Somewhere between the tired mantra of “white wine with fish, red wine with meat” and the liberating idea that there really are no rules in pairing food and beverage lies the truth: some pairings work better than others. The trick to a successful marriage of edibles and potables comes in considering a handful of principles that help make the most of this gustatory matchmaking.
It’s not a new concept at all. Venerable restaurants such as New Orleans’ Brennan’s has for years listed wine and cocktail suggestions with its breakfast and brunch menus as well as for dinner. At such trendsetters as Valentino’s (see page 28), the daily-changing menu is paired with wines for every course. Other operators are finding that thinking about beverages and foods together helps sell both. In beer-crazed Philadelphia, even restaurants not traditionally associated with that beverage try it: American bistro-style Fork recently hosted a dinner featuring Vietnamese dishes paired with beers created at local brewery Nodding Head.
Let the Pairing Begin
Start with one generally accepted pairing principle: match lighter foods with lighter beverages, and heavier, richer foods with bigger, more full-bodied drinks. It’s a foundation often used for wine pairing that serves other beverage pairings as well. But rigid adherence to strict interpretation might return us to that old premise that fish must be served with white wine. Luckily, that rule is happily broken with such well-loved pairings as salmon with pinot noir and oysters with stout. Those pairings work because, unlike more delicate seafood like sole, salmon and oysters have, respectively, distinctive richness and brininess that ups the ante on the flavor profile and broadens the playing field of suggested sippers.
This proves just how malleable pairing concepts need to be. Beyond just considering the main ingredient of a dish, it’s important to consider how it’s prepared and what accompanies it. Salmon with 1) mango-ginger salsa or 2) a crust of porcini powder or 3) a sauce of chipotle and cilantro will elicit a wide array of pairing options, just to keep you on your toes.
On the beverage side, how oaky is that merlot? How aged the rum? How hoppy the ale? Those considerations, plus everything from the temperature outside to the temperament of the diner come into play, making the pairing game particularly fun and challenging. There are some “rules,” if you like, but just remember that they’re made to be broken. Here are a few ways to break down the challenge:
To Complement or Not
That is the question. Complement and contrast are two basic approaches to any food and beverage pairing. Complementary pairings will see the players echoing a common theme, as the fruit tones of a late-harvest Riesling served with a peach tart or the coffee/chocolate elements of a porter alongside chocolate cake. Contrasts play off each other to reach a harmony of elements: rich with acid, spicy with sweet, salty with bitter.
Overall balance is still the key, no matter what the approach. One side of the match shouldn’t overwhelm the other. Jake Kosseff, sommelier at Cascadia restaurant in Seattle, notes that trying to keep that balance can be intimidating with cocktails. “The volume’s turned up about 20 notches from wine when you’re working with spirits,” he says. So he tends to lean toward complement rather than contrast with spirits, because contrasting flavors at a high pitch can become chaotic overall.
Kansas City-based beverage consultant Doug Frost notes that too often these days, cocktails are made with a heavy dose of sweetness, saying that “many bartenders have lost the art of making balanced cocktails.” And a very sweet cocktail is really only going to pair well with food that’s quite sweet as well, severely limiting the food-friendliness of the drink.
One of the ultimate complements comes when the food and beverage union is made stronger with a dish that blends the two. At DuClaw Brewing Company in Maryland, chefs prepare smothered sirloin steak with a sauce using their own Bad Moon porter, which easily becomes the prime drink choice to go with the steak. An accepted tenet when it comes to cooking with wine is to choose not the cheapest wine on the shelf (nor a so-called cooking wine, God help you), but a wine that you would want to drink with the dish, answering the “what to drink with dinner?” question before it’s asked.
Choose a Starting Point
There’s something of a chicken-and-egg, “which comes first?” quandary when it comes to food and beverage pairing. Very rarely do pairings spring from a chef or beverage manager’s imagination as a pre-matched set, so one side of the equation is invariably fixed first. Deciding where to start is important: will you be picking the right food to showcase the beverage at its best? Or the ideal sipper to perfectly complement the chosen entree?
Beveragmeister Doug Frost speaks for the New Non-traditionalists: it can go either way, with the priority placed one time on the food, another on the drink, depending on circumstances. When Frost considers a potential beverage match, he begins by taking a look outside. Does the day call for a drink that’s warm and nurturing or bright and citrusy? He notes that typically the chef, too, is thinking about the season when making his food choices, so the two sides have a symbiotic starting point.
One chef who doesn’t hesitate to say that wine rightfully comes first in many of his pairing choices is Frank Fronda, executive chef of Napa Valley Grille in Los Angeles. This group of restaurants is “all about the wine,” says Fronda. The wine list selections at the seven restaurants around the country are exclusively Californian, and mostly Napa, aside from a handful of Champagnes. “We serve some very nice food to go along with [the wine], giving people that Napa-style experience.”
Fronda has helped establish a “Perfect Pairs” program that is in place at a few Napa Valley Grille locations, offering guests a trio of “2-bite” appetizers that are each paired with a 2-ounce taste of premium wine for $19.95. A couple recent examples include black mission fig and onion tart paired with 1998 Fife “l’Attitude 39” and thyme-crusted ahi tuna matched with 1999 Echelon pinot noir.
Keep it Interesting
Monogamy doesn’t hold up well in the world of food and beverage unions. If the question is: “What goes with a goat cheese and chive stuffed chicken breast?” you can rest assured that there’s no single correct answer. In fact, there are probably a couple of dozen answers that would make good taste sense.
One thing brewer Jim Wagner, brewmaster at DuClaw, notes about some customers is that they tend to have the same beer every time they go out, regardless of what they’re eating. DuClaw serves only their house beers on tap, and Wagner tries to offer a broad range of styles at all times. “People should view beer as they do food,” says Wagner. “You’re not going to eat only chicken or only pizza every time you go out, so try not to drink the same beer every time you go out.”
Wagner places a high value on staff education to help make happy pairings happen for his customers, teaching his staff to help customers with beer choices and pairing ideas. As with traditional wine pairing, they lean toward light-with-light, heavy-with-heavy. The Bare Ass Blonde Ale and Ravenwood (a k