A Sweet Spot in the Middle of Dinner


Photo by Lara Kastner

To read other posts in Grant Achatz's series about wine pairings, click here.

VERJUS lemon thyme, beet, olive oil


At Trio in late 2001, when we first started what would eventually become Alinea's tour menu, I questioned why the progression of dishes had to follow the typical mountain peak: the long journey of savory dishes working their way to the tip of the mountain, then abruptly plummeting while picking up sugar as they ran down the backside.

The monotony of 20-plus savory courses in a row seemed to be in direct conflict with the very philosophy of the experience we were trying to create. Not to mention that interjecting simple sugars throughout the meal changes the physiology of the body to help prevent low energy, palate fatigue, and even drunkenness, and avoid satiation. After some further research I discovered that Escoffier inserted a few sweeter courses into the middle of his longer menus...that was in 1907.

At that point we adapted what we called the "rolling hills" menu graph. Essentially we added a short series of desserts in the middle of a 27-course meal. The response was amazing. The same quantity of food was more easily consumed and people seem to resonate with a larger number of the courses.

This is an example of the synergy that can exist between wine and food when the pairing elevates both the dish and the wine to something greater than the sum of its parts.

In order to implement this type of menu format successfully, we needed to pay close attention to the course-by-course progression of not only the food but also the wine and how the two worked together. The flow of the menu had to be seamless; an abrupt swing from a savory meat course to a cloying sweet dessert just does not work, especially when wine is involved. The most common solution is to erase the remnants of the previous course with an acidic palate cleanser. Citrus sorbets, wine based granites, and even ripe raw fruits have always been go-to methods. But to me the menu needed to continue its forward progression, *not* the step-on-the-gas, slam-on-the-brakes rhythm rapid shifts generate.

In order to help smooth the progression, we fashioned a series of transitional courses. These small, one-to-three-bite courses process both sweet and savory elements and fall right down the middle of the saccharine-salt scale. The neutrality allows us a great deal of control in the direction we want the menu to move based on the wine that is poured, the way the dish interacts with the previous course, and how it will play against the following flavor profile.

Verjus, or "green juice" as it is otherwise known, is the unfermented pressings from unripe wine grapes. The acidic juice works well with wine, allowing the acids to be seamlessly integrated into the dish without the overpowering clash vinegar sometimes causes. This allows us to use the natural acidic quality of the verjus to subtly shift the palate and mind from either savory to sweet or vise versa, while still pairing a wine with the course to help us achieve a sense of forward direction.

Alex Stupak, the opening pastry chef of Alinea and current pastry chef at WD-50 in New York, conceptualized several transitional courses during his time at the restaurant. In this case we decided to feature verjus, helping us go from a run of savory courses and ultimately the final meat dish to a sweeter, red-fruit-focused dessert. We turned to beets. Their inherent sweet earthiness balances well with the acidity of the grape juice while allowing us to use a vegetable instead of a typical fruit. After juicing the beets they were slightly sweetened and encapsulated to form ravioli of earthy, vegetal liquid. The verjus was frozen into coarse ice and olive oil was simply drizzled over the dish, and lemon thyme sprinkled about. Even though the course's flavor combination seems unconventional, the combination imitated the relationship of red and blue fruit compotes, like raspberries and blueberries, with lemon curd.

I honestly did not expect Joe to pair a wine with this course. Normally, 12 of the courses on the tour go pairing-less. Some are too small, maybe a half a bite, and others might fall outside the suitable flavor range of an appropriate match. There's also the fact of alcohol consumption: pretty tough to give people 27 glasses of wine, even if they are only one- to two-ounce pours. Not surprisingly, after Joe tasted the dish, he had other plans. In most cases the wine is chosen to complement the food by supporting the major flavor elements of the dish. But here Joe evaluated the dish and decided it wasn't quite complete. He found the missing piece in the wine cellar.

He chose a Dashe Cellars 2007 late harvest zinfandel from the Lily Hill Vineyard in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley, one of California's most prominent areas for producing zinfandel. The vineyard consistently yields grapes with great acidity. The natural acidity becomes vital, because the clusters are allowed to hang an extra three to four weeks, ensuring that the sugars develop to a late-harvest sweetness.

The wine brought a complex array of flavors and aromas to the dish and helped create a complex, wine-forward focus. The wine's explosive dark fruits--black currant, blackberry, and black raspberry--melded perfectly with the earthiness of the red beets. The wine also brought elements of chocolate and vanilla to the dish, neither of which are strangers to being coupled with beets and olive oil.

This is a perfect example of the synergy that can exist between wine and food when the pairing elevates both the dish and the wine to something greater than the sum of its parts. Joe never would have told me that he thought the dish incomplete. But the pairing he came up with became a major component in the dish--one that played a key role on the palate, changing the dish's identity and making it better.

Grant Achatz's eight-part series on wine pairings runs on Mondays and Wednesdays and will conclude next week. Check back for his recommendations for what to serve with caviar, chocolate, and more.

To read other posts in this series, click here.