Two to tango
It was perhaps a simpler time when the maître d’ was asked “what do you recommend?” Guests, today however, stroll into a restaurant already “in the mood” for a certain spirit, or a specific cuisine. Moreover, the variety of spirits in demand is multiplying by the month. The direct implication is that F&B managers and front-of-the house staff will have to be savvy with exactly what spirit will pair well with every item on a given restaurant’s menu, no matter how indigenous the cuisine or how rare the dish in question is.
“Who could forget the good old Bloody Mary and Screwdriver days, when they were the only two cocktails which vodka was always affiliated with? But there has been a drastic change since, food connoisseurs have been constantly looking to pair the spirit with different recipes served across the world. Infused vodka offers stimulating flavours with food,” says Stefan Dawson, executive sous chef, the Westin Hyderabad Mindspace. He gives the example of a cucumber-flavoured vodka, which can be paired with a salad to add freshness. “Vodka does great when infused with fruits and herbs. Chilli and spice infusions work very well also,” he adds. His hotel marries pear-infused vodka and a poached pear salad with gorgonzola and candied walnuts; Belvedere Bloody Mary and seared tuna with grilled fennel and chilli tomato compote; organic cucumber vodka and rosemary roasted pork tenderloin, potato-celery root puree, sweet and sour peppers, and a roasted apple chutney; rosemary vodka and tenderloin breasola, figs, arugula and sicilian dressing. “For dessert, we have a raspberry vodka, which is paired with a white chocolate parfait,” says Dawson.
At The Oberoi Gurgaon, too there’s a whole host of infused vodka pairing being dished out. “We pair our sichuan pepper-infused vodka with Chinese food, Guyana vanilla-infused vodka with desserts, wasabi-infused vodka with sushi and lemon-grass-infused vodka with Thai cuisine. Our Mandarin vodka — which is an infusion with oranges from Seville, goes with all cuisine,” says Oberoi group executive chef Sowmya Goswami.
Our culinary experts say that Sangria pairs best with tapas. “It is most popular at brunch and also makes a good match with sushi, besides most European dishes, particularly those containing fish,” says Goswami. Dawson says that it even makes a great match with spicy oriental and Indian dishes: “Beef chilli burgers or steak stews, calamari, fried shrimp, spicy meatballs from the European and American cuisine and spicy laal maas or a meen polichettau make for perfect combinations with sangria,” he says underlining the match-made-in-heaven combination of Indian food with the Spanish-origin wine infusion.
It is best as a part of a cocktail according to Goswami. “Its strong flavours make it a little difficult to pair it with food, but if a guest were to insist on tequila, I would recommend Mexican cuisine. Chimichangas would be a good idea. Or barbecued ribs with Cajun spice,” he says.
Mexican cuisine is definitely the first cuisine that comes to when tequila is the guest’s chosen poison Dawson suggests enchiladas, burritos and quesadillas. Delving into the details, he explains how pairing tequila with food is similar to pairing wine. “You look for things like acidity and freshness to cut through fat, and things like tannins and bitterness to help break down meaty dishes. Rules of thumb — pair it with spicy, grilled dishes and serve with salsa accompaniments, or flavoured with citrus,” he says. Most chefs say that citrus is really the only thing that can complement white tequila. “That includes lemon, lime and grapefruit and any food that works with a citrus flavour, such as seafood or chicken, can work well with tequila,” Dawson elaborates.
Given its sweet after-taste, Goswami says that the common practice is to use this spirit to flambé desserts. Of course, plum-cakes prepared for Christmas are the first to come to mind, but chefs have been fairly creative in the inclusion of rum with desserts. “We have a pinacolada mousse which we flambé at the guest’s table. It is incredibly popular,” he tells us. At the Westin Hyderabad Mindspace, the Baba Au Rum, or a small yeast cake saturated with liquor, is the most popular. The duo agree that thus far, rum — both white and dark, have been confined to desserts. But as diners demand the spirit, F&B folk have to come up with innovative potential marriages with the it, especially white rum. “The pairing with white rum requires an acquired taste; it does not as such complement food except robustly flavoured meats, deeply charred,” says Dawson adding that a hint of rum is essential to Jamaican jerk seasoning in order to bring out its flavour.
Then there’s whiskey and wine, which have always found a spot at Indian dining tables. “Single malts go well with a fish dish. A heavier more aromatic whisky will go well with beef or duck. Bourbon goes well with poultry and is used to finish sauces like the famous giblet gravy for the thanksgiving roast turkey,” says Dawson. Goswami serves up the newly popular single malts, such as Balvenie, Glenmorangie, Jura and Glenfiddich (all aged for 18-years) with wagyu teriyaki-style, which he says also pairs well with Japanese whisky.
For wine, most of the classic rules hold good: “Pair champagne with delicate food, like pate de fois gras and caviar. For light meats like chicken and pork, I have tended towards whites, although it is not a rule. Depending on the sauce, style of cooking and accompaniments, a good Reisling, light-bodied Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc are my favourites. Saveheavy bodied reds, the Pinot Noirs, Cabarnet Sauvignons, Merlots, for tenderloin and lamb. For the classical French dessert crème caramel, a late harvest Sauternes with a lingering sweetness of its own would go perfectly, as would a Cream or an Oloroso Sherry,” says Manas Krishnamoorthy EAM at The Imperial, New Delhi.