American restaurants have come a long way since flambéd food was all the rage. Before restaurant dining became such a common experience, the novelty, pomp and circumstance of dishes flamed with spirits created an exciting dining experience for some. Duckling, steak, shish kebob and fish were found in flames in many white-tablecloth restaurants. Spirit-enhanced food was an expected part of haute cuisine.
Allen Susser fires up his dishes with spirits at Chef Allen’s.
Restaurants have tamed the flame today, but spirits are still very much a part of the basic ingredient list. Chefs today use liquor in cooking to add dimension and flavor to their creations, perhaps in a more subtle way than in the past. Restaurateurs have found that highlighting the use of wine, beer and spirits in dishes on the menu is a great merchandising tool. Moreover, dinners sponsored by wineries, breweries or distillers, where the chef cooks with the products and matches them with his dishes, have become so popular in some locations that there are often waiting lists to get in.
Chefs and restaurateurs agree that the spirit used should not overwhelm the dish, but add flavor like any other ingredient. Restaurants known for a particular kind of spirit may find that cooking with that spirit is a natural extension of their food and beverage program.
Tequila adds a piquant twist to Mesa Grill’s grilled sea scallops.
“Adding a spirit to a dish gives a contribution to the flavor of the dish, to its flavor profile,” explains Laurence Kretchmer, co-owner of Mesa Grill in New York City. Kretchmer recently published, Mesa Grill Guide to Tequila, a primer on the wide and wild world of tequila. Mesa Grill sells an enormous volume of tequila, so it’s logical that one of chef and co-owner Bobby Flay’s signature dishes is tequila-cured salmon–a filet steeped in tequila and sliced, served as an appetizer and at brunch on a quesadilla. Because the tequila is not cooked out, the cured salmon carries a strong flavor of the spirit. “People who like the flavor of tequila, like this dish,” Kretchmer adds.
At the Wildwood Restaurant & Bar in Portland, OR, chef-owner Cory Schreiber endeavors to use and promote locally produced products whenever he can. Clear Creek Distillery whiskey is one example, and he tries to incorporate it into his cooking whenever he can. “There’s a strong association between our promoting a spirit in the restaurant and cooking with that spirit. When I cook with the product, it becomes an endorsement of the product,” he says. “I know chefs often say if it’s good enough to drink, it’s good enough to cook with. But I’ll turn that around and say, if it is good enough to cook with, it’s good enough to drink. Quality restaurants use quality spirits to cook with.”
Some spirits and foods are natural partners. Classic combinations include: Madeira with tongue or ham; red wine with strawberries; cognac with chocolate; burgundy with beef. Some associations stem from the liquor’s origin, such as kirsch, made from and often served with cherries, and calvados, from apples and served with dishes using them.
“You look for the flavor of a particular spirit to enhance the dish itself, or add some additional flavor,” explains Karl Edlbauer, executive chef at The Peabody in Orlando, FL. “For example, if I add Pernod, I know I’m adding a fennel flavor to the dish; if I want a rum flavor I add rum. It often adds character to the dish, an added dimension.”
Allen Susser of Chef Allen’s in Aventura, FL, who enjoys using spirits in cooking, agrees, “I’ll often use a spice that matches the flavor of the liquor. I may add star anise or fennel to a dish that has Pernod in it to balance the flavor and bring it through.”
Some liquors are more intensely flavored, appealing to a smaller group of patrons. The house-smoked baby back ribs served with Jack Daniel’s sauce at the California Cafe Bar & Grill in Schaumburg, IL, are an example. “The Jack Daniel’s adds a nice flavor to the sauce, and it goes well with the smokiness of the ribs. If someone already likes the flavor of Jack Daniel’s, they may be more likely to try the dish and if they don’t like the flavor, may not want to,” says executive chef Glenn Zamet.
Both red and white wines, of course, are standard ingredients in most restaurants, used to deglaze pan juices, add richness to soups, stews and sauces and flavoring desserts of all kinds. “With wine, it’s the fruit characteristic of the grape and the acidic quality of the wine that I consider when deciding which one to use. Often a wine will help to balance out a sauce, to give it an extra, added dimension,” Wildwood’s Schreiber says.
