One of the first things Matthew Latham learnt about wine-waiting in an exclusive enclave of Los Angeles County is less is more. Literally.
In a place where bigger is always considered better, Los Angeles-based Latham spent his first day at work trimming 150 big, buttery chardonnays and clunky Californian cabernet sauvignons from the restaurant’s wine list. The next day he slashed another 100 wines from the list. By day three, with barely any wines left to serve, and patrons rolling up casually with their own bottles, Latham was frantically calling in new wines from importers, distributors and winemakers.
Initially, Latham had just turned up at the historic and iconic Dining Room restaurant at the Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa, in Pasadena, hoping to secure a job. They were so impressed with him that they put him on the payroll.
Long before Latham culled the restaurant’s wine list, it had failed to impress, let alone satisfy, its wealthy clientele. Most had been bringing their own wines rather than choosing from the long but deeply unsatisfying list.
Now, 18 months later, the Dining Room has a smaller and quirkier but better wine list than before. It is defined by breadth rather than length. Diversity and variety have turned around its flagging fortunes, though some patrons still bring their own wines.
This might fly in the face of what most of us expect at a restaurant awarded a Michelin star, but it is not uncommon in the US, where diners can, and do, bring their own wines to top restaurants, paying a premium for the privilege. Naturally, Latham would prefer they didn’t, but he knows cultural change is hard won.
Latham is redefining traditional fine dining culture with adventurous wine choices to match new versions of classic dishes. His style is a far cry from the old “red wine with meat, white wine with fish” approach.
Working closely with the chef, Latham aims to deliver both taste and textural experiences.
If a food is creamy, crisp or soft, for example, it will often be served with a contrasting wine that offers the opposite. Asian dishes that err on the salty side are served with slightly sweet sparkling sake. Creamy squash blossom is served with strongly aromatic retsina.
Intense game meats are served with sparkling shiraz.
Latham doesn’t believe that wine and cheese go together but he champions cheese with beer. It’s not a matter of pushing boundaries for the sake of it but of serving interesting as well as delicious dishes.
There is, of course, the potential for disaster. The greater the risk, the worse the outcome could be at a restaurant where many regulars are happier with predictable wine-and-food matches than boundary-stretching taste experiences. Latham recalls an elderly couple celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary at the restaurant. They were less than keen on a sparkling sake – until they tasted it and loved it, after having slapped Latham’s hand for previously serving something they had declined.
The weirder the wine, the more likely it is to be included on the restaurant’s wine list.
Italian müller-thurgau, German silvaner and Spanish cariñena are all there, but then so are many great classics. Six vintages of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti keep company with a small selection of Californian and Oregonian pinot noirs. Two big, alcoholic zinfandels pay homage to California, but Canadian ice wine, Spanish verdejo and Italian gewürztraminer are listed, too. If a wine doesn’t sell, Latham swiftly removes it from the list.
For all his attention to the unusual, Latham insists he paints a culinary picture within the lines of traditional tastes, using a palate of colours that are often overlooked.
The Dining Room has been awarded a Michelin one-star rating for the second year in a row.
It is the only hotel restaurant in Los Angeles to be awarded a Michelin star.