High-end bars on pairing cocktails with foodBy Owen Bellwood
Forget matching food with wine – the latest trend to hit top-end restaurants is exploring the marriage of gastronomy and cocktails.
*This feature was originally published in the June 2019 issue of The Spirits Business
The whole package of food and drink is ridiculously intertwined,” says chef Adam Handling. The two have always had a close relationship, with combinations such as red wine and steak or beer and burgers partnering perfectly. Cocktails have seldom shared table space with food, but a ripple of change in the on-trade may be about to alter this.
“Wine naturally springs to mind when you think of pairing drinks with food,” says Jake Burger, director of London’s The Distillery and creator of its immersive dining experiences. “Cocktails and spirits also make a wonderful accompaniment and can really enhance the flavour of the food and overall dining experience.”
While Burger and his team pair food and drinks during bespoke events, at Australian restaurant Lûmé cocktails are paired with its cuisine on a regular basis. “It’s definitely possible to pair spirits and cocktails with food, and it’s something that we have been doing for quite a while,” says John Rivera, executive chef at the Melbourne venue.
“There are times that cocktails are a better pairing than wine or beer. Our food is meticulously composed, and because cocktails can be tailored we can amplify and accentuate what we want from the dish with the beverage.”
Like Rivera, Handling has also created cocktails that complement flavours in his dishes. At his Frog by Adam Handling restaurant in London, diners can sample a dish comprising halibut, pickled lobster and smoked eel accompanied by a lightly carbonated cocktail made with butter-washed vodka and parsley purée.
While established wine-and-food matches have been around for years, cocktail-and-food pairings are left open for interpretation, with Rivera suggesting that aperitivo-style drinks can pair with lighter dishes, and the flavours of dark spirits can work with bolder culinary creations. “The smoky, honeyed characteristic of Cognac goes well with what we do at Lûmé,” explains Rivera. “We have an aromatic cocktail of fresh and caramelised quince and Cognac that pairs amazingly with our slow-roasted pork rack that’s marinated in ginger, turmeric, lemongrass and Geraldton wax, which is similar to kaffir lime leaf, but zestier and juicier.”
Although cocktails bring with them a wealth of flavour opportunities that may not be found in wine or beer pairings, Handling says working around people’s perceptions of cocktails has been the biggest challenge. He explains: “We serve all the cocktails like wine; I don’t have a garnish, I don’t have crushed ice, I don’t have flowers or any of that rubbish – it’s just presented like a glass of wine.”
Cocktails for Handling’s pairing menu are all batched in advance for consistency, and served from a 700ml bottle straight from the fridge – keeping up the similarities to the wine pairing. “For drinkers who want theatrical cocktails, we have Eve Bar downstairs,” he adds.
Eve Bar was Handling’s first foray into the drinks industry in 2017. Based below Frog by Adam Handling in London’s Covent Garden, the beverage programme is led by bar manager Sam Orrock, who joined the venue this year. “I was hired to bring the drinks closer to the food,” explains Orrock. “I’m developing things such as pairings, and I have a lab in the back where I can use produce from the kitchen or a product I think will go well with a dish and design my own style of drink around it.”
Orrock and his team have developed Handling’s cocktail-pairing programme, and also created cocktails that complement the bar snacks at Eve. Drinkers can sample the bar’s smoked cod and caviar dish alongside a Martini made with homemade peach vodka. “The snack has the saltiness of the fish and the rich cream that’s inside, and then it’s topped with caviar,” he explains. “The vodka in the Martini is super clean and is backed up by distilled peaches, which give a fruity element. They’re all traditional ingredients that work well together.”
New York bar Banzarbar has taken a different approach to pairings, creating a five-course menu of cocktails, each matched with a seafood dish. Eryn Reece, head bartender at Banzarbar, says: “We serve five courses of cocktails at a lower proof, served with plates of seafood, but it’s more about the cocktails than about being a tasting-menu dinner.”
The idea for the menu came about as Reece and her team wanted to create a “very special experience” for the bar’s guests. Through the tasting menu visitors can sample pairings such as umeshi and Japanese whisky served with a crab cake, and oysters served with a vermouth-and-Champagne cocktail. “I was really surprised by a pairing with sotol,” says Reece.
“I was recently in Mexico visiting a sotol producer, and the spirit they make has this sort of cheesy nose and palate to it, so I was really excited to work with that. We created a drink that was a blend of sotol, manzanilla Sherry and saké that we served in a masu box. When we created the drink, chef really knocked it out of the park with his pairing of razor clams.”
While Banzarbar makes its cocktails the star, London bar Cub strives to position food and drinks equally. Opened by Ryan Chetiyawardana on the site of his former White Lyan venue, Cub serves up a 12-course menu, featuring six drinks and six plates of food. “We’re treating food and drinks in the same way,” says head bartender Simone Sanna. “Usually if you do a drinks-pairing option, the thing that people expect the most is the food, but we wanted to create the same expectation for food and drinks.”
The food and drinks courses at Cub seamlessly follow on from one another, starting with a glass of Champagne before moving on to aperitivos, light and fresh dishes, more complex cocktails and desserts. Along the way, flavours in the dishes and drinks are complementary, and Sanna has strived to create a menu of cocktails accessible to as many guests as possible.
“It is important to me to have drinks that everyone can enjoy,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re vegan, or gluten-free, at Cub we want everyone to have a rich experience.”
Making an accessible dining experience was also the inspiration behind the alcohol-free cocktail pairing offered at Chicago’s Next Restaurant. “Next has always had a nonalcoholic beverage pairing option; it’s a nice opportunity to provide a bespoke pairing menu for people who don’t drink,” says bar director Alexis Tinoco. “You don’t want to sit through a long meal with nothing but sparkling water, so we created beverages that highlight aspects of the food – similar to how a wine pairing works.”
Handling believes restaurants that don’t feature a variety of pairing options are “seriously missing something”, while Orrock agrees it is only a matter of time before the offerings become commonplace.
“These things tend to start off at the Michelin end of the spectrum then they filter down,” he says. “People want to move into different drinks and maybe have a cocktail with their food.”