In The Spirit

The cocktail hour meets dinner time as more diners discover mixed drinks make perfect meal companions.

March 05, 2003|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

The meal begins with a plate of pan-seared foie gras, delicately perched next to a mound of rhubarb compote and drizzled with an elderflower vinaigrette.

The waiter has recommended a pairing for this dish -- a beverage with hints of raspberry to complement the rhubarb and just enough oomph to lend weight to the course.

It comes not in a wineglass or goblet, but rather a martini glass bearing a mixture of Stolichnaya raspberry, Bombay gin and Framboise. Next to the dinner plate, this raspberry martini stands tall and rebellious, almost appearing triumphant in claiming its new place at America's dinner table.

When it comes to one of the latest trends in dining, wine is so yesterday. No longer are diners limited to reds or whites when selecting beverages to complement the meal. These days, restaurants are offering cocktail pairings and encouraging people to think outside the merlot case and acquaint themselves with new dining companions like Jose (Cuervo) and Jack (Daniels).

"We might be wined-out as a society right now," said Monyka Berrocosa-Marbach, a Baltimore food and wine consultant. "Pretty much every restaurant is pairing wine on the menu. People are looking for exciting new ways to enjoy food and beverage."

The trend had its early beginnings in the mid-1990s when Dale DeGroff, beverage manager and head bartender at New York's famous Rainbow Room, had a supper one night that began with a spicy Thai fish soup. He'd ordered a scotch, planning to switch to a crisp gewurztraminer once his soup arrived. The broth came early, however, and DeGroff had a revelation.

"There was smoked fish in the soup and scotch has a smoky finish to it, so I was drinking and eating and thinking, `Gee, this is a nice combination. I'm glad I stuck with the scotch,'" said DeGroff, now a beverage consultant who recently published The Craft of the Cocktail: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Master Bartender, With 500 Recipes (Clarkson N. Potter, $35).

Back at the Rainbow Room, he worked with chefs to create five-course cocktail pairing dinners that became so popular that they sold out quickly, attracting about 140 diners each. In the past year, however, DeGroff's idea has taken off in several other restaurants.

The posh Cafe Pierre in Manhattan -- where the foie gras/raspberry martini combination was offered -- has a newly created martini menu, featuring drinks to go with appetizers, entrees and desserts. At the Ritz Carlton, Tysons Corner, its Maestro restaurant menu lists a complementing martini next to each dessert. And in Federal Hill, Blue Agave chef/owner Michael Marx has had success with four-course dinners, where a different tequila is paired with each dish.

Sometimes, cocktails share the spotlight with dishes. At DeGroff's Rainbow Room dinners, the chef occasionally used cocktails -- instead of brandy -- to flambe desserts.

Cocktail dinners may not always be this dramatic, but the concept gradually is gaining popularity.

Severna Park homemaker Lettie Myers said she was interested in checking out Blue Agave's dinners because she knew tequila often is paired with food in Mexico. "Michael is cooking authentic Mexican food that's made to go with tequila as opposed to wine," said Myers, 51. "It's not to say that there might not be a wine that would go with it, but when the flavors are married they create an extraordinary experience together."

The concept of imbibing hard liquor with food is hardly new -- Russians have long sipped vodka with their borscht, and whiskey is ever-present at Scottish dinner tables. In America, however, there have been challenges to selling this trend.

"The first couple of dinners I had, I had to beg, borrow and steal to get 20 people," Blue Agave's Marx said. "When many people think tequila, they think, salt, lime and close your eyes and drink it down. Just try to get past the taste. ... We had to get people to understand that tequila isn't just for a shooter."

Gradually, however, Marx won diners over. His dinners -- which he holds about every six weeks -- now fill up rapidly, drawing about 40 people each time. Some diners may be more open to sampling this trend because they are familiar with drinks like vodka and gin.

"People are less intimidated by liquor than they are by wine," said Berrocosa-Marbach, who organized a dinner last year featuring a different margarita with each course.

"Almost everyone with the exception of the ultra-religious have grown up with a liquor cabinet at home, where Mom or Dad drank gin and tonic or had a vodka," she added. "People are familiar with alcohol. Wine is more esoteric."

And there are advantages to sipping martinis through the meal -- especially if you begin the evening with one.

"If you change your alcoholic beverage throughout the night, changing to wine and then later champagne, you can wake up in the morning facing some problems," said Gerhard Stutz, food and beverage director of New York's Pierre Hotel, where Cafe Pierre is located.

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