Cocktails and food make a match

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By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

For craft bartenders, it's the best of times. Nearly every week a new boutique spirit comes on the market: Herbsaint, anyone? And fashioning cocktails is an increasingly respected profession. Now, after years in the culinary wilderness, a raft of confident bartenders is taking on a new challenge: pairing cocktails with dinner.

Proof and PS 7's in downtown Washington quietly offer multi-course tasting menus paired with cocktails. At Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, the menu suggests cocktails as well as wines and beers to pair with aperitifs and cheese. A host of other destinations, such as Rasika and the Columbia Room, have plans in the works for food-and-cocktail pairings.

"There are so many layers to alcohol. You just have to be open to it," said PS 7's Gina Chersevani, who recently paired a fruity hibiscus-sake-vodka drink with squares of seared tuna. Chersevani pairs seven cocktails each week for a special tasting menu served only in the bar. In a busy week, as many as 30 people reserve a seat for the $77 seven-course meal.

Serving spirits with food is a logical extension of the cocktail revival, especially in Washington, where many of the most skilled bartenders work in fine-dining restaurants. But is it a good idea?

The argument against pairing food and cocktails goes like this: First, mixed drinks have too much alcohol, which can overwhelm the taste buds (and get patrons more inebriated than they might like). Most wines range from 9 percent alcohol to 15 percent for a "big" red. A good cocktail starts at about 17 percent and can rise to 25 percent or more.

The cocktail can be made smaller, of course. And it often is. Or the alcohol can be diluted with mixers such as juice and syrups, or with ice. But the point of a cocktail, most serious bartenders would agree, is to promote a spirit, not hide it. "When you taste a cocktail, you want the taste of the actual spirit. There are some applications where it works. But a lot of times it's like drinking a cabernet with lobster," said Restaurant Eve's Todd Thrasher. "My honest-to-God feeling on it: I like drinking wine with food."

Second, even if it is a great match, the guest might not like the spirit. Like many drinkers, I have an old but still-intense aversion to tequila, something I should have told Proof's bartender Adam Bernbach, who paired the spirit with a pasta dish. It was a fine match, but it didn't go down well. Wine drinkers have preferences, of course. But it's a rare quaffer who gets the shakes from cabernet franc or chardonnay.

But there are reasons that support savvy cocktail pairings. To start, there's the control. Sommeliers taste hundreds of wines in search of complementary or contrasting flavors for their chefs' dishes: a citrus note for a lemony seafood dish or a cherry note to contrast with a rich cheese. Mixologists build their matches with the same pool of ingredients used by the chef.

At Proof, Bernbach pairs a pumpkin-chestnut soup with a woodsy cocktail of Madeira, chestnut-infused cognac and lime juice. I thought the nuttiness of the Madeira and cognac enhanced the flavor of the soup, and the soup brought out the subtleties of the cocktail. The wine pairing, a crisp Austrian Riesling, was lovely but lacked the same magic. At Eve, Thrasher offers a twist on the usual sweet wine-foie gras combination. His cocktail, called A Pleasantly Bitter Beginning, mixes sauvignon blanc, a grapefruit gastrique, vodka and grapefruit bitters. The tartness and the acidity are designed to cut through the richness of the liver.

And the question of too much alcohol dulling taste? "I don't know where that idea comes from except from the mouths of sommeliers," said Derek Brown, co-owner of the Passenger and the Columbia Room and, it should be noted, a former sommelier. Indeed, a search of scientific literature turned up no evidence that alcohol can kill the palate.

The perception that cocktails are too strong, Brown says, might stem from the way cocktail ingredients are listed on menus. A cocktail such as a mojito might list rum, sugar, mint and lime. But the drink also has ice and club soda to dilute it.

Wine is widely seen as a more natural pairing with food, but even that time-honored idea might be unfounded. A 2005 University of California at Davis study revealed that most red wine-and-cheese pairings didn't enhance each other's flavors. In every case, the cheese muted desirable notes, such as berry, as well as less desirable ones, such as green bell pepper. Upon releasing the study, sensory scientist Hildegarde Heymann received angry messages from wine and cheese connoisseurs. "There was no value judgment here," she told the university magazine. "My feeling is you should choose the food you love and the wine you love, and they're going to go together."


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