Pairing Wine with Food (without the wine)

In PlatPrincipal on September 11, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Last weekend we had dinner at a rural resort between Austin and Houston.  The Inn at Dos Brisas is a member of the Relais and Chateaux group, and the dining room has a five-star rating from Mobil, the only such in Texas.  There would be a lot to say about this meal and the Inn, most of it very positive, but here I’m going to talk about what I thought was the most distinctive feature.  Along with the tasting menu we had were offered both a standard wine pairing and, more unusually, a non-alcoholic beverage pairing. I’m a non-drinker, and I occasionally even feel left out in very wine-oriented fine dining contexts, so this really intrigued me.  A good wine pairing should do several things, so let’s see how this not-wine version did.  Before I get into the analysis, however, let me offer you the whole menu (the vegetarian tasting menu, as it happens).


So wine is supposed to enhance the food experience.  At a minimum it adds an additional layer of complexity by adding a new element, and in a fine dining context that element brings along its own internal complexities.  A wine paring has the additional advantage that it can, in principle, be more targeted.  This all depends on the somelier doing a good job, of course; all that complexity can easily turn into a muddle.  But if it works it can really elevate the experience.  At least it can for those who have a more specific impression of the wines than alcohol burn.

The complexity and diversity of a non-alcoholic pairing are interestingly different.  On the one hand, there is not the huge industry or long history associated with wine making.  And most of the individual products are fresh; aged food are (all things being equal) more complex.  On the other hand, the non-alcoholic menu can take the advantage of more fundamentally different kinds of beverage.  Here we had bottled soft drinks, fruit juices, a tea, and the made-at-your-table “chartruese spritz” (disclosure: that last contained a tiny amount of alcohol).  A wider range of infusions could have opened up things even more, but as it was there was a great range: different temperatures, levels of dryness, even differences in body.  The pairing were all accurate.  The very light, slightly bitter and herbal spritz, for instance, was a good counterpoint to the rich cream around the gnocchi while harmonizing with the garden  vegetables in the dish.  The only one I didn’t care for was the salted grapefruit juice, but I have to admit that I’d been so taken with the accompanying soup that finished it before I even tasted the glass.

Beyond the  virtues of individual wine-food combinations, there are special attractions to the parings for a whole menu.  Like many things in a good fine dining restaurant they provide experiences you couldn’t normally have at home.  With both wine and non-wine, the sheer variety of eight separate beverages would be impractical in most home dining rooms.  The small quantities involved also mean you can try vintages that might otherwise be out of reach; this is less of an issue for non-alcoholic beverages.  (On the other hand, our menu was a bargain.  Wine pairing typically start at a major fraction of the food price and go up from there.)  A tasting menu is also an opportunity to maximize your access to a more sophisticated wine cellar than your local store’s, regardless of price.  My home grocery store is one of the best in the country, and I could probably only get half the items on this menu (and conceivebly a fifth at the local tea emporium).  Finally, a restaurant pairing often gives you running commentary from the somelier.  Wine experts often work near the edge of self-parody, and it was initially odd to hear non-wine beverages being described in similar terms, but it became clear through the evening that this guy knew what he was talking about.

Non-alcoholic pairings certainly lack the tradition that wines have.  Chefs are not trained to think in those terms.  Customer demand is probably low, especially in restaurants that are places of special celebration anyway.  And it can hardly be unimportant that there just isn’t the money to be made on non-alcoholic beverages.  But we are in an age where fine dining recognizes a greater diversity of diets: raw in Los Angeles, celiac-friendly in England, vegetarian nearly everywhere.  Why not a serious beverage menu without alcohol?  Cheers to the Inn at Dos Brisas!


Melon Gazpacho

In TryThisAtHome on June 14, 2009 at 6:06 pm

To my mind, there are two (related) tricks to this kind of raw, chilled soup.  First, it is particularly important to taste the balance of ingredients, rather than just trusting the recipe.  Here, I give start amounts, but suggest you be prepared to add more of any or all of the ingredients marked with a + sign.  Second, taste again after the soup is chilled.  The temperature changes the balance.  Moreover, the effect of any raw onion or garlic changes over time.

I prefer my gazpacho as I’ve usually had it in Spain: very smooth and emuslified, so I blend a long time.  One could even strain this soup, but that seems unnecessary.  You could also add a slice of bread if you like it thicker, but I’ve never felt the need.

1/2 cantaloupe, flesh only
1 cucumber, peeled
handful grape tomatoes
1/4+ large sweet onion
1/2 large jar roasted red peppers
1+ Thai chiles
1 tangerine, zest and juice
1/4 c. olive oil
1+ Tbs. sherry vinegar
2+ tsp. salt

Chop all larger ingredients, then blend until smooth.  Adjust (+) ingredients to taste.  Chill several hours.

Nectar: Duck Sopes

In PlatPrincipal on June 9, 2009 at 6:29 pm

We were in the Yucatan recently, including several days its principal city: Mérida.  Our food highlights there were a day at the Los Dos Cooking School and dinner at the restaurant Nectar.  Despite the fact (or maybe because) it is run by an American ex-pat, the school is extremely traditional.  The restaurant, on the other hand is quite modern and cosmopolitan.  The chef Roberto Solis did time in Denmark and even at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s NYC outpost, and the Fat Duck, Britain’s home of molecular gastronomy.  (Strangely, the restaurant lacked its own web site at the time, an oversight now happily corrected.)  One of the most surprising things about our meal, then, was how well it fit with what we’d been learning about in the class.  I suppose I really shouldn’t have been surprised.  One thing shared by most great international cooking today is rootedness in the local cuisines of the place or chef.

This was easiest to see in action in the appetizer I had at the restaurant: sopes [masa disks] topped with achiote-marinated duck confit, and garnished with a fine dice of pickled vegetables.  How is this Yucatecan?  Let me count the ways.

  • Meat, especially game, marinated with achiote, slow cooked, then shredded.  Cochinita Pibil is the most famous dish of this sort, but there are numerous variations on the theme.  Here we had long poaching in fat instead of long pit-BBQ (and achiote takes the place of the French spice rub) but otherwise the same.
  • All regions of Mexico have their characteristic masa-based snacks.  The Yucatan favors panuchos and salbutes: full-sized, open-faced, fried tortillas topped with (among other things) shredded chicken and pickled onions.  Nectar moves down in size for an appetizer and up-scale to duck as befits an elevated restaurant.  In fact, chicken is presumably a post-conquest replacement for game.
  • And about those vegetables…  Many Yucatecan dishes (even beyond panuchos/salbutes) come with those pickled onions, but they’re also just the tip of the iceberg.  In fact, we were often presented with great bowls of mixed vegetables en escabeche: vinegary and  often hot and herb-y brine.  This, too, was shrunk and regularized for restaurant presentation.

All of this might have been just clever except that it tasted so good.   (The reader may have to take my word for it.  There is a different, somewhat less traditional version of this dish on the current menu.  A local reviewer suggests that this culinary restlessness is also typical of Solis.)  It was hardly the only example on the menu; the cheese traditionally accompanying the papaya desert was happily reduced to its essence in a foam.  The sopes, however, were a real triumph of the “deconstruction” and reassembly of multiple sources into a really well crafted dish.

Bonus: Solis is one of the chefs featured in Fiona Dunlop’s recent cookbook documenting Mexican Modern cuisine, and several of his recipes there show the same kind of traditionalist fusion.