"The drink is the perfect match for a rich dish," says Jesse LaFortune, maître d' of the distinguished restaurant Gary Danko, in San Francisco . "Intense and floral, with strong tannins that cut through the richness." Familiar words, perhaps, but LaFortune isn't talking about Cabernet or Petit Verdot-he's talking about African rooibos, a type of herbal tea.
And he is not alone. Some of the country's best restaurants are offering nonalcoholic drinks go well beyond sparkling water. At Clio, in Boston, sommelier Erin O'Shea pairs house-made spruce soda with chef Ken Oringer's radish, tamarind, and hearts of palm salad. At Charlie Trotter's, in Chicago, chef Trotter devised a menu of fanciful juices to accompany his tasting menu, including carrot with Thai chili and kaffir lime with young coconut. At The French Laundry, in Napa Valley, and its sister restaurant Per Se, in New York City, wine and beverage director Paul Roberts pours various libations to complement chef Thomas Keller's daily changing dishes-from the bottled sparkler GuS (a.k.a. Grown-Up Soda) to a glass of frothy milk.
Roberts created his first alcohol-free pairing at Per Se for a child dining at a table where everyone else had ordered wine. Why, he thought, should the little guy miss the fun? Soon Roberts was doing the same for adults, because after all, there are plenty of diners-pregnant women, designated drivers, and early-risers, to name a few-who might choose to go without.
Aside from giving them a way to join the party, making drinks for this abstemious demographic appeals to some chefs because it offers an opportunity that wine does not. "It gives me more room to experiment," says Nils Noren, executive chef at New York City 's Aquavit. Instead of dealing with flavors that are fixed in bottles, he can control the taste, and even the temperature, of what goes in the diner's glass. The results: Noren's bay leaf- and cinnamon-infused Assam tea, which brings a new layer of warm spice to wintry venison with celery root purée, and bracing lingonberry lemonade, which provides a sweet-tart counterpoint to salty, lavish foie gras ganache.
Although avoiding wine is freeing for Noren, it is challenging for LaFortune, who pairs teas exclusively. While Gary Danko's four sommeliers can draw from the restaurant's 1,600-bottle cellar, LaFortune has only a few dozen teas to match with dishes. Clio's sommelier, Erin O'Shea, also understands the limitations that the nonalcoholic pairing presents. "With wine there are all sorts of layers," she says, "but with sodas there's just one basic flavor." Wine's complexity enables a reciprocal relationship: The drink helps the food taste its best, and vice versa. Sodas, however, are best used to echo an essential flavor in a dish. For instance, O'Shea opts for refreshing, slightly sweet lemon verbena soda to go with foie gras terrine with grapefruit, reinforcing the relief from richness already provided by the citrus fruit.
The main hurdle for Duggan McDonnell, bar manager at San Francisco 's Frisson, is not pairing his concoctions with food, but making them interesting enough to stand alone. That's because Frisson is a cocktail destination as well as a restaurant, so plenty of people come just for a seat at the bar. McDonnell carefully composes his liquor-less drinks, shaking and straining them as he would a martini or an Old Fashioned. According to McDonnell, these "antidotes," as they're called on the restaurant's menu, are popular with health-conscious customers as well as those "who just came off a bender." In fact, the appeal of his lavender lemonade transcends those looking to stay sober. "We get a lot of people who say, 'I want one, but can you put vodka in it?'"
Infusing with Herbs
We've provided the recipe for restaurant Clio's lemon verbena soda, but you can infuse the seltzer with other herbs as well, like thyme or mint.
Pairing with Food
When choosing a drink to go with food, do as Clio's sommelier Erin O'Shea suggests and match the drink's flavor with one you'd like to highlight in a dish. For instance, lemon verbena soda goes nicely with Almond-Crusted Shrimp Cakes with Lemon Soy Mayonnaise.
In a pinch, add a touch of freshly squeezed orange or lime juice to sparkling water.
For more ideas, search our recipes for nonalcoholic punches, juices, and ciders.
-- By JJ Goode
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