This wine demonstrates extraction; the taste stays in your mouth minutes after tasting. It is complex, earthy, fruity -- almost overwhelming.

Tocai's wine list provides surprise after surprise. The only downside is the fault of Garcia's success: Unless you are very wine savvy, not much on the list will be familiar. If you go looking for the standard brands, you will not be sated. But, to me, half the fun is picking a dish that appeals, then talking to Garcia about what he would recommend to go with it. He is genuinely interested in figuring out what you like, whether he agrees or not, and then finding a perfect match on his wine list. No wine Nazi-ism here. These are some of the reasons that Anthony Garcia was last year's critic's pick for the Best Palate for Pairing Food & Wine in the Best of Austin issue. Tocai is a wine lover's Shangri-la.

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