While fried chicken has been a Southern staple for decades, its recent crossover from soul food classic to chef favorite has been something to behold — and Yardbird in Miami can certainly be credited with playing a large part in the bird’s resurgence. Starting in Miami and eventually expanding to Las Vegas, Yardbird’s success eventually led to the opening of the very pork-centric Swine — and Advanced Sommelier Daniel Toral is the man with the tough task of figuring out what wines to pair with dishes that would traditionally be washed down with sweet tea or a cold beer.
We met Daniel at the recent SommSlam competition — which he won thanks to his depth of wine knowledge and spot-on adventurous pairings (including pairing a fortified Rueda Dorado wine with a veggie-heavy entree). But his career arc is actually a lot more varied and interesting than guy-loves-wine-and-becomes-a-somm.
Toral began his career on the other side of the restaurant world — having graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and working with famed chef Jonathan Waxman on the cooking line, eventually shifting over to pastry. But, while he was cranking out sweets, one thing kept catching his eye. “I kept noticing all the sommeliers going up and down the stairs with amazing wines — at that point I didn’t know what was amazing or not — but I kept eyeing all the bottles.”
Then, forced to find other work after the restaurant closed, Daniel transitioned to the front of the house at Per Se, the fine dining mecca in New York City owned by the legendary Thomas Keller. It’s there that Daniel earned his stripes in hospitality and making sure his customers get the very best experience possible.
“I remember the first day of service at Per Se like it was yesterday,” Daniel recalls. “Everyone was so nervous. the expectations were extremely high. It was the place that set all the standard for my career. Sense of urgency is something that was stressed since day one, finesse is a word that has been engraved in me. Whenever I set a plate in front of anyone, I make sure I know every ingredient and cooking technique, and whenever I’m on the floor, I always have a smile on my face.”
That smile is infectious, and now it’s a part of the tremendously successful 50 Eggs restaurant group, which runs Yardbird as well as Swine in Coral Gables, Florida. And though Daniel is stationed in Florida, he’s anything but Southern: He was born in Venezuela, and his mother is Hungarian — which he attributes to helping out his palate decipher and appreciate a world-spanning array of flavors. “I think it gave me an extra skill, because I was exposed to so many ingredients and flavor combinations growing up,” he says.
At Yardbird and Swine, though, there’s no goulash or arepas on the menu. It’s American Southern through and through, and Daniel tells us “there’s actually a few dishes I would recommend with Ribera wines” at should you find yourself bellied up to the bar or tables at Yardbird (… but it’s not their legendary fried chicken). In fact, the Las Vegas outpost boasts two Ribera del Duero classics on its wine list: The Alejandro Fernandez Condado de Haza and the legendary Peter Sisseck’s Flor de Pingus.
“One of my favorites is the green tomato ‘BLT,'” for Ribera del Duero pairings, Daniel tells us. “It has bacon, frisee and pimento cheese — the bright fruit flavors and savory qualities of Ribera works wonderfully with that. A more classic pairing is the braised short ribs, the tannins and the earthy quality of the wines are an explosive combination.”