What wine goes with sea cucumber and what even is sea cucumber?

On the eve of my wedding eight years ago, I opened a fairly expensive bottle of Bordeaux to share with Adam, a close friend who had flown in from New Zealand, and was playing the role of calming lieutenant ahead of the big day. It was only once the wine was opened, that we realised we hadn’t had dinner, and there was only one place open in the neighbourhood.

Cue: one of the more unusual wine pairings I’ve ever had (Michael Fridjhon, look away now): a bottle of vintage French red, and two large cheeseburgers from Steers.Up until this week, that was probably the most unexpected wine pairing I’d had. But a new contender arrived a couple of days ago, thirty floors above the maddening streets of Hong Kong. 

Vea is a small, intimate restaurant that only takes a few people, many of them dining on counters that face straight into the kitchen, and the culinary theatre that precedes the food. And what food it is: a fusion of France and China, laced with invention and imagination, and if desired, served with a suggested pairing of wine or cocktails. Which, once you’ve glanced at the menu and opted for wine, invites the question: what wine does one serve with sea cucumber?

That’s the job of Alex Yim, Vea’s sommelier: matching not just the sea cucumber, but a dozen or so other dishes with an assortment of wine, and doing the food justice without either overpowering it, or being overwhelmed. It’s a challenge, but I suspect it’s a job that a sommelier relishes; being part of the alchemy of the dining process, and finding just the right bottle to complete the culinary pas de deux. And the more intricate the meal, the more demanding the task…

After an assortment of playful snacks, from deep fried Bombay duck fish (real name), to two perfect spheres of salted fish and bok choi, served on a working music box, chef Vicky Cheng’s wondrous assault on the senses really takes off. A firm, fresh langoustine topped by a generous smear of sea urchin and a white corn croquette. The simple tomato dusted with burnt bread crumbs and salmon roe for an unexpected depth of flavour. Quail cooked zha zi style, with boiling oil repeatedly spooned over the bird for a flash fry effect. And the finest scallops I’ve had, large mouthfuls of ocean freshness seared ever so gently. The scallops arrived with the most memorable wine of the night: the Casa Rojo La Marimorena albariño, taking the usual steel of the grape, and adding a light creaminess for the ideal duet. (We don’t get much albariño in South Africa, but the Newton Johnsons are making a splendid example, and Nederburg and Springfield, to my knowledge, are also having success with the Spanish white.)

The tomato creation was shepherded down by a Loire sauvignon blanc from Masson Blondelet, the acid on both working well together, while the quail did duty with a rounded, well-bodied pinot noir from Domaine Lécheneaut, a wine with enough depth and allure to get past the defences of my pinot-averse wife. But what to serve with sea cucumber? If you haven’t had it before, an attempt to describe it: an ugly little creature, a dark oblong covered in small protrusions that suggest it’s the warthog of the marine world. And when it’s sitting in a murky brown mud crab sauce, you have a dish of limited aesthetic appeal. But the taste is actually quite pleasant: firm with more of a shellfish flavour and texture than you might have imagined from the cucumber name, and well supported by the richness of the crab sauce. And it made for an even more exotic dish given the wine chosen: an unfiltered white Burgundy, the cloudiness of the wine suggesting the murky waters both cucumber and crab might have inhabited.

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Particularly sharp, I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed it so much on its own, but with my first taste of sea cucumber, it worked perfectly. As did the whole evening: exceptional service, fabulous food, and a talented sommelier adding the final touch to a memorable night out in Hong Kong.

What I’m drinking this week: Picking up from a column a few weeks back about wine on flights, I came in to Hong Kong on South African Airways, with a wine list that included the Stellenrust Peppergrinder shiraz. No surprises as to the notes of pepper on the wine, although not industrially so: some lovely black fruit, and softer finish than the name might have prepared you for. Probably not ideal with sea cucumber, though.

Want to see what else Dan Nicholl has been drinking? Watch his latest episode of Dan Really Likes Wine

Images via VEA Restaurant & Lounge