Tableside with a Somm: Select Oyster Bar

Brian Samuels

Curious about restaurant wine lists? Each month, Boston Globe wine columnist Ellen Bhang chats with a sommelier about a couple of terrific bottles and recommends food pairings – you come away a savvier sipper. 

Michael Serpa is happiest in the thick of the action, a fact that became clear to everyone when he was a youngster.

The chef and partner of Select Oyster Bar spent summers at his father and stepmother’s cafeteria in Miami, Florida. “I remember the old Cuban lady making rice, and I learned to make the coffee,” he says. “For a 12-year-old kid, running around a 300-seat place was pretty cool.” One morning, he woke up and realized his dad and stepmom had driven to the restaurant without him. “I was so mad they didn’t take me to work!” he says. The next day, while it was still dark, he snuck out to the car and slept in the back seat. “They didn’t even know I was there,” he says proudly—at least not until he popped up and surprised them both. Needless to say, they never left him behind again.

Fast-forward to today, and it’s no surprise that Serpa curates the Back Bay restaurant’s wine list himself. The 150-bottle program is populated by venerable Old World pours, plus a smattering of artisanal New World selections. Having a point of view is important, he says, and so is being democratic. “I try to make it broad enough so that someone can be drinking a [Domaine Jean-Louis] Chave Hermitage next to a person enjoying a $40 bottle.”

Brian Samuels

Heritage also matters. A 2008 Trimbach “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” Riesling is crafted by a 13-generations-strong winegrowing family in Alsace, France, a stone’s throw from the German border. “It’s one of my favorite benchmark bottles,” says Serpa. “The first time I tried it, I was like, ‘Wow, it’s serious!’ It’s not bone dry, but balanced, with good weight, petrol, and crazy acid.”

Because this regal white is packaged as a magnum (the equivalent of two standard bottles) it seems tailor-made for a group—but the chef insists that two people can polish it off, drinking it throughout the meal. It can stand up to a fish entrée like his preparation of arctic char. “It’s a French-leaning dish with leeks and a pistachio dressing,” he says. Topping the pristine fillets are frisée greens, which he describes as “bitter, crispy, and crunchy,” tossed with lardons, then dressed in a tart-with-lemon vinaigrette.

Brian Samuels

The chef is keen on reinforcing the message that red wine can pair with fish. A 2016 Arnot-Roberts North Coast Trousseau, for example, is crafted by two friends who source the grape (a varietal associated with eastern France and Portugal) from trusted growers. The Healdsburg, California-based duo, whose output is about 1,400 total cases a year, uses only native yeast. The wine goes into the bottle without fining or filtration. “It’s the ideal seafood red,” says Serpa.  “It’s pretty high in acid, and the color—rusty and light—is awesome. The aroma is like, ‘Whoa, violets.’”

He pours it alongside tuna tartare, with chives and a dollop of caviar. “The light blood red of the wine looks like the tuna,” he enthuses. “You could blind taste it, and not say, ‘It’s really good natural wine,’ but ‘It’s really good wine, period.’”

Brian Samuels

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