Food Pairings Beyond Wine

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Photo by Velo Steve/Flickr CC

When I left the world of bartending to become a sommelier and worked at D.C.'s top restaurants, I used to say that the whole restaurant became my bar. I would never hesitate to offer beer, cocktails, sake, or fortified wines during a meal -- even tea. The idea that only wine works as a food and beverage pairing is hopelessly misguided. In fact, I often hearken back to the first pairing that wagged my tongue before I was of legal age to consume booze.

It was summer vacation and I must have been about 12 years old. My friend Ben lived in D.C. but visited his grandmother in Ashton, Maryland where I lived. We did the usual summer activities like playing in the creek and shooting BB guns, but come lunch time, Ben's grandmother would have a plate of grilled cheese, smothered in ketchup, waiting with a pitcher of sweetened sun tea. That was the zenith of my day.

The char from the grilled bread, mingling with the mellow tannic flavors of the tea and then the vinegar-sweetness and baking spices in the ketchup against the sugar-sweetness and light nuttiness of the brew, was an inspired combination. Over 20 years later at a Michelin-starred restaurant with a Taleggio "grilled cheese" on toasted brioche and an aged Sp├Ątlese Riesling of good pedigree, I would still turn the corner and run if I knew Ben's grandmother was at the grill.

The idea that only wine works as a food and beverage pairing is hopelessly misguided.

There's also the reality of having grown up in Maryland. This means that when I see a plate of crabs I automatically cup my hand in anticipation of a cozy-gripped beer, sweating from the extreme chill it received at the bottom of a cooler. No Sancerre will do -- not even vintage Champagne, and I've often dreamed of replacing water in my diet with Champagne. It has to be lager. Natty Boh, perhaps (If it grows together it goes together, right?).

Then there's the case of Johnny Monis's pickle plate. Johnny is the Chef and Owner of Komi, where I worked as a sommelier. One day Johnny handed me a pickle plate as an opener for the degustation menu. Wow, delicious, but a disaster with wine. I tried Champagne, Sherry, and sweet Rieslings but nothing worked. Finally, it was a recipe for a Martinez from the late 19th century that sang with the pickles. The Martinez is the pre-cursor to the Dry Martini, sweeter and more intense.

Now that my work has swung in the other direction, and I'm behind the bar, I find it funny that I often use wine in cocktails. For me, this is quite natural. But we'll save that for another post.