While the shiny and spit-polished Essex Market may no longer resemble the ramshackle hub for immigrant pushcart vendors that it was in the late 19th Century, it still very much performs the same function: To provide all manner of produce and provender to New Yorkers in about the most direct way possible, something that is getting harder to accomplish in this time of rapid agribusiness consolidation and supply chain monopolization. While it’s certainly true that there are numerous well-stocked Greenmarkets in the city, none can offer the range of Essex Market coupled with its modernist shopping environment.
Essex Pearl typifies the market’s back-to-the-future vibe, albeit as both a vendor of pristine seafood and as a preparer of it. Short of heading down to the dock yourself, you simply can’t get fresher fruits de mer. That is because Essex Pearl’s seasonal menus are the sea-based versions of farm-to-table fare when the restaurant actually has its own farm. Some restaurants source directly from fisherman for special or hard-to-come-by ingredients. Essex Pearl only deals with fishermen.
The responsibility for enhancing such delicate and swimmingly fresh fish and shellfish falls to Nicole Walko, general manager and sommelier since Essex Pearl was a concept rather than the brick and mortar destination it has become. She comes well equipped for the task having been the beverage director for four-plus years at Cull & Pistol Oyster Bar, a highly regarded spot in Chelsea Market. A forthcoming WSET Diploma in wine and spirits, the highest certification awarded by this educational organization, is further testament to this Northern Virginia native’s wine/food bonafides.
Your list practically screams acidity and freshness, which certainly makes sense given your menu. You also have bottles from a number of off-the-beaten-path locations. How did you go about putting the list together?
First and foremost, the selections are here for the food—we have a lot of unique dishes but not unlimited storage—so I have to be very judicious, making sure whatever I buy has to complement our range of raw bar to dinner menu. Secondly, wines also have to really stand out on their own as well, both in quality as well as story. Those two factors mean that there’s a good amount of acidity, understandably, because of the seafood, but also a number of choices for our regular patrons, like full-bodied reds, toasty and aromatic whites, and a good number of natural wines.
Lastly, it was important for me to feature a number of domestic wines that represent distinct styles of wine made in lesser-known regions of the United States that I have a personal relationship with, like outstanding bottles from my home state of Virginia. I wanted to bring those to New York City, where guests who have never given them a try can discover a region they may not even have known produces wine!
Your bottle list, while touching many countries, has a significant number of French whites on it. How do you think Oceano compares to Old World Chardonnay?
I love French wines but know that there’s more to winemaking than just location. Attention and expertise know no border. If I were doing a blind tasting of Oceano, a New World Chardonnay, and perhaps a Côte de Beaune [the heart of Burgundy’s chardonnay production], they would be indistinguishable to me. It is one of the best American Chardonnays I’ve had the pleasure of tasting; a complex wine with great flavor and style.
Your raw bar selection is extraordinary. Can you pick a few things from your menus you think pair really well with Oceano Chardonnay?
There are many good choices but the standout pairings would be the rich, buttery meat of the live Diver scallop and the delicate, wild-caught, pan-seared halibut. The acidity in the Oceano would work very well with both, cutting through the fat and creaminess, creating some very rich and satisfying flavors.