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Cohesive Cocktails

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Beverage directors and chefs join forces and create pairing menus to please every palate.

By Alia Akkam January 2016 Spirits

For those diners who don’t want to commit to a hefty plate of pecan-crusted trout or slow-roasted ribeye, the Bar Bites menu at Firebirds Wood Fired Grill offers salvation. The upscale-casual chain, with locations from New Jersey to Arizona, now offers an alluring happy hour menu in the FIREBAR, which invites patrons to plunk homemade tortilla chips into jalapeño-Pimento cheese dip, devour crispy shrimp tacos, and buoy pretzels with Sam Adams beer cheese. Such a roster of snacks demands fine liquid company beyond the ever-quenching beer—and so, in addition to signature martinis like the pineapple-infused vodka Double Black Diamond, the bar whips up seasonal craft concoctions including the Bourbon & Peaches with Buffalo Trace whiskey, Grand Marnier Raspberry Peach, Aperol, and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. These pairings reflect the creative synergy between Firebirds’ corporate chef and the beverage team. This cohesive relationship, now in the spotlight at restaurants across the country, adds an interesting dimension to the ritual of imbibing.

Just as discussions and off-the-cuff brainstorm volleys between the kitchen and bar lead Firebirds Wood Fired Grill to implement dishes like the cocoa spice–rubbed pork tenderloin with an au jus made from Woodford Reserve bourbon, the number of restaurants sharing similar dialogues and dedicating testing periods to spawn like-minded pairings are plentiful. At Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis beverage director Robb Jones works closely with Chef Gavin Kaysen to create riffs on classics that help illuminate the food. For a guest who doesn’t want to follow up, say, his braised lamb shank with artichokes by digging into a toasted coconut parfait, a creamy, egg white–frothed Aquavit Fizz might just sate as a nightcap instead. Likewise, Adam Kamin, head bartender of Bottlefork in Chicago, weaves everything from sweet potato to chile de árbol to orange flower water into his drinks, a nod to those ingredients that Chef Kevin Hickey celebrates in the kitchen.

As food menus increasingly emphasize the importance of seasonality, the interplay between kitchen and bar has grown even stronger. Alan Henkin, beverage director and partner at Basta in Boulder, Colorado, and Cart-Driver in Denver, says that when he and Chef Kelly Whitaker talk about the connections between food and beverage, the words regionality, structure, and flavor often crop up. But none might be as vital as seasonality. “Sometimes our discussions take the form of a meeting, and other times an R and D session. Often the kitchen will give the beverage team tastes of new components they are working on,” Henkin explains. “Recently we procured some beautiful new mushrooms, and the kitchen was trying to decide what to do with them. They sautéed a few, and we all tasted them together. This inspired the beverage team to open a bottle of French Pinot Noir that they thought would pair well with the mushrooms, which then drove the conversation further into using certain cooking techniques to tie into the wine. This dish ended up on a tasting menu, and the wine was recommended as a pairing.” Such an approach, he adds, is how the bar team frequently starts researching and developing a new cocktail. All it often takes is the sight of a lush, in-season ingredient to spark inspiration. “When we get close to a cocktail recipe that we like, we always let the kitchen team try it to see if it is in balance. In other words, we try to fully utilize each others’ palates,” Henkin says.

Why spend the time investing in such collaboration? Henkin believes these mind-thinks are fruitful for building rewarding experiences for his customers on two levels: “Partly you want the guests to have options to pair with the food, and partly you want to create a cohesive conceptual menu that can take the guests of the restaurant on a culinary journey,” he says.

This sensorial journey is perhaps best exemplified at the forthcoming Heartwood Provisions in Seattle, uniting the talents of beverage director Amanda Reed and Chef Varin Keokitvon. The restaurant’s menu is devoted to pairings, introducing diners to beverages specifically dreamed up to drink alongside the dishes. For example, a beet salad accentuated by orange, chèvre cream, chermoula, pistachio praline, and watercress would best be savored with a libation composed of tequila, Meletti 1870, Dolin Blanc vermouth, honey, and lime. A hearty braised oxtail with juniper streusel and horseradish cream, meanwhile, is a better fit for the Fair Trade cocktail, in which espresso bean–infused mezcal mingles with ruby Port, amaro, and crème de cacao.

When building a beverage program for any restaurant, Reed advises, the types of drinks served should be in line with the cuisine. “Cohesiveness is key. For us, the partnership between food and beverage is at the forefront of what we do. The chef and I work very closely together to try and find unique ways of pairing the two; we influence each other, give honest feedback, and make adjustments on both ends to make a pairing come together,” she says.

By tasting together, Reed and Keokitvon often find success through spontaneous discourse. “For example, I had an idea for a drink that involved rice, Kirsch, and stout beer, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to incorporate the rice element, so the chef recommended I make rice milk gum syrup, which ended up being the perfect thing,” she recalls. “Another is our seasonal amari project. We come up with core ingredients as a base, and then build on that through tasting. It’s a total collaboration.”

Echoing Henkin, Reed believes “diners are more inclined to try new things when the restaurant puts them out there. Beverage is no longer an afterthought; it has become just as important to some as the food, and I think the two really go hand in hand. I actually have a lot of bartender friends who started their careers in the back of the house. It makes sense; chefs have a more refined palate than most, which can lend itself to amazing cocktail creations.”

Cross-pollination between the kitchen and bar can help a restaurant solidify an intriguing and unified voice. One way of reiterating this successful fusion is by educating servers. Staff members who are well-versed in all the menu’s dishes and drinks, and who can effortlessly regale patrons with their backstories, provide diners with an extra incentive to try something new.

If we are trying to capture a regional pairing from the Old World and talk about the cuisine from a specific part of Europe, and then talk about why the people from that region grow certain varietals of wine and vinify it in certain ways, the diner is likely to want to experience that,” Henkin points out. For instance, Basta’s comprehensive selection of amari exposes guests to a heady Italian drinking tradition. Additionally, its presence in certain dishes that make their way out of the kitchen, like Fernet-Branca ice cream, only helps strengthen that bond—especially when servers can passionately and confidently illuminate the connections. “Our service staff is trained to promote these items and talk about them at length if a guest has questions or needs recommendations. By creating this intellectual culture, our guests feel more comfortable branching out and trying new things,” Henkin says. At many restaurants, this often means dinner-perfect cocktails laden with fresh, seasonal ingredients straight from the kitchen.