Pairing foods with spirits and cocktails – a great match
BY ROBERT PLOTKIN
The term “bar chef” has entered our lexicon. Not limited to just chefs, the term is best applied to those who venture behind the bar, bringing the flavors of the kitchen and melding them with the creative output of the bar. In other cases, these resourceful souls find glory pairing specific cocktails with particular foods.
Whereas many restaurateurs might be somewhat intimidated about recommending main course dishes with cocktails, bar chefs have no such fear. They work in a field where they are required to combine complementary and occasionally disparate ingredients into a delectable mélange. Extending that pursuit to the bar is seen as a natural progression.
“My goal is to have my guests experience spirits in ways that they can appreciate them, in ways that they would never have thought of by pairing them with complementary food dishes,” says Andrew Featherstone, executive chef at Winchester’s, a popular, high-end restaurant in Canton, Georgia. “In return, this gives the guest a new level of experience that could not have been achieved by drinking these spirits or cocktails alone.”
Nick Siracusa, manager of trendy Sorrento Grill in Laguna Beach, California, worked his way through the ranks of the grand, French-influenced restaurants of New Orleans, where wine rules supreme. “I learned a great deal about pairing wine with food during my formative years and I now try to put those skills to good use in creating appealing pairings of contemporary cocktails with great food. Ten or fifteen years ago it would have been laughable in finer establishments to pair spirits with anything more than bar nuts. These days I feel encouraged to do so throughout the entire dining experience.”
SOUP TO NUTS
There is a growing cadre of bar chefs who aren’t chefs at all, but rather experienced sommeliers. It’s not surprising, in as much as sommeliers are classically trained at pairing wine with complementary dishes.
Jeff Mitchell is the wine steward at Café Lurcat in Naples, Florida. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a French trained chef, Mitchell delights in working with spirits. “The array of flavors present in spirits is a natural complement to those found in many foods. While it’s somewhat more challenging to pair spirits or cocktails with food dishes than it is with wine, the results are frequently spectacular.”
“I think the art of spirit creation can definitely enhance a guest’s experience,” says Sean Beck, sommelier at Hugo’s and Backstreet Café in Houston. “Because of my background, my first thoughts naturally drift to wine when it comes to creating the perfect pairing. I’ve learned, however, to relish in combining spirits with food. While I still believe wine is the perfect beverage to complement food, tequila and other spirits can prove very compelling.”
Beck also believes spirit and food pairing enhances the interaction between the guest and the wait staff by creating interest in the process. Promoting guest exploration and curiosity affords your staff a chance to connect with the guests and provide information and suggestions that improves the entire experience. In addition, it helps keep your chef, sommelier and staff creative and on their toes.
Another reason to pursue pairing food with spirits is that the latter’s popularity is surging. Last year liquor consumption grew for the seventh consecutive year, increasing 165 million 9-liter cases over 2003, a jump of 4.1%. The largest rate of growth is in the top-end of the spirit categories. Where once the mantra in the industry was “Americans are drinking less, but better,” today the chant is “Americans are drinking more often and they’re choosing the good stuff.”
WHERE TO START
Most of the experts polled admitted to preferring the trial and error method. One of the country’s leading authorities on creative mixology, Tony Abou-Ganim is an avid devotee of pairing spirits and food. Despite years of hands-on experience, Abou-Ganim adopts an artisan approach and relies heavily on trial and error. He contends that often things that you think would never complement one another actually work together beautifully.
“I like to have a theme to work from and I always work closely with the chef. It’s easier for me to pair my cocktails with the chef’s food as opposed to creating the cocktails first. I tie in ingredients in both the food and the drink. I also look for natural matches, like blueberry compote worked into a cocktail and pairing it with a rich chocolate dessert with cinnamon ice cream. I add a little cinnamon-infused simple syrup into my cocktail. It’s a slice of heaven.”
Industry veteran and founder of spiritsexperts.com Sean Ludford also employs the same methodology, largely because “it’s much more fun and you get an opportunity to sample many cocktails, which is never discouraged in my company.” But he also contends that the pairing process relies more on one’s senses than intellectualizing.
When Ludford first started working with food and wine pairings he was given an important piece of advice. “Sometimes the best wine for the dish is beer. It taught me three important things, namely to keep my mind open, look for natural flavor affinities between the wine or spirit and the food and keep the pairing uncomplicated.”