Lawrence Kretchemer’s “Mesa Grill Guide to Tequila” includes spirited recipes from Chef Bobby Flay, like Belgian endive-jicama salad with tangerine-tequila vinaigrette.
Beer and hard cider are best used in more robust dishes, stews and braises, or in batters for deep-frying where the effervescence enhances the process. With small regional breweries and brew pubs constantly creating beverages with new flavor profiles, chefs are discovering new tools to add some pizzaz into their cooking.
The spirit-food connection has worked especially well when representatives from a winery, brewery or distillery host a special dinner, working with a chef, wine steward and restaurant manager to develop a menu matching food and spirit and incorporating it into recipes for the event.
Chef Allen’s Susser, who has hosted single malt Scotch dinners and pan-Caribbean rum dinners, has discovered that matching spirits and food works best as a promotional event. “To me, one of the things people really enjoy is a theme night. I bring in the guy who makes the rum to add a cultural background to the experience. To just serve a Bacardi dinner without bringing the real essence to it doesn’t work as well,” Susser says. The point, is to educate customers through the entire dinner, with the expert discussing the qualities and history of the spirit and the chef emerging to explore how the food and beverage flavors work together.
At the recently-opened California Cafe Bar & Grill, five-course wine dinners almost instantly built client relationships and encouraged repeat business. The first month after opening, 900 guests joined their Cafe Club frequent dining program. Members get first crack at signing up for the wine dinners, which can accommodate 50 people. “We are trying to do them once a month. We bring in the wines and the chef works with them, running some of the dishes as specials to see how they work out. The winery people are very outgoing and like to talk with the patrons about the wines and how they go with the food,” says Michael Jurgens, general manager for the restaurant. “People are amazed to see how the food and wine goes together.”
The Peabody’s Edlbauer has also staged a number of successful spirit dinners, drawing up to 150 guests to the hotel. Every year he hosts one beer dinner, every month a wine dinner featuring a different winery, and, occasionally, staging a vodka dinner where he employs infused and non-infused vodkas. He sees these dinners as an opportunity not only to spur interest in the restaurant, but also to motivate his cooking staff, allowing them to have some fun and showcase their unique talents.
Desserts, like Mesa Grill’s tequila cheesecake with tequila-lime glaze, are perfect vehicles for the balance of sweet and potent that spirits offer.
The sweet side of the menu lends itself to spiritual enhancements, and it’s often the best opportunity chefs have to match a dish with spirits.
“I think in general people like to keep what they drink separate from the food they eat, so that it’s unlikely someone will have rum with a rum-laced entree. But in a dessert, you might make that connection, especially if it something like a Grand Marnier where people tend to really like the flavor of the liquor,” says Susser.
“Guests don’t always know what a particular liquor tastes like. But if it’s already their favorite dessert, like tiramisu, or if their favorite liquor is in the dessert, they will be more likely to order it,” Edlbauer says.
Schreiber finds that desserts are more likely to allow the addition of straight spirit, rather than cooking the alcohol off, as in done in most entrees. He finds it effective to highlight the spirit used as a menu enhancement and sales tactic; for example, calling the bread pudding “bread pudding with brandy and raisins.
Clearly, cooking with spirits has traveled far from the flambé cart. Flames may not be shooting around the dinning room much any more, but the flavorful touch of spirits continue to enhance cooking.
Many distilleries provide supporting materials and sometimes on-site expertise for operators looking to promote their spirited food connection. Sometimes, the connection is more personal. Recently Daisuke Utagawa, owner of DC’s Suski-Ko restaurant, threw a special dinner for friend Alexandre Gabriel, co-owner of Gabriel & Andreu, which produces Pierre Ferrand cognacs, Cerbois armagnacs, Daron Calvados and a newly-imported gin, Citadelle. To mark the visit, Sushi-Ko chefs Tetsuro Takanashi and Duncan Boyd prepared dishes with Gabriel’s products and paired the two. Here’s the menu.
