As the boundary between bar and restaurant begins to fade, the rules about what to drink with your food are being rewritten
It was once so straightforward: you enjoyed cocktails or an aperitif before dinner, and wine or beer with your meal. The relationship between food and drink was always there, but their roles were clear. Then the current cocktail boom began, and restaurants like Hawksmoor and those in Jason Atherton’s Social group grabbed the scene by the collar and shook it up – and what was behind the bar became just as important as what came out of the kitchen. What’s more, the two elements had to work in tandem more than ever before.
Here, GQ speaks to five experts – Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr Lyan of White Lyan and Dandelyan; Grain Store collaborator and drinks specialist Tony Conigliaro; Luca Missaglia, bar manager at Aqua Shard; Gustavo Giallonardo, chef at Oriole; and Tristan Stephenson of Black Rock and Worship Street Whistling Shop – about how to ease your way into pairing spirits and cocktails with food.
Step one: take a class
Look out for a class held by someone in the know, and learn more about spirits in the process. Gustavo Giallonardo at Oriole, holds food-pairing masterclasses at the bar in London’s Smithfield Market (oriolebar.com). “Pairing spirits with food remains relatively rare, because picking out flavour and aroma notes in spirits often requires a more educated palate, so it can be more difficult,” he says. “However, it can be a wonderful gateway to understanding and enjoying spirits that they might not otherwise sample or appreciate.“
Step two: keep it simple
“I’ve never separated food and drink – to me, they are the same thing,” says Ryan Chetiyawardana. “It helps that I’ve come from a food background, but it is great to see that more people are starting to bring the two worlds together again. I think the best lessons are done by keeping it simple. Play on what you know works – that’s why classics are useful – and start with like for like, or complementary flavours, then work on trial and error. It’s a very fun game.”
Step three: go for the natural pairings
“A well-made Martini with a proper vodka, like Belvedere, is the perfect thing to set up your palate – and belly – for food,” says Chetiyawardana. “It also pairs with little bites, such as olives, but it sits perfectly with the ceviche tacos at Dandelyan, too.”
At London’s high-rise Aqua Shard, Luca Missaglia loves to playfully pair the clean, crisp taste of Belvedere vodka with the restaurant’s Hereford fillet steak, in the form of the cocktail C’est La Vie (Belvedere, clarified lime juice, sugar syrup, pear eau de vie and frozen grapes). “Belvedere vodka mixed with pear eau de vie works perfectly to cut through the rich, smoky and earthy flavours of the meat,” Missaglia explains.
Chetiyawardana also suggests an alternative positioning for whisky and cognac, so often reserved for after dinner. “A Glenmorangie Buck is brilliant with cheese, which definitely doesn’t need to be at the end of a meal, and a Hennessy XO Sazerac with something rich, like Dandelyan’s pork buns, is tasty, rich goodness,” he says.
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Step four: for more adventurous matches, treat food and drink as one entity
“The pairings are most successful when the two parts are allowed to develop in conjunction with each other,” says Chetiyawardana. “The best examples are the ones that have been created with the whole offering in mind. And the beauty of a cocktail is the ability to affect every element, which allows you to have a more complete pairing than with wine or a beer – provided they have been created together. It’s also fun to blur the realm of what is the food and what is the cocktail without challenging the comfort zone of the associations we have with a dish or a drink, or becoming gimmicky.”
Tristan Stephenson agrees, and advises that you should avoid shoehorning a twisted classic into accompanying a dish that has had a great deal more thought put into it. “Both dish and drink need designing in conjunction with one another, like the dish is the garnish to the drink, or the drink is the final component to the plate,” he says.
At Grain Store, in London’s King’s Cross, the whole menu is carefully paired to cocktails. Its Buttered Champagne cocktail (below) was created to match with its hot seaweed sushi dish served with glazed pak choi, black garlic purée, hake à la plancha and vanilla butter. “The toasted butter notes work very well with the vanilla butter element of the dish,” says Tony Conigliaro. “As the drink is quite clean in its flavour profile, it doesn’t overpower the delicate flavours of the fish.”
Recipe: Grain Store’s Buttered Champagne
5ml buttered liqueur,
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs champagne.
Add the liqueur to a champagne flute and top with Ruinart Blanc de Blancs. Stir gently to combine and serve.
For the butter liqueur:
175g Pamplie unsalted butter
700ml Belvedere vodka
36g castor sugar
- Add the butter to a pan, heat over a medium heat while continually stirring until it bubbles and begins to change colour.
- Continue stirring the butter while keeping a close eye on the colour. Once it has browned and has a nutty aroma, take off the heat.
- Add your browned butter and vodka to an airtight bag (be careful, as the butter may spit), seal and store it overnight in the fridge to separate.
- Use a coffee filter to filter the vodka and remove solids.
- Add 36g castor sugar to the buttered vodka and stir to dissolve.