But Ludford says that there’s a rationale to the pairing process. “Tequila obviously is a natural companion to Mexican cuisine. Seems a bit too simple, but the best approach often is. Campari and soda with prosciutto ham and melon is amazingly delicious. An aperitif is typically best matched with hors d’oeuvres from the same region.”
Siracusa recommends pairing spirits with foods that won’t overwhelm them. “One of my favorite examples is pairing a Stoli Vanil Martini with prosciutto-wrapped scallops served on butternut squash risotto. The light vanilla vodka is a marvelous complement to the flavor of the risotto.”
Chef Featherstone thinks that the so-called trial and error method greatly facilitates one’s learning process. “It helps a great deal to have firsthand knowledge of the flavors of many different foods and spirits. For example, you cannot distinguish the aroma or flavor of juniper berries or coriander from the gin itself. Once these aromas and flavors are experienced it becomes much easier to pair them with food or cook with them.”
Jay Hernandez, executive chef at O’Rourke’s Steakhouse in Houston, admits to relying heavily on inspiration. “I may be making something in the kitchen and think, ‘Hey, this would be great used in a Martini and married with that kind of dish.’ I then go out to the bar and start tinkering.”
One such occasion led him to add cold mango and cucumber soup to chilled vodka. The brilliantly flavored resulting Martini soon became a successful specialty of the house. Another time, he drizzled a bourbon sauce he was working on along with some caramel sauce into cocktail glasses, which were then placed in the freezer. They would later be used to present a signature vodka Martini. As the glasses gradually warm, the thawing sauces bleed into the cocktail. Hernandez says the results were “divine.”
Ludford thinks food and spirit pairings have real sizzle. “I’m a committed ‘gastronaut,’ so I’m always seeking the kind of tremendous flavors and aromas that discovering a great new pairing can deliver. For example, Islay malt whiskies taste delicious paired with sushi. The peaty seaside notes marry beautifully with the oils in the raw fish. A classically prepared Margarita paired with ceviche is sublime!”
Laguna’s Sorrento Grill is a popular haunt, one known for its bar as well as contemporary bill of fare. “The easiest food and spirit pairing to sell people is a New York strip steak with a classic Manhattan,” says manager Siracusa. “The robust and slightly sweet cocktail stands up nicely to the rich flavors of the steak. Another popular pairing is blackened mahi-mahi served with a citrus Niçoise relish and our signature drink, the Bellini Martini, which we make with Stoli Ohranj Vodka, peach liqueur and chilled champagne.”
Jeff Mitchell is the resident bar chef at Café Lurcat, a Naples, FL, eatery known for wowing its customers with New Age comfort food that’s kicked up a notch. “We’ve been successful pairing spicy cuisines Cajun, Creole and Caribbean, for example with light, refreshing cocktails like the Mojito, Margarita, or classic Daiquiri,” says Mitchell. “These citrus-based cocktails allow the guest to ‘palate down’ from the spice.”
Mitchell likes to commingle ingredients between food dishes and his drinks. “Our Manhattan Chicken is made with a sauce that contains rye whiskey and sweet vermouth. We obviously pair that dish with a traditionally prepared Manhattan. The combination of flavors is really outstanding.”
Two Chefs is an elegant landmark restaurant located in the heart of South Miami. Chef/Owner Jan Jorgensen is a bona fide spirits aficionado, a passion that has led him to stock over 400 different spirits at his bar. Not surprisingly he is passionate about complementing the cocktail experience with an equally engaging cuisine.
“I think it is important that a guest eats while enjoying a drink or cocktail, which are traditionally consumed pre-meal and paired with pretzels and nuts. What would be wrong with a gin Martini while biting into a Gorgonzola pizza or smoked duck?”
According to Jorgensen, “Common sense and a mix of known guidelines for complementing wine and food is my tactic. Vodka is open to salty and fresh flavors, whereas gin comes at you with a floral nose and palette that should stay away from sweet foods and flavors. Whiskies contain smoky, sweet and dry flavors that go best with spicy and more robust flavors.”
At Backstreet Café and Hugo’s, sommelier turned avid bar chef Beck delights in tempting his guests with inspired pairings. “Our dedication to using only fresh ingredients has kept us progressive, inventive and made for a very successful cocktail pairing program.”
Examples of Beck’s handiwork include pairing Braised Long Island Duck over butternut squash puree with the Texas Trolley, a signature cocktail made with bourbon, Grand Marnier, and tangerine and lime juices, and Pomegranate Margaritas coupled with Chiles en Nogada, a poblano pepper stuffed with pork, fruit and spices.
