By Vince Meehan
Downtown has become a culinary Mecca in recent years, and as such, has attracted a legion of five-star executive chefs, hospitality experts and mixologists to our fair city. This thriving scene has given San Diegans a wide spectrum of eats to choose from, including everything from classic Italian and Pan-Pacific Asian fusion, to steakhouses and Korean BBQ. Along with providing a cutting-edge menu, these restaurants must consciously create a wine list which compliments the food as well as the taste of the customer. For several restaurants, Taylor Berk is behind their curated wine list.
Berk is the wine director of Puffer Malarkey Collective, a restaurant group founded by culinary legend Brian Malarkey and his longtime business partner Christopher Puffer. The Florida native landed the coveted spot shortly after relocating to San Diego in 2014.
“I got in immediately with Puffer Malarkey Collective – I think I was only here for a couple of months – and I’ve been with them ever since,” Berk said from a plush booth of Downtown’s Animae restaurant.
Brian Malarkey is one of the country’s most successful and sought-after restaurateurs and has enjoyed a high-profile success story in San Diego by opening iconic restaurants such as Searsucker, Herringbone, Gabardine and Burlap. Berk is in charge of creating and nurturing the wine lists of the Puffer Malarkey Collective including Animae, Herb & Wood in Little Italy, and Herb & Sea in Encinitas. Additionally, she hits the road to monitor their Orange County satellite called Herb & Ranch in Irvine.
Berk’s current position at Puffer Malarkey began with culinary roots along America’s South Coast. “I’m from Florida… I’m from North Florida – St. Augustine beach. I grew up on the ocean so San Diego was like a natural transition. I lived in Charleston, South Carolina after Florida and that’s where I really got into the culinary scene,” Berk reflected. “I was working as a private chef, I went to culinary school at Cordon Bleu and started my own business as a private chef shortly after working at a couple of restaurants. I was doing a lot of work with wine dinners while also studying wine, and that was fun for a while. I got to travel a lot – New York, Los Angeles – and made my way around until I finally settled in San Diego”
Berk credits her culinary background as key to creating the innovative food and wine pairings that she now showcases with Puffer Malarkey. She also credits her grandfather as being instrumental in her career choice.
“I collect vintage cookbooks and vintage food books – my grandpa was actually in the spirit and wine business – and he is a huge inspiration to me,” said Berk while cradling a pair of her favorite Champagne bottles. “I have all these books he’s given me. Every time I go to his house he gives me a new book – even now. And I think for him, he has so many that he just wants to get some out of his house. But for me, it means a lot.”
She puts those books to use. Her grandfather has helped her collect a mini library of publications which she uses as inpiration.
“I have the first edition, signed copy of Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World, which is like the first book you get when you start studying wine. On any given Sunday if I ever have any free time – which is rare these days – I’ll sit down with a stack of my old books and just read, read, read, read,” she said.
Berk considers this downtime to be very important for her position and she feels that she learns more in these moments than anywhere else. And this especially helps her when she is at Amimae due to the restaurant’s unique menu.
Animae is located in a unique looking building on Pacific Highway within sight of the U.S.S. Midway museum and the Broadway Pier. Upon entering Animae, one can tell that it is clearly a steakhouse by its cushy circular booths, plush designer carpeting and the wine glasses strategically placed on every table. The décor pays homage to the classy Vegas look of the ‘60s where the space race merged with old school Hollywood elegance. Numerous swatches of green, ranging from ‘70s avocado, to ‘40s olive drab, dominate the color palette — a bold and stellar design choice. But the steakhouse also showcases a collection of Japanese kitsch art in homage to the menu’s Asian influence.
Berk has great affection for sparkling wines and Animae is the perfect arena to pair those bubbly bottles with the international items on the menu. Also, she encourages diners to order several different dishes and share them with the table family style. That way they can enjoy several different tastes at the same meal. This includes many items that are not the featured showcase steaks.
“So, we do have the A5 Waygu, and we are absolutely a Japanese steak house, but we have so many other incredible dishes,” Berk noted. “Our Shanghai crab noodles are amazing; we have touches of Vietnamese/Filipino dishes — very Southeast Asian — infused with a Japanese Steakhouse. We’ll get spot prawns in, and our chef Tara Monsod also does Kare Kare short rib, which is like a peanut/spring onion short rib that you can eat with a spoon! It just blows your mind.”
Berk’s love of sparkling wine is reflected in the wine list and she is always ready to recommend a bottle.
“I feel like sparkling wine is a little bit niche, but I’m saying like… why is it niche? I mean if you like beer, why aren’t you drinking sparkling wine too? The carbonation is nice, and helps you digest, and it goes with so many foods.”
Berk’s wine list is heavily represented with the traditional and well-known French producers, but she thrives on introducing her guests to lesser known or trending vintners. Currently, her attention is piqued with an acidic and bone-dry sparkling wine from Spain.
“I love the Sparkling Txakolina [sounds like choco-lina] which is super high acid, and very zippy. It’s lemony and bright and just cuts through the fattiness of foods and goes really well with salt,” Berk said. “And there is also the Moussé Fils Pinot Meunier — Its 100% Pinot Meunier! So, usually with Champagne, you have either Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay with Meunier, or some blend of the three. Usually Pinot Meunier is treated somewhat like the ‘throwaway grape.’ But this Champagne maker basically changed the game on that. And I think that’s really fun and cool to showcase too because you have this delicious wine which has all of the regular notes of Champagne, but also these very juicy bright berry and apple notes and you just say, ‘What is going on here!?’ And I think that’s really fun.”
Berk also peppers her wine list with fun bottles like Spanish Temperillos, Grecian Xinomavro, and Paship from Croatia. She loves it when guests order them. She uses her vast wine knowledge to help her guests choose a bottle but she prefers to have them experience it themselves.
“My philosophy is – when I pour wine for guests, or when I talk about wine, I’m very apprehensive to tell people what they are tasting. I stray away from leading them to any conclusions because I really want it to be their experience.”
— Vince Meehan can be reached at email@example.com.