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May 26, 2009
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Wine With . . . Tuna Steak au Poivre

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas       


A few years ago--decades ago, really--steak au poivre was all the rage.  Like many of you, we loved the big fat steak oozing beefy, buttery juices, the fiery crust of crushed peppercorns, the sumptuous cream and Cognac sauce coating the wondrous hunk of meat.  And we certainly loved the strong red wine that inevitably accompanied that gastronomic delight.  And then, for reasons having to do with both health and fashion, this heart-thumpingly delicious dish more or less disappeared from the dining scene. 


We thought about steak au poivre last Sunday as we studied the fresh catch offered by Salt River Lobster, the Baltimore Farmers' Market seafood purveyor.  It occurred to us that we could make a healthier, more contemporary steak au poivre if we used fresh tuna instead of beef.  We'd sear the pepper-coated tuna steak in olive oil instead of butter, and in lieu of cream and Cognac, an Asian inspired soy-based sauce would serve as counterpoint to the protein-dense fish.  Naturally, we'd have to re-think the wine options since a big, showy red surely would overwhelm the fish.  (It's true that fresh tuna is often thought of as a red wine food these days, but delicate Pinot Noir or Beaujolais-type wine is the style most often recommended.)


Another consideration was that the soy-based Asian sauce might prove averse to any wine, red or white.  The signature element in soy sauce is umami (the fifth taste along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty), and although umami is generally considered a fine partner for wine, when it is too strong it can make wine taste bitter.  We knew that we could most likely counteract this by adding a splash of lemon or lime juice to the recipe, but another potential risk to making this a wine-friendly dish presented itself:  Would the acute spiciness of the black pepper coating the fish be too overbearing?  We concluded that one way to subdue the peppery onslaught would be to set our regular pepper mill to deliver a medium coarse grind instead of smashing the peppercorns with a mortar and pestle as is traditionally recommended for steak au poivre.  (Stronger-flavored beef can better absorb larger and uneven bits of pepper).  But whichever way it's done, the important thing is to start out with whole peppercorns rather than pre-ground pepper, for the fresh peppercorns add a markedly brighter, more complex and savory result. 


One other trick we used to blunt the impression of excess pepperiness was to add diced avocado to the sauce.  A teaspoon of sugar would have served more or less the same purpose, but we liked the added texture as well as the flavor of the ripe avocado. 


Tuna Steak au Poivre

Serves 2


3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon water

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)

2 teaspoons minced spring onion or scallion (white part)

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

2 tablespoons finely minced cilantro

1 ripe avocado, diced

3 tablespoons coarsely ground black peppercorns

1 pound tuna steak at least 1 inch thick, cut in half


Whisk together the soy sauce, water, one tablespoon of the olive oil, onion or scallion, ginger and cilantro.  Just before serving stir in the avocado.  Meanwhile, press the ground peppercorns onto each side of the tuna.  In a heavy 12-inch skillet, heat the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil over medium to high heat until it shimmers.  Add the tuna steaks and sear for about three minutes on each side for medium rare.  Arrange the tuna on two serving plates and spoon a little of the sauce over it.  Pass the rest of the sauce separately. 





Approx. Price



Ad Lib, Pemberton Western Australia (Australia) No Oak Chardonnay 'Tree Hugger'2008

(Imported by Vintage New World)





All of the wines we are recommending with this dish share certain qualities-namely, an inherent fruitiness that verges on sweetness, and refreshing acidity that renders them lively.  They also have full flavor.  By contrast, the wines that did not fare as well with it tended to be either too light and delicate or too heavy and cumbersome.  The density of the tuna steak demands a wine with heft; but at the same time, the vibrancy of the sauce requires one with lift.


This unwooded Chardonnay satisfies all of the criteria listed above. Full-bodied but not heavy, it tastes of ripe, fresh stone fruits, and finishes on an appealingly racy note.      




Cono Sur, Casablanca Valley (Chile) Gewurztraminer 'Visión' 2008

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)





We had a hunch that Gewurztraminer would pair nicely with the dish, as this varietal seems to have a natural affinity for ginger and soy.  The one potential problem, though, comes in its being naturally low in acidity.  But this particular wine, from the cool Casablanca region, tasted pleasantly fresh and bright, and so was a definite winner with our tuna.




Joseph Drouhin, Beaujolais-Villages (France) 2007

 (Imported by Dreyfus Ashby & Co.)






The one red we are recommending, this lively, youthful Beaujolais-Villages tasted of fresh strawberries, and that fruity appeal is what made it work nicely with the dish.  We suspect that an equally light Pinot Noir would work equally well.  Unfortunately, the one Pinot we tried (from northern California) proved too heavy and hot.




Eberle, Paso Robles (California) 'Côtes-du-Rôbles Blanc' 2008





A blend of Roussanne (49%), Grenache Blanc (37%), and Viognier (18%), this sumptuous Rhône-styled white seemed tailor-made for drinking with this dish.  Though offering very different flavors, it worked for exactly the same reasons as the Gewurztraminer - fresh fruity taste, crisp acidity, and a lush, seductive texture.




Errazuriz, Casablanca Valley (Chile) Chardonnay 'Wild Ferment' 2007

(Imported by Vintus LLC)







A full-fleshed Chardonnay, offering more than a hint of oak but at the same time plenty of tropical and summer (peach) fruit flavor, this wine had the body to hold up to this fairly substantial dish.  At the same time, it felt lively and refreshing, so added an appealing element to the pairing.