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The classic Martini.
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Match Points

Jeffery Lindenmuth / July 2009

Jeffery Lindenmuth interviews three stellar food and beverage pros, soliciting fresh views on pairing lounge food with cocktail classics.

With bar foods and shared plates often serving as mini meals unto themselves, many diners now opt to consume their first course, or their only course, during cocktail hour, where Martinis and Manhattans stand in for white and red. Pairing these classic cocktails with lounge food and bar snacks is hardly an exact science, but we found surprising similarities of opinion in response to our asking the following three prominent professional palates to match five classic cocktails, representing some of America's most popular drinks, with charismatically compatible eats.

The Panel: Michael Kornick, chef/owner of MK in Chicago, has a penchant for pairing food and cocktails, demonstrated by a three course tasting menu paired with cocktails he created for MK. Bart Buiring, corporate vice president food and beverage of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, shares some selections from Bar Experience, the company's global cocktail and bar food initiative that draws on the collective talent of Ritz-Carlton chefs