Cocktails and food make a match

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; E01

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."

The strong reaction to the study supports another theory: It's not that cocktails don't pair well with food; it's that the idea is unfamiliar. "What actually goes well with something depends on what people think will go well with it," said Dave Arnold, director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute in New York. Beer and pizza are a natural combination because people are familiar with it. Ditto beer and sausages, and wine and cheese.

"The fact of the matter -- and this is heresy, too -- is that most wines don't go well with most food," he said. "Except for the few inspired pairings that make you extremely happy, most of the time it's a draw. The same is true for cocktails and beer pairings."

Cocktails and food weren't always a surprising pairing. In the 1933 cocktail book "What'll You Have?," author Julien J. Proskauer offers this advice: "The perfect hostess never serves cocktails without some little appetizer accompanying them. Therefore it is quite the place in this book to give you the accepted delicacies and sandwiches that are served." Among the recipes included were Welsh rarebit, Camembert on toast topped with chutney and cucumber, and bacon-and-pickle sandwiches. Culinary pioneer James Beard's first book, the 1940 "Hors D'Oeuvre and Canapes," instructed Americans about what food to serve at cocktail parties.

"It's not like we're inventing anything," said Dale DeGroff, founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. "We're just reviving it."

But serving mixed drinks with the main meal has remained rare. The big exceptions are Mexican restaurants that serve margaritas with everything and Peruvian restaurants that pair pisco sours with seviche and other traditional dishes.

The cocktail pairings at Proof and PS 7's push the boundaries. In recent dinners, the mixed drinks either held their own against wine or bested it. Chersevani mixed a white tea-and-rum punch to serve with a casserole of buttery root vegetables. The sweetness of the drink contrasted with the earthiness of the dish, and the spice added a new dimension. A floral viognier couldn't compete. At Proof, a mix of tequila and the herbal Italian liqueur Galliano enlivened an ethereally light dish of egg tagliatelle with crab. (The rich Dolcetto D'Alba inexplicably paired with the same dish was disastrous.) Every cocktail pairing didn't work, however. A smooth mix of Scotch, allspice dram and cherry liqueur enhanced a spiced duck breast but overwhelmed the accompanying foie gras.

Cocktail-paired menus could become increasingly common. Courses that teach bartenders to pair liquor with food are more widespread. The week-long BAR (Beverage Alcohol Resource) program in New York offers a lesson in pairing. DeGroff says he is incorporating it into bar classes across the country: "I talk to them about food and drink together, and I show them how by marketing smaller drinks with food, you can increase the bottom line."

With new opportunities come new responsibilities, of course. Chersevani has brainstormed creative ways to temper the flavors in her drinks: When Pernod was too strong for a dish with fennel, she added ice that had been rinsed in the anise-flavored liqueur to provide a less overwhelming flavor.

"My [cocktail] menu is me being a snob," she said with a laugh. "This tasting menu is me being a partner."

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