Tequila for dinner: Richard Sandoval’s pleasures | SummitDaily.com

Tequila for dinner: Richard Sandoval’s pleasures

by Kelly J. Hayes

Man does not live by wine alone. No, sometimes it takes tequila to bring out the best.

"I love tequila," said mega-chef Richard Sandoval, as he stood in the summer sunshine on a Saturday evening in his TORO restaurant at the Viceroy Snowmass in Colorado. "And obviously it pairs well with the Latin flavors found in my restaurants."

The "my restaurants" part includes over 40 different dining establishments around the world. The Mexico City-born impresario has built an empire, RS Hospitality, that rarely sees the sun set upon it. From his original and beloved Maya in New York City, Sandoval has expanded his influence and passion for the cuisine of Mexico and Latin America (with occasional pan-Asian touches) to include restaurants throughout the United States and Mexico, along with outposts in Doha, Qatar; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Tokyo, Japan.

"I flew about 300,000 miles last year," said the bearded Sandoval with a resigned laugh and a weary shake of the head, as he gazed into a glass of tequila. It has been a meteoric rise for the son of a Mexican restaurateur, who at one time aspired to a career as a professional tennis player. "I played in high school (Corona del Mar, California) and in college (New Mexico and Texas Tech) before I decided that cooking was for me. So I went to the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park and it all began."

Which brings us back to TORO and Tequila. While wine dinners are prevalent in resort communities during the summer months, Sandoval wanted to do something a little different. So, in conjunction with TORO executive chef Herb Wilson, he created a five-course South American menu to pair with the tequilas of Casa San Matias, a 130-year-old, family-owned producer in Jalisco, Mexico. A tequila dinner, if you will.

While decidedly a different product from wine, there are some similarities between the production processes of wine and tequila. Start with the fact that both are derived from plant-based sources dependent upon specific locations and soils, or terroir, for their unique flavor characteristics. The Casa San Matias tequilas are sourced exclusively from blue agave plants that thrive in the iron rich, red soils of the Jalisco Highlands.

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While grapes are an annually recurring fruit, the Blue Agave plant gives its life for the production of tequila. At 7 to 10 years of age, once it is determined to be ready, the Jimadores, agave farmers, literally cut the heart, or the piña, out of the plant as they harvest it. Using long, sharp knives known as coa, the Jimadores slice the exposed leaves to reveal a 70-plus-pound piña that resembles a large pineapple.

While grapes undergo fermentation after harvest, the piña at Casa San Matias are baked at precisely 194 degrees for 48 hours before fermentation. After the cooking process, the agave is milled and mixed with spring water before being placed in fermentation tanks for 72 hours with yeasts specifically selected to spur the fermentation. Then, unlike wines, the juices are double-distilled in copper pots.

But the place where wines and tequila share the most in common is in the depths of barrels where they age. As is the case with fine wines, the Casa San Matias tequilas rely on the influence of French and American oak barrels to impart flavors and nuance to the liquids.

This influence was evident as we tasted through a range of Casa San Matias bottlings with the exquisite meal Chef Wilson and members of Sandoval's team of Denver chefs created. The evening began with Casa San Matias Tahona Blanco paired with an ocean-fresh razor clam ceviche. The Tahona, named for the traditional large stone device that is used at Casa San Matias to crush the baked agave, is perhaps the most artisanal of the distiller's products. Created to celebrate the company's 130th anniversary in 2016, there was an earthiness and purity to the clear and clean tequila, which worked well with the ceviche.

We progressed to a Reposado (aged in wood) served with zucchini flowers stuffed with black trumpet mushrooms. A Gran Reserva Extra Añejo (amber in color and resplendent in the vanilla and chocolate hints that wood can provide) was poured with lobster enchiladas with a creamy huitlacoche sauce. A slow braised, chile mole-seasoned beef short rib that fell from the bone and melted in the mouth was paired the Casa San Matias Orgullo Añejo.

These tequilas were sipped like wine, from snifters, with each course. They paired perfectly with the complex flavors of the chef duo's creations. Most of all they made us think about the place, the process and the people from where they originated.

Yes, tequila brought out the best in us.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.