Raising the Bar

As cocktails become the rage, restaurateurs are coming up with swanky new snacks to match


You're sitting at a cocktail bar, halfway through a something-tini and starting to feel a little silly. The rest of your group has yet to arrive, and you need some nosh ASAP, before your beverage bowls you over.

Peanuts? Crackers? That's so pedestrian. You need a swankier snack to complement your cocktail.

As the list of specialty libations grows, restaurants and caterers are coming up with high-end finger foods to match the new strong flavors - just as they have long recommended wines to pair with dinner.

In New York City, the Double Seven lounge teams mixed drinks with Debauve and Gallais chocolates. At Jack Falstaff, a San Francisco restaurant, customers nosh on a dish of soybeans seasoned with salt and Lapsang Souchong tea while they sip on vodka martinis with green tea. At Baltimore's Grand Cru wine, beer and cocktail bar, a Hangar One vodka-lime martini goes with a shrimp cocktail and Hangar One cocktail sauce.

With mixed drinks, chefs consider the amounts of citrus, sugar and liquor to find the best small-plate mates. One of the most important things to keep in mind is how strong the drink is, said local chef/caterer Connie Crabtree.

"You don't get too delicate," Crabtree said. "I think that would be the key. Not if you're having single-malt scotches or martini bars. You've got to have food that will stand up to it."

When Crabtree caters cocktail parties, she usually prepares 10 to 15 different bite-sized nibblers. In late January, she cooked for a Sundance Film Festival event sponsored by Grey Goose Vodka, which featured plenty of Grey Goose-filled drinks.

To go with them, she made baby turkey burgers on brioche, stuffed olives and marinated Mediterranean vegetables.. Each of these options is easy to make and can hold its own against a sharp vodka mix, Crabtree said.

The key, Crabtree said, is to pack sophistication and flavor punch into a small, easy-to-eat package. "Those are the kind of things that even can be put out on a bar and be a little more interesting than peanuts and Goldfish," she said.

Echoing a certain flavor or type of alcohol in your food is another good choice, said Nelson Carey, co-owner of Grand Cru. Hence his recommendation that you munch the shrimp cocktail with Hangar One sauce when you've ordered the Hangar One vodka-lime martini. The iced shrimp and chilled martini share a certain crispness, and the sauce mirrors the vodka's accent, he said.

"We apply the same philosophies of food and wine pairing as we do to food and cocktails," Carey said. "You're looking for balance of intensity of flavor and you're looking for flavors that go well together."

Jill Snyder, executive chef at Red Maple, seconds this marriage of seafood and liquor. Her restaurant's signature martini is the Red Maple, which consists of Vincent Van Gogh Wild Appel Vodka, Cointreau and cranberry juice. Snyder partners it with lobster-lump crab cakes drizzled with pomegranate sauce, which complements the cranberry in the cocktail.

"That's something you can sip for a second, you can have a bite or two, and [the snack] looks beautiful, too," she said.

Red Maple specializes in tapas, small plates with a few bites of meat, seafood or vegetables. Tapas make great cocktail fare because they usually don't involve much cutlery and won't fill you up, Snyder said.

"You don't want something that you have to cut with a fork and a knife," Snyder said. "Generally, we serve everything with chopsticks so you can just kind of take a bite, maybe leave it for a second and take another bite, and it's done."

You're also less committed to tapas than large plates, and can decide as you go how much or little you want to eat, depending on what you're drinking and what you're craving. One plate can be bar food while you wait for friends; five or six plates can be a meal for two.

Pazo's signature sipper is the Riviera, a martini made of Stoli O vodka, Cassis and white wine and garnished with a wedge of blood orange. For it and most of Pazo's martinis, co-owner Tony Foreman suggests ordering Manchego and Manzana, a simple, fresh dish of cheese and julienne-cut green apple tossed with walnut oil and walnuts. The walnut oil pulls together the apple's sweetness and acidity and the manchego's salty, mouth-coating fat to create a strong and stable dish fit for almost any Pazo martini, he said.

"That's both rich and refreshing in and of itself," Foreman said. "I find that when I come into my own place and order a drink, I find that's pretty much the first thing that I will get regardless of what I'm drinking. I have to admit, I think that's one of the two or three really ubiquitous items here."

For the more adventurous, Foreman has a few guidelines. Go sweet and spicy: The more sugar in the drink, the more spice in the dish is a good rule, he said.

"Sweetness sort of seems to either absorb or be able to balance out or deal with the spice," he said.

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