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Dane Nakamura, bar manager at Range, Aggio, and Family Meal in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

Menu Diversity

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Taste, temperature, texture, and that ethanol tingle—those elements can determine if a spirit completes the dish.

By Alia Akkam May 2015 Spirits

An apple cake with maple yogurt, fenugreek ice cream, and lemon balm recently appeared on the menu of Sixteen, inside the tony Trump Hotel Chicago. Alongside it, some curious guests sipped the Yama cocktail, made with Laird’s AppleJack, Cocchi Americano, ginger, and ice wine Earl Grey tea.

“I think it was a success because this dessert was cold and our cocktail was served over ice, so the temperatures were in agreement,” explains Dan Pilkey, Sixteen’s restaurant director and sommelier. “We were using St. George Spirits’ spiced pear liqueur, which is dynamite, and coupled with the AppleJack the two flavors were very compatible with the apple and maple. The X factor was the tea we sourced from Rare Tea Cellar. The natural tannins, along with the rinse of ice wine, gave us a mouthfeel that built a lot of complexity, highlighting the fenugreek. Lemon balm was an aromatic benefit and also contributed nice acid and herbal notes.”

Pairing wine with food, of course, is a longstanding, welcome tradition. But given today’s robust cocktail culture, it’s not surprising that many multi-course dinners are now buoyed by a bartender’s creations. Pilkey is one such fan of this unconventional approach to dining. He believes cocktails are just as multifaceted as wine, expressing specific flavors based on the spirits embraced, whether bitter Cynar or herbal Hendrick’s.

“Behind the bar is a virtual kitchen pantry of liquids, but in my opinion what makes them work well is obviously good balance, temperature, viscosity, and intensity of flavor,” he says. For, say, a fish dish with sauce Grenobloise, he believes the capers, browned butter, and lemon “just scream coastal, high-acid, oceanic flavors,” and so that might lead to a drink with saline-driven mezcal complemented by citrus and fresh herbs.

“What I’d want as a diner is a diversity of pairings that highlight the restaurant’s talented staff and show off their cuisine with thoughtful builds and applications,” he says. One tip for staff attempting to create culinary cocktails is to work backwards. “How will the guest know this is special? How will I sell this? Remember, this is a two-way street and my chef might have to work with me in order to make the diner’s full experience memorable,” Pilkey advises.

That synergy is also on display in New York City at North End Grill, where Jeffrey Turok oversees the beverage program. “Our cocktails are classic, starting with a grapefruit juice–led Salty Dog, which we pair with our mackerel crudo with cucumber, ahi dulce, and grapefruit. The richness of the raw mackerel is just enough to be matched by the cocktail. The grapefruit flavors will complement each other, the spiciness in the dish will be contrasted by the simple syrup, and the bitterness from the cucumber [is contrasted] by the natural sweet grapefruit flavor,” he explains.

Turok treats the entire menu as an opportunity to highlight cocktails. Even the Fiorentina-style Porterhouse for two—with rosemary, garlic, red wine vinegar, and black pepper—is paired with a classic Sazerac made with Long Island–made Rough Rider Rye. “The maltiness of the spirit-driven cocktail is matched by the intensity of the charred beef, the alcohol content here actually helps to cleanse the richness of the steak, the herbs and botanicals are complemented by the rosemary, and the lemon oil by the acid in the vinegar marinade,” he says.

At the Edison, in downtown Los Angeles, “most of the customers are adventurous and seekers of information from the staff,” points out Barbara Jacobs, president of worldwide events and CEO of Kinetescape, the Edison’s holding company. “They are asked what their favorite spirit is, and then we play off of that.”

For example, someone craving tequila might be recommended the Rosa de Fuego, with lemon, honey, cassis, jalapeño, and a sugar rim. To bolster the spice, ginger-chile wings might also make their way to the bar. If it’s vodka a guest is after and he orders the Mistress with lemon, pomegranate, and prosecco; its sweetness could potentially contrast nicely with the hint of heat elicited in the shoestring fries tossed in vinegar and crushed red pepper. “The most important thing is to not fight flavors,” says Jacobs, but ultimately she thinks successful pairings are built on guest preferences: “The customer’s taste should be the guide. Do not assume because something is normally paired it will work.”

How exactly can a bartender determine a choice pairing? Turok says it’s key to consider how an alcohol’s perceived heat registers on the palate. Someone accustomed to enjoying light aperitifs will have a different reaction than avid whiskey drinkers. To accommodate this wide spectrum, Turok advises erring on the lower ABV side and pairing juicy, tall drinks instead of boozier ones that might clash with dishes abundant in salt, spice, and smoke.

Dane Nakamura, bar manager of Bryan Voltaggio’s Range and Aggio, in Washington, D.C., and Family Meal, in Baltimore, believes it’s a matter of science. “In order to pair a cocktail well everything needs to be taken into account: What you smell first; what you taste first, middle, and last; and what lingers on your palate after you swallow the cocktail and take a bite of your dish,” he explains. “The amount of ethanol is something that we can control and needs to be adjusted per pairing. High ethanol is good with fatty barbecue dishes, low ethanol is good with sorbet. Then again, the texture of the cocktail can make you perceive ABV differently as well. That’s what makes pairing cocktails so much fun.”

Nakamura also sees parallels between wine and spirits. Just like a wine’s acid pleasantly interacts with fatty, salty foods, a spirit’s ethanol has a similar effect on rich, sweet desserts. “Cocktails change the rules. What is in the bottle of wine is in the bottle of wine and cannot be changed. With cocktails you can change textures, [alter] the order of smells, and introduce flavors by using oils, but in the end when you look to pair cocktails with meals it’s a lot like pairing wine: You need to find the drink that balances, accentuates, or contradicts the dish so that you can give the diner the complete experience. Granted there are a lot of uncontrollable variables involved with the cocktail that could scare people away from trusting it as a proper pairing. But with careful communication and collaboration between the bartender and chef, beautiful things can happen.”

Sometimes, that means going beyond the comfort zone. Stephen Jeffcoat, the general manager who helms the beverage programs at Domenica and Pizza Domenica, restaurants in John Besh’s New Orleans restaurant empire, notices that the age-old pairing of white wine with fish and Cabernet Sauvignon with steak is ingrained in many of his customers’ minds. With cocktails, he says, “there aren’t any rules. We just try to make delicious, refreshing drinks that complement the food. Traditionally, guests do tend to order wine with their food, so we make sure the cocktail they begin with is a strong jumping-off point.” This might mean melding carrot juice with Old Tom gin and Cocchi Americano, honeysuckle vodka with chamomile liqueur, or, for a more brooding take on the classic Dark and Stormy, rum with lime, ginger beer, and amaro.

We’re always trying to keep the staff up to date and confident by having them taste our drinks,” says Jeffcoat. “In the last year or two craft cocktails are significantly on the rise. People are ordering fewer vodka tonics, so that’s a sign to me that we are doing something right.”