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Pairing up: Puzzled by how you can match your beverages with your menu? Start at the beginning.

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 (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 To Complement?

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 Nontraditionalists: 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 kolsch style beer) are great partners for salads, lightly baked fish and mellower appetizers, while their Venom, an American-style pale ale with a high hop value and bitterness, stands up well to spicier dishes such as Creole items or pepperjack penne pasta.

Move Over Wine

Wine still has the strongest foothold in the dining room, and is widely agreed to be an exceptionally food-friendly beverage, though encouraging customers to consider other choices at the dinner table can add to their overall dining experience. Same restaurants that are more cocktail-oriented do present a cocktail list with the wine list, though in most diners' minds, cocktails remain simply a pre-dinner drink.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States has been working hard of late to help broaden people's perspectives on what to drink with dinner. Dale DeGroff, New York-based cocktail master who once ran programs at the Rainbow Room and has hosted seminars on spirits and cocktails for many spirits companies and restaurants, serves as the mixologist-spokesman for the campaign, which includes occasional pairing dinners held around the country.

The concept started with a dinner at Sazerac in Seattle last year. Each cocktail was paired with two or three dishes, so that the interplay of the drink with the various flavors and textures could be more distinctly appreciated. In one example--a Gin Sling served with both raw oysters on the half-shell (with serrano-vidalia onion granita) and fried oysters (with malt vinegar aioli and hot sauce)--DeGroff notes that the zesty, citrus elements of the cocktail pair well with the richness of the oysters.

(Other groups are equally happy to help: the National Beer Wholesalers Association offers the recipe and pairing brochure "Delicious! Cooking and Dining with Beer" at

Kansas City-based Frost recently began creating cocktail dinners for the general public at the California Grill in Disney World, an expansions of the training he's been doing for their beverage in pairing. Word is that the first dinner -- six courses, each with a paired cocktail -- sold out in 15 minutes. More such dinners are in the works and are due to be offered every few months.

Among the pairings at that inaugural pairing dinner was a selection of smoked fish with a smoky style Martini (in this case, Belvedere vodka - "kind of peppery," notes Frost -- with amontillado sherry) where the vibrant acidity of the drink mellowed the intensity of the fish. They also served marinated shrimp wrapped in prosciutto with shiso leaf and a hot mango sauce, served with a Maitai ("heat loves sweet," Frost points out, and the fruit elements of the Maitai and mango sauce worked well), and for dessert, an Apple Toddy (Calvados with reduced apple juice) served with a tarte tatin.

Take it for a Test-Run

"Unquestionably, there are no hard and fast rules on pairing," sums up Cascadia's Kosseff, saying that successful pairing is based on experience, frequent tasting and a memory for successful -- or otherwise - previous pairings. The more often you expose yourself to food and beverage together -- try, taste, remember -- the better track record you'll have ahead of you.

"I believe strongly that it's not pure science" echoes Frost. If you're venturing into untested waters with a new combo, try it out first before you subject customers to a new pairing idea. And don't let your own taste be the only judge. "Test out your ideas on a varying group of palates," Frost suggests.

Napa Valley's Fronda did plenty of behind-the-scenes development before the Perfect Pairs concept was ready for prime time, eight months or so of playing with ideas before the launch. In one early phase, he paired a single wine with a themed trio of tastes (such as asparagus prepared three ways). In that phase, guests said they wanted to have a chance to taste more wines, which helped lead him in the direction of the current menu of six different wine/food pairings.

"There's no doubt that [the Perfect Pairs is] a positive menu addition," Fronda says. "It really characterizes the restaurant and guests truly enjoy the conversation that's created over the pairings." The program also serves as an education for their guests, a chance to get them to try premium wines without the commitment of a full bottle. Guests get a new experience and potentially learn something, while the chef gets to be creative and enhance guest loyalty.

Frost finds that ramping up food and beverage pairing "makes sense to everyone," both financially -- moving more stock through the bar, and for the good of the customer -- encouraging them to eat when they drink. But many operators aren't ready to commit fully yet, so Frost finds himself still in the "prove it" stage of his ongoing mission. Prove it he does, as do a growing number of chefs, sommeliers and bartenders across the country. Wine, tequila, pale ale, Maitais, bourbon can all take part in the pairing game. It is a game everyone can play at, and win.

Cynthia Nims is the food editor of Seattle magazine.
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Author:Nims, Cynthia
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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