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Finally, Cocktails That Pair Well With Food

Clear Bloody Mary

I'm a skeptical person by nature – especially when it comes to cocktails. Above all, I believe three things: One, that all vodkas are essentially indistinguishable, no matter how much you pay; two, that classic cocktail recipes have endured for a good reason and that most mixologists' contemporary creations are less successful and easier to forget than Gigli; and three, that truly tasty pairings of cocktails and food are about as impossible to find as genetic differences between Justin Bieber and his pet monkey.

All that said, I have to eat my words on the latter two points, having attended a recent brunch held by Reyka, an Icelandic brand of vodka.

I’ll spare you the details on how Reyka is distilled and filtered, and how pure the water that’s used to bring the spirit back to 80 proof is. And I remain steadfast in my belief that vodka is vodka – just ethanol and water. That’s why plenty of nerdy mixology-centric cocktail lounges pride themselves on refusing to stock it. What I didn’t fully understand until last week, however, is that vodka can be the perfect medium for delivering the natural flavors of an inspired modern cocktail, as well as masterfully complement the components of a particular plate of food.

I just made room on my liquor shelf for vodka, something I haven’t done in years. (Sorry, obscure artisanal brand of gin, you’re fired.)

Scroll down to see all the recipes.

The event was held at Bouley Botanical, in Tribeca. My skepticism was immediately called into question when I was handed a Bloody Mary, made with Reyka, of course. The recipe calls for clear, strained tomato juice, a refreshing touch, but what made the drink even better was its restraint and balance – it barely tasted alcoholic at all, even though it most certainly was. Only a few sips put me in a great mood, in large part because I realized right away that not only was this Bloody Mary outstanding, but that the conventional recipe I’d always accepted as standard – a disjointed twerk comprising alcohol, spice and Prego chunky spaghetti sauce – is deplorable. And this version was even better with food.

Smørrebrød: smoked salmon, salad, and pickles on rye

Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason of Restaurant Dill in Reykjavik was in the Bouley Botanical kitchen, and his first course to pair with the Bloody Mary was inspired: a smørrebrød, basically cured salmon, pickles, horseradish and greens on a thin slice of rye bread. The restraint of the cocktail and the horseradish-and-pickle kick of the dish was a perfect bridge between food and drink. Usually at these kinds of events, I take only a couple of sips and bites, lest I be a staggering, useless pile of flesh back at the office later. Here, I gobbled everything up. (Walking in straight lines is overrated, right?)

I gave a repeat performance on the second course, a wood-fired duck egg paired with a Summery Beer Float. Looking at the menu beforehand, though, I thought I was in for a worse pairing than Denny’s Grand Slam and a Bud Light Lime; instead, I was absolutely delighted.

Just like with the first course, there was an ingredient or two bridging drink and dish, keeping the flavors of both – delicious on their own, it should be noted – intermingling and dancing on the palate, on down to the gullet. In this case it was some cabbage and pickled angelica stalks that the chef had smuggled in from Iceland, which brought a sour character to the dish that carried over perfectly to the beer float – a sort of Icelandic take on a Moscow Mule, with a stronger ginger and citrus flavor. Again, the cocktail tasted balanced, not overly boozy; vodka served as the vehicle for all these delicious, fresh flavors.

Preparing the Summery Beer Float

Normally, I don’t advocate seeking out or homemaking ingredients for fancy cocktails – the beer float calls for ginger syrup (basically simple syrup infused with ginger) – but this drink will be my cocktail for the summer, no question. Ginger syrup will soon have a home in my fridge, perhaps right next to the sriracha.

Between courses we were served a drink called a Smokey Bay, which fell into the voluminous category in which I place most modern mixologists’ creations. The drink was enjoyable, certainly, but not terribly interesting for all the effort that likely went into its creation – and it’s definitely not something I’d go out of my way to make at home. The shame of it, though, is that the Smokey Bay would have been absolutely perfect had it been served alongside the final dish, a salad of cottage cheese, sorrels, radishes and dirt-smoked arctic char, placed atop a pancake. The smokiness of the fish was absolutely beautiful with the drink.

Having said that, some people seek contrast in their pairings, and the dish was designed to be served alongside a Sveitabrúðkaup, which I don’t suggest you try and pronounce. Basically, it’s a fruit punch of sorts, with elderflower syrup, lemon, cherries, nectarines and elderflower cordial. The drink itself was good, but not nearly on the level of the others in terms of flavor, simplicity and accessibility of ingredients. If the dish had been served alongside the Smokey Bay, the folks at Reyka would have batted 1.000.

Cottage cheese, sorrels, radishes and dirt-smoked arctic char

This is incredible, considering that I normally walk away from events such as this trying to find something, anything, that might have been a good idea in theory even if it failed in practice. The fact that Reyka and chef Gislason hit for .666 is amazing in its own right.

What’s truly worth admiring about this demonstration, however, was that Gislason and Reyka showed that while vodka can serve as a vehicle for letting the freshest and most flavorful ingredients in the glass and on the plate speak for themselves, in some instances, vodka can act as a megaphone for them. What’s more, served intelligently and artfully, vodka will not pretend to be something more special than it is.

Overall, this was a refreshing and surprising treat from a premium vodka brand – and all the more reason why I’m completely rethinking my stance on cocktails alongside meals. I won’t however, come around anytime soon on Bieber and his monkey. Iceland doesn’t produce enough vodka for that.




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