A sommelier can make a multi-course dinner special by finding a great wine-and-food pairing for each dish. In the past few years, in pursuit of the perfect match, some sommeliers have strayed outside this wine-only boundary.
The latest trend is to create cocktails to go with specific dishes, a new frontier in choosing something to drink with dinner. On a recent visit to Restaurant Charlie in Las Vegas, five of the 17 matches in a dinner of tiny tastes used mixed drinks. Sommelier Desmond Echevarre and manager Nicholas Rimedio (both seen in the video below) had a few things to say about this.
A few years ago at The French Laundry, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner for its wine list, sommelier Paul Roberts sneaked in a rich-textured Belgian ale to go with one of the legions of courses emerging from Thomas Keller's kitchen, and a crisp, delicate Japanese sake with another. Both were stellar matches. At Charlie, Echevarre used a Belgian Bavij Pilsener to accompany grilled Japanese tai snapper with barley miso, and Isojiman "50" Junmai Daiginjo-shu sake for yakitori-grilled langoustine in dashi.
The cocktails started with the very first course. A bento box of six tiny tastes such as lobster with haricots verts, oysters with cucumber and grilled peach with chorizo came with two small non-alcoholic drinks: one a mint-infused fresh pineapple juice, the other an iced ginger tea with lime.
And then came the watermelon basil cocktail, made with vodka. It did wonders with blue fin tuna toro garnished with watermelon and yuzu. I can't imagine any wine making a bigger and more satisfying explosion of flavors in my mouth than that cocktail did.
As Echevarre and Rimedio explain on the video, creating a cocktail allows the mixologist, sommelier and chef to work together to echo or complement flavors from the dish in the cocktails. Wine-matchers do the same when we seek out a Riesling with lime flavors to go with a dish that has a lime sauce on it (or anything that would taste good with lime). When you create the cocktail yourself, you can adjust the proportions to get it exactly the way you like it, much as a chef adjusts ingredients to get the balance he or she wants.
Will cocktails, beer and sake replace wine? Although sometimes those things can work better than wine, in the long run I doubt wine will lose its overall supremacy on the dinner table. Wine has special qualities that complement a meal in ways cocktails cannot. Wine has more than taste, it has history, regional associations, craftsmanship and other aspects that add to our overall pleasure.
The very next dish proved that. A square piece of halibut cooked sous vide rested atop a celery root puree with a scattering of Marcona almonds. A white Burgundy, Domaine Michelot Meursault Charmes 2002, provided perfect acid balance and its own range of earth (to mirror the mushrooms) and nut (ditto the almonds) flavor to complete the dish. Most of the rest of the meal proceeded with similarly excellent wine matches, some of which were surprises of their own. I mentioned one in an earlier blog about red Burgundy with seared hamachi belly.
If you want to try Restaurant Charlie's Watermelon Basil Martini, here's the recipe: In a cocktail shaker, combine 4 ounces fresh watermelon juice and 1 1/2 ounces vodka. Add three julienne leaves of basil and add it to the shaker, along with a splash of vanilla simple syrup and a twist of lemon. Shake with ice and strain into a martini glass (removing any basil strands that sneak through). Garnish with a basil leaf.
It's great with toro and watermelon, but it's darn fine on its own as an apéritif.
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — July 15, 2008 4:08pm ET
Farhana Haque — Queens, NY — July 17, 2008 7:38pm ET
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