Tableside with a Somm: UNI

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. 

Growing up in Dallas, Texas, Olivia Moravec could count on weekly etiquette lessons from her grandmother. “That included how to set a table,” says the wine director and assistant general manager of Uni, Ken Oringer and Tony Messina’s Back Bay restaurant. “I still remember ‘B-M-W’—bread, meat, and water—from left to right,” she recalls, referring to the positions of the bread plate, main plate, and water glass.

At the modern izakaya, you won’t find Moravec fussing over old-school place settings. But she’ll tell you that those early tutorials still inspire her to get the details right. It doesn’t hurt that “Grandmama” believed in rewarding good manners, flying her granddaughter to New York to dine at Tavern on the Green for her 13th birthday, and on another occasion, to London to have high tea at Harrods.

The wine pro’s passion and precision are evident in a 155-bottle list showcasing Old World classics, California reds with a lighter touch in alcohol, and island wines from Corsica and Sicily. She makes the job look easy, but admits to feeling challenged when she joined Uni almost a year ago. “I was definitely learning a different style of food,” Moravec says of the Japanese-influenced fare, quite unlike the cuisine at Craigie on Main where she worked previously. But she quickly adapted. “Sushi is not an aromatic food, so I ask, ‘What would I want to add to this?’” Often, raw seafood calls out for a wine with flavors like lemon and salt. Other times, pristine cuts of fish benefit from pours full of irresistible aromas.

Brian Samuels

One exuberantly scented pour is made at Weingut Keller, in Germany’s Rheinhessen, crafted from Scheurebe (pronounced “shoy ray beh”) grapes. The bottle, a 2016, is classified as kabinett, at the lightest end of the spectrum. “It smells like a tropical fruit basket, one step fruitier than riesling,” Moravec explains, noting that guests are often surprised that it doesn’t taste cloyingly sweet. She recommends it with a salmon nigiri adorned with a miniature dollop of gochujang and pickled golden beets. She loves how the white—“with a kiss of honey on the end”—moderates the spicy Korean chili paste, and offers lively, palate-refreshing acidity.

Brian Samuels

A 2003 Vouvray from Domaine du Viking in France’s Loire Valley shows how chenin blanc can evolve. “I try to keep one older glass pour on the list,” Moravec explains, detailing how “savory, umami-driven notes” develop with age. A portion of this wine spends time in chestnut barrels, which further enhance those characteristics. Vinified in the off-dry tendre style, it’s the sweetest of the by-the-glass options. The mature white is excellent with cacio e pepe—in this case, springy ramen noodles tossed with parmesan cheese and cracked black pepper. As if it were not swoon-worthy enough, the rich pasta arrives with chunks of Maine lobster and shaved Perigord truffles. “The sweetness and mushroom notes of the wine pair especially well with the dish,” she enthuses.

Asked what her grandmother thinks of the path she has forged, Moravec can’t suppress her delight.

“She’s always excited to taste what I open,” says the wine pro. “She’s the best dining companion when I visit home.”

Brian Samuels

Navigate the Boston food scene like a pro!

Subscribe to receive intel on Boston’s best bites right in your inbox.

Thank you!