Pairing Off: Frozen Fish Sticks

More than any other "normal" food we've paired with wine thus far in this series, fish sticks scared the bejeezus out of the experts.

"God," mutters Jim Fleming of Sigel's Elite, shaking his head.

"Oh, man," exclaims Majestic's Scott Loudder at the thought. "You come up with some odd ones."

But when you think about it, frozen fish sticks are merely a combination of two potentially wine-friendly dishes: fried fish and fish cake, a Japanese favorite probably best served with sake. Yeah, fish cake is an acquired taste. Still, with enough sake...

Of course, these little oblong pieces hardly resemble fish, at least in terms of flavor. Or texture, for that matter. They come into being after processors chop together cheap white flesh of indeterminate lineage and form the resulting mush into pale blocks. A roll in breading and a little seasoning...no, skip that last bit...and they're ready to be popped in the oven.

The blandness makes wine pairing somewhat challenging.

"I would say something like an...no, don't want to do that," Fleming says, hesitating.

Once browned in the oven (well, some browned, some burnt and a few still soggy--it's an apartment oven, after all), the fish sticks are capable of two distinct characters: an inner filling of chunky paste with seafood flavor and a kind of exotic cardboard crust. "You don't need a powerful wine with that sort of dish," Loudder finally decides, also after a moment's pause.

Loudder recommends a simple Pinot Grigio. Fleming gestures toward Chardonnay, for much the same reasons--which means steering clear of big California labels. "I don't want to overdo it," he explains, suggesting Australian wines with little or no oak finish.

One of the staffers at Goody Goody directed me to the Greg Norman Chardonnay. By itself, the wine is somewhat creamy with a pineapple finish and light fruit throughout. When I sipped it beside those ghastly fish sticks, a nice rose petal flavor emerged in the background and the natural sweetness tilted toward citrus, a little tart and faintly bitter. The creamy nature also rounds out, giving it the appearance of more body.

But the fish seems unaffected by the presence of wine. And the Great White Shark's vintage can't put a stop to that nauseous feeling one gets after crunching on 18 pieces of oven-baked chum...and a rather large dollop of grocery store tartar sauce.

At least the wine did well up to that point.

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