Aperitif: Citadelle Martinis
Seared tuna age-nasu with lovage sauce, served with Pierre Ferrand pineau des Charentes Selection
Fois gras with matsutake mushrooms in gyoza, served with Pierre Ferrand pineau des Charentes Reserve 15 year old
Steamed halibut and wild mushroom fricasse in cognac sauce, soy-marinated mozzarella tempura with grilled cherry tomatoes, and assorted sushi, all served with Pierre Ferrand Grand Champagne Reserve
Calvados-braised squab with prickly ash pods and apple, served with Daron Calvados Pays d’Auge XO
Sesame ice cream with Cerbois Bas Armagnac VSOP
French almond cake soaked in Cerbois Armagnac Reserve Personelle
HOW TO COOK WITH ALCOHOL
SPIRITS AND BRANDIES:
to add a concentrated flavor that adds body to the dish, add distilled spirits at the beginning of cooking and reduce
for a full, punchy flavor, add a few tablespoons at the end of cooking
whiskey is less versatile in cooking than other distilled spirits and is best suited to fish, beef and rich desserts
use vodka to retard the formation of sugar crystals in ices and sorbets
PROBLEMS: evaporates on standing; flavor harsh if too much added.
can mellow to a remarkable richness when simmered in sauces, braises or stews.
to avoid a raw taste, always reduce thoroughly during cooking, red wine by half and white wine even more
cook only with wine good to drink
sparkling wines lose their fizz almost immediately; fizz remains in sorbets
salty food will mask the flavor of wine and smokedfoods will not benefit unless the wine is very dry
PROBLEMS: If the wine is acidic, the sauce will be sharp; if fruity, the sauce may be heavy; if wine is not reduced, flavor is harsh; if wine is cooked in aluminum, a metallic taste results.
good quality is important as it is usually added at the end of cooking; usually only a few spoonfuls are needed since the alcohol is not cooked off
very dry sherry can be too sharp to add to food
white port is a good substitute for sweet white wine
PROBLEMS: Too much is overpowering; can leave bitter aftertaste if boiled.
LIQUEURS & CORDIALS:
since sweet, they are perfect for enhancing desserts
good for macerating fruits
use to reinforce the fruit they are made with, or as a contrast
low alcohol liqueurs must be mixed with a spirit for flaming, except stronger anise liqueurs
PROBLEMS: Flavor can be excessively sweet.
BEER & HARD CIDER:
light lager is best for stews, strongly flavored beers can be overpowering
use beer in deep-frying batter as bubbles produce a light, crisp coating
cider is good for basting baked hams, sweeter varieties are used for desserts
PROBLEMS: Flavor of heavy or sweet types can be overwhelming, so use in moderation.
Allen Susser of Chef Allen’s believes that cooking with spirits adds character and added dimensions to some dishes. But be careful when using spirits to flame dishes, as he does here.
Boulard Calvados, one of the spirit companies currently promoting cooking with their product, offers these tips on flaming with spirits:
Use a spirit that is at least 80 proof for a brighter, more lasting flame.
Gently warm the calvados or other spirit in a small metal container over a low heat (pilot light or candle)
Hold a long wooden or fireplace match over the calvados to ignite the vapors of the alcohol.
Slowly pour the calvados over food in a shallow pan. Rock pan gently while contents are flaming. Spoon flaming liquid repeatedly over food.
Do not pour spirit directly from the bottle into the hot pan or over already flaming food. This can cause a blaze to travel up the bottle.
If you flambé at the table, protect surface with a heat-resistant tray.
Stand back when flambéing. Keep clothing, hair and children away from the flame
Matching wines with entrees cooked with spirits can be a challenge;
here’s a quick look at various matches at restaurants where spirited cooking is routine.
CALIFORNIA CAFE, Schaumburg, IL
Chinese marinated pork tenderloin served with wasabi mashed potatoes, bok choy in a plum wine sauce
with cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel
House smoked baby back ribs, garlic fries, with Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce, with a full-bodied beer
WILDWOOD RESTAURANT & BAR, Portland, OR
Red wine braised duck legs with pinot noir
Chicken baked with late harvest riesling, apples and caraway, with sauvignon blanc or semillon
Roasted pork loin with apricot brandy soaked apricots and vegetable barley with gew