Unique pairings: Peter Chang partner James Li puts his own spin on Kyoto

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Kyoto chef and owner James Li returns to the kitchen after years spent in a management role. Photo: Tom McGovern Kyoto chef and owner James Li returns to the kitchen after years spent in a management role. Photo: Tom McGovern

Did you know you that most restaurants let you bring wine to dinner? Though fees and restrictions vary, restaurants will open a guest’s own bottle of wine for a corkage fee. Some higher-end restaurants with sophisticated wine lists limit the practice to special bottles not on their list, while lower-end restaurants impose looser restrictions, if at all.

Heavyweight wine critic Robert Parker is known for wine feasts at his favorite strip mall Chinese restaurants in Northern Virginia. Somehow I never finagled my way into one of those, so I opted to create my own. All I needed, I figured, was great wine and great food.

For the wine, I called on Michael Davis, owner of The Wine Guild, a local wine-buying club whose members pay an annual fee to purchase wine at discounted prices and to receive expert recommendations. Davis and his staff sample thousands of wines a year, and sell only their favorites to members. Many members are serious wine geeks, and the club’s website includes a guide to Charlottesville restaurant corkage policies. It’s a great club, and (in full disclosure) I am a member.

For the food, I turned to Kyoto, denizen of Rio Hill Shopping Center, recently bought by a co-owner of Peter Chang’s China Grill, James Li. The change in ownership, trusted sources told me, takes Kyoto to another level. A lifelong cook with several restaurants under his belt, Li says that years in management at Peter Chang’s had left him longing for one more return to the kitchen. At 62, “Kyoto might be my last challenge,” says Li.

Though Li’s background is in regional Chinese cuisine and Kyoto is mainly a Japanese restaurant, he has experience in Japanese restaurants as well, and enjoys cooking almost anything. Before planning our wine feast, I sneaked in for a lunch of udon noodles to test whether Li was up to the task. Stellar. Game on.

When staff of The Wine Guild have a wine dinner, they do not mess around. For our group of five, they brought nearly two dozen bottles, though mercifully opened just nine. Davis even brought glassware, five glasses for each of us.

The wide variety of styles and flavors at Kyoto make it well-suited for a corkage dinner, according to the guild’s wine director Evan Williams, who also joined us. “There’s likely going to be a dish to pair with whatever style of wine you grab from your cellar,” says Williams.

Indeed, part of the fun is discovering unexpected combinations of wine and food, and we started with a doozy. Williams brought a bottle of 2014 Jordi Llorens Vi de Taula Blan d’Anzera—an orange-hued blend of Macabeu and Moscatel grapes. Refreshing and reminiscent of a Belgian sour ale, the unusual wine was a perfect match for Li’s platter of appetizers, which showcased his deft touch in deep frying. Who would have expected such harmony between the rare Spanish wine and Japanese specialties like tempura shrimp and fried calamari? Also delicious were the shumai: tiny dumplings, plump with ground pork and shrimp.

Li’s real showstoppers were the entrées, a parade of six regional Chinese specialties. All that time with one of the nation’s best Szechuan chefs appears to have rubbed off. “I have learned a lot from Peter,” he says. Though the regional specials are not on the restaurant’s (mostly Japanese) menu, Li will make anything on request. Just call ahead.

For spicier dishes, Davis suggested wines with residual sugar. Oil spiked with Szechuan peppers smothered room-temperature slices of roast pork atop slivers of cucumber. We complemented the heat and mouth-numbing effect of Szechuan pepper with a honeyed but lean Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, a 2011 Régis Cruchet Vouvray Demi-Sec.

Li’s favorite dish was the same as mine, a comforting home-style pot roast of pork. The method is the same as almost any pot roast or stew. Sear chunks of pork shoulder before braising them slowly in shallow liquid. The difference is the spices and aromatics: clove, cinnamon sticks, white pepper, ginger and star anise. Robert Parker loves to pair the Italian grape Nebbiolo with dishes like this, and Davis agreed, finding the best pairing of the night to be the pork with a 2011 Nino Negri Quadrio Valtellina Superiore DOCG. “The tannins offset the fat from the pork while the floral components played nicely with the star anise,” says Davis.

Also outstanding was Williams’ favorite dish, silky eggplant with black bean sauce. “I really loved the texture, which is hard to get right with eggplant,” he says.

The Wine Guild’s corkage guide offers etiquette pointers, including the tip on sharing your wine with the sommelier, chef or even a neighboring table. At Kyoto, Li joined us for some wine after our feast, an unplanned bonus of bringing our own. In fact, Davis said getting to know Li was his favorite part of the meal.

Even if you don’t have the pleasure of meeting Li, you’d be wise to get to know his food—with wine or without.