Juice for caviar, soda for foie gras
The New York Times, December 22, 2004
By KIM SEVERSON
THE tagliatelle with black truffles and butter was a stumper.
At the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., the perfect beverage matters as much as the food. Thomas Keller, the chef, insists on it. Paul Roberts, his wine and beverage director, makes it happen.
For the pasta, Mr. Roberts's usual arsenal of aged white Burgundy or pinot noir wouldn't do. The diner didn't drink. Instead Mr. Roberts measured out a small, perfect glass of Clover Stornetta whole milk, shaken until it was good and frothy.
That's right. Milk.
The drink's cold foam proved a perfect textural contrast to the hot pasta, its dairy fat conspiring with the butter to carry the flavor of the truffles.
Throughout a succession of dishes during a fall meal at the French Laundry, Mr. Roberts poured the unexpected. Lobster fricassee needed the tart effervescence of Meyer lemon Gus soda pop. Coho salmon roe sprinkled over a buttery porridge called for a wineglass filled with chilled chamomile tea. Foie gras took well to Boylan root beer. "The root beer has a wonderful herb cream thing that's going on but with a little bitterness to keep the palate clean," Mr. Roberts said.
The diner who chooses not to drink is often left out during a multicourse meal, resigned to ponder the merits of an expensive bottle of water. No one wants to say, "I'm Bill W., I'm an alcoholic, and I'll have the tasting menu." Neither does a pregnant woman want to sit by nursing a seltzer while her husband sips his way through the Napa Valley.
Now there's a way for people who are limiting or avoiding alcohol finally to feel like grown-ups at the table: the nonalcoholic beverage pairing.
"In the past we'd say, `Oh, they're not drinking,' and we'd give up on them," Mr. Roberts said. "But we need to be as thoughtful with that guest as we are for a guest who is having 15 different wines." He charges $45 for a nonalcoholic beverage pairing at both French Laundry and Per Se, Mr. Keller's restaurant at the Time Warner Center. A wine pairing at each can cost as much as the multicourse dinner.
The inspiration came when a child dined at Per Se last year. Mr. Roberts remembered feeling left out when he was a boy eating at restaurants with his parents, so he matched the child's meal, drink for drink, with the wine pairing. A short time later he did the same for an adult. Word of the nonalcoholic pairings spread, and now it is ordered by four or five diners a week at both restaurants.
The desire to hold back on alcohol is not limited to people who never drink. Especially during the holidays, when palates are pounded with cups of good cheer, diners long for a break. Some might opt for a glass of Champagne to start the meal, then taper off. Even for the true wine geek, several glasses during a lengthy multicourse dinner can obliterate taste buds. And wine pairings are especially risky for anyone driving.
"It's a much bigger group than you think," said Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant who divides his time between New York and Northern California. "There are more people who absolutely will not drink at all, and people who will not drink during the daytime or, as we say, on a school night."
Mr. Wolf is limiting his own alcohol consumption and finds it helps him sharpen focus on the food: "People ask, `How do you have a multidimensional meal without wine?' Well, perfectly fine, it turns out."
At Bistro Calais in Houston, Phillip Mitchell, the chef and owner, offers a four-course meal paired with nonalcoholic drinks, which is popular at lunch and on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. A recent menu included steamed citrus sea bass en papillote with Orangina; green mint iced tea paired with short ribs braised in Asian black tea; and a glass of house-made cherry-lime ginger ale served with semolina-fried oysters and cucumber mâche salad spiked with ginger and loquat.
"I guarantee you that in a couple of years this will be a common thing in restaurants nationwide, like vegetarian tasting menus are," Mr. Mitchell said.
Charlie Trotter, the Chicago chef, has been matching custom-designed alcohol-free beverages with his complex food since the 1980's. He sees the empty glass as a vehicle for extending his culinary vision.
"At a certain level of cooking, you do want to control the flavors at every point," he said.
