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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Soft Pairings

"Tasting menus" are a standard way of showing a chef's (and kitchen staff's) versatility and range, and a common upgrade are the drink pairings, where each course is paired with a different wine. I've decried the enforced twinning of food with wine; I feel that often it is a crutch to a chef's vision. Moreover, the alcoholic nature of wine excludes a lot of people; surprisingly, most restaurants would rather hew to the wine pairing rather than explore beverages beyond that range (well, beer comes in once in a while). Charlie Trotter's non alcoholic pairings in 2004 created enough of a stir, but I think the teeototaler's drink pairing with a multicourse meal remains a rare beast.

A beast that Chef Steve Marques took on recently. Formerly of Tasting Room Uptown, Steve is now executive chef of Coal Vines in Sugarland, and presented tasting adventure for sans alcohol, by drawing upon his unexercised repertoire of home made sodas and phosphates.

The meal started with an amuse bouche, pairing of in season oysters with home made ginger ale. This pairing was sheer genius. The minerality of the oysters popped with the spicy zing of the ginger ale. There was a clear story in this bite, with layers of texture and flavor that flowed with the bite and the sip.
Gulf oysters, saffron mignonette, celery leaves. A bit large for an amuse bouche, but we weren't complaining. 

House made ginger ale. 
The salad course was simplicity itself: celery, olives, goat cheese, black pepper, and some fruity olive oil. No vinegar was used - the olives themselves provided the requisite acidity. This was an appropriate follow on the oyster course, as it gently brought back the memory hinged on the celery leaf flavor.

Celery, olive, goat cheese salad. 
The fish course paired a Meyer lemon phosphate with salmon cooked en papillote. This is a great technique for cooking fish, and leveraged the strength of having a powerful brick oven in the kitchen. The salmon was beautifully cooked, herbal, moist and flaky. I feel that Meyer lemons are one of those ingredients which have more of a reputation than they deserve - mainly because most people can't take advantage of the distinct and delicate flavors. In this case, though, pairing the fish with a Meyer lemon phosphate cemented the baseline lemon flavors, but kept the delicacy of the herbs from being swamped.

Salmon, thyme, bay, Meyer lemon cooked en papillote. 
Meyer lemon phosphate
The main course was pheasant, a silky smooth Japanese sweet potato puree, and a lightly spiced cranberry compote, paired with a cranberry birch beer. When all the components are eaten in one bite, the flavors harmonize. This is no truer than in the case of the drink and the compote. Separately, the cranberry birch beer tasted a bit flat, lacking the tart vibrancy of the cranberry component. However, it all made sense when tasted with the compote, the flavors completed each other.

Pheasant stuffed with pistachios, Japanese sweet potato puree, cranberry relish. 
Cranberry birch beer
A side note: I made the mistake of sipping the Meyer lemon phosphate with the pheasant course. The clash of flavors was as jarring as an electric shock; I definitely knew I picked up the wrong glass. But it also highlighted how carefully Steve had mapped out the matching of drink with dish. 

Dinner was capped by the "best chocolate ice cream in the world", redolent with thyme, salt, dried cherries and pistachios, accompanied by a salted caramel ice cream with candied cashews. 

Steve has some great ideas in the works for the sodas (the ginger ale is definitely a keeper, even if it is served alone); and he conquered the rare beast. Convention relegates nonalcoholic pairings as kid stuff, but I was fortunate enough to witness (and taste) one that is fun, sophisticated and mature. 

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