“You create a cocktail pairing one of two ways by either creating a cocktail and look to match it with food, or you start with a dish and develop a cocktail to go with it,” says Beck. “It is usually easier if you start with the dish, because you know what flavors are present and what ingredients are being used. This gives you a guide or at least narrows down what spirit and flavors you can use.”
The hunt for increasingly more tantalizing food and spirits pairing has led the nation’s bar chefs to expand their repertoire of flavors, especially when creating signature cocktails.
Of late, chef Jorgensen has been pairing ice-cold vodka Martinis with caviar, pickled quail eggs, goat cheese pizza, Gorgonzola cheese beignets and tartars. He reports that gin works best when served with smoked duck, cured fish, prosciutto, oysters and tartars and that whiskies complement lamb spareribs, chicken wings, salted nuts and spicy foods quite well.
“All of South Florida’s tropical fruit are perfect ingredients in any drink. My favorite fruit components include mango, lychee nut, pineapple, guava and strawberries. In addition, ginger, horseradish, mint, vanilla, cinnamon and coffee are all ingredients in our top-selling drinks,” he says.
These days Sean Ludford is working more with exotic fruit. “The tamarind is an unusual fruit that I think is greatly under utilized behind American bars, so I put it to good use in cocktails. Tamarind is wonderfully tart and complex, and it plays well with orange liqueurs, rum and fresh fruit juice. Passion fruit also works marvelously with a wide range of spirits and liqueurs.”
His favorite ingredient, though, is coconut. “You just machete the top off and fill it with the spirit of your choice. It’s like taking a quick jaunt off to the islands without ever leaving your neighborhood.”
Siracusa believes that creative garnishes are more than mere embellishments, that they are an integral part of a well-devised cocktail. “The olive still reigns supreme at our locale. We’ve stuffed them with just about everything we can get our hands on and often our guests forget about what they’re drinking and focus on the fruit. My favorite is grilled green onion-stuffed olives served in a tequila Martini.”
For Siracusa and the Sorrento Grill, working food into the beverage program has helped create a lively dinner trade and become a destination venue. “The result is that I get a full bar of active and energetic people who don’t shorten their stay by skipping a table. The bottom line is that our check averages are skyrocketing.”
Tony Abou-Ganim sums it up best. He believes that creativity is only limited by your inspiration. “I’m always going into the kitchen walk-in to see what interesting fruits and vegetables are available to jump-start my creative juices. I have to taste everything to have an understanding of flavors and which ingredients work well together. Like my mom always taught me, ‘Tony, never trust a skinny chef.'”
Bloody Marys Glowing Red Hot
No other drink in the realm of mixology is more closely associated with cuisine than the Bloody Mary. Illustrating the point is Chef Waldy Malouf, co-owner of Beacon in New York City. Malouf is known for his open fire cooking techniques and when the restaurant recently included Sunday brunch to its repertoire, he created a Wood Roasted Balsamic Bloody Mary. The signature drink features aged balsamic vinegar and charred, wood-roasted tomato purée.
Where once the Bloody Mary was largely a libation synonymous with brunch, it is enjoying a resurgence in popularity at the cocktail hour. For many, it has become known as something of a “meal with an attitude,” a spirited blend of vegetables, spices and hearty mixings.
Tony Abou-Ganim recently served guests at a Chopin Vodka dinner a Bloody Mary made with homemade beef consommé. Chef Featherstone features a signature Mary made with basil-infused vodka, while Sean Beck features one showcasing rosemary vodka, which he in turn pairs with an entrée of grilled wild salmon in a white wine reduction with mussels and clams.
“I recently had a Bloody Mary served to me with a substantial wedge of rib-eye steak squeezed into the glass. I didn’t have a second,” says Sean Ludford of spiritsexperts.com. “Short of that bit of excess, I think Bloody Marys are undergoing a brilliant transformation. They have become so much more than vodka diluted with a bottled mix. Today, bar chefs are crafting them into a panoply of flavors, textures and attention-grabbing garnishes.”
The final touch to any noteworthy Bloody Mary is the garnish. More than a mere embellishment, the garnish should be considered an ingredient in the drink. Popular options include scallions, a hunk of lobster tail, cooked and peeled shrimp or prawns, dill pickle spear, beef jerky, slim jims, asparagus, speared tomatoes, cucumber spears, or pepperoncinis or small jalapeño peppers.
Bloody Marys are as unique as your signature and speak volumes about your bar’s degree of creativity. Have fun and make a masterpiece. – RP