Mr. Trotter estimates that on any night, 20 percent of his customers won't drink alcohol. Often they'll simply order Amé, a dry bottled soft drink, and call it good. "They figure they'll just make it easy on themselves," he said. "But you've got to make it more interesting than that."
Mr. Trotter developed a series of infusions — essentially vegetable and fruit teas — to match his seven-course tasting menu. Earlier this month the $45 beverage pairing included chilled tea made from matsutake mushrooms and brown rice miso matched with a dish of squab breast and black truffle tart enhanced with kohlrabi, chestnuts and more of the mushrooms.
Not every chef is in love with the idea. Some think the small number of people who might request a special beverage pairing isn't worth the extra work. Others worry about cutting into wine sales. Some chefs simply think wine is essential to the dining experience.
"Chefs have a tendency to push the envelope too far," said Laurent Manrique, the French-born chef at Aqua and C & L steakhouse in San Francisco. "For hundreds of years we've been serving wine with food, so why change that?"
Nils Noren, executive chef at Aquavit in Manhattan, disagrees.
"Wine is so easy, but it gets a little tricky with nonalcoholic drinks," he said. "It forces you think differently as a chef."
Instead of cutting into wine profits, the beverage pairing allows a restaurant to sell something beyond a Diet Coke or a bottle of Pellegrino. And it offers an opportunity to surprise the nondrinker.
"Why shouldn't a pregnant woman be happy, too?" Mr. Noren asked.
For $32 diners at Aquavit can get house-made drinks matched to Mr. Noren's seven-course tasting menu. Tart lingonberry-infused limeade offsets a nugget of molten foie gras ganache he serves with fried sweetbreads, brussels sprouts and bacon. Fruit is a classic match with the liver, and the slight effervescence and acid in the limeade mellow the fat.
Even in alcohol-soused Las Vegas, nonalcoholic pairings are making a dent, albeit a tiny one. When Sensi opens this week in the new $375 million tower at the Bellagio hotel, diners can sip a clear tomato-water virgin mary with their blini waffles and osetra caviar or iced avocado milk with butter-poached Maine lobster with truffle risotto.
"We can all throw dishes together and pour wine with it, but can you match it up with beverages?" said Martin Heierling, Sensi's chef. "That's the challenge. You don't do it every day, but it's very refreshing when you have people come in and ask for it."
Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., doesn't drink much anymore. As a result, she is on a quest to find beverages that not only enhance the food but that can be as ritualistic as sharing a bottle of wine at the table.
"It's very difficult," Ms. Waters said. "The trick is to find something that's not too sweet."
She has taken to drinking pots of tisane, a kind of tea made by plunging freshly picked herbs like verbena or mint into boiling water. She also likes Navarro Vineyards' pinot noir or gewürztraminer grape juice.
Deborah Cahn and Ted Bennett, the owners of Navarro, a small winery in the Anderson Valley, began bottling the sterile-filtered varietal grape juice 26 years ago, when their baby developed a milk allergy. Ms. Waters was their first customer. This year they sold out of their supply of 4,000 cases and expect to repeat the feat with 4,200 cases next year, with restaurants increasingly their customers.
The juice is a favorite at Per Se, but the real star is a line of Gus sodas. Drawing its name from the acronym for grown-up soda, this Manhattan company produces a less sweet, slightly crisp drink made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup.
Mr. Roberts discovered Gus during lunch at the Whole Foods in the basement of the Time Warner Center when the soda company's founders, Steve Hersh and Jeannette Luoh, were pouring samples. The flavors — star ruby grapefruit, crimson grape and Valencia orange — are sophisticated enough for Mr. Keller's complex food.
That's just the sort of thing Ellen Rubin of Scarsdale, N.Y., is looking for. She eats out almost every night with her husband, Harold. She never drinks; he rarely does. So they seek out restaurants where they can still share a festive drink with dining companions.
"I've always wanted something that comes in a pretty glass that has a special taste to it," Mrs. Rubin said. "I want to feel like I am part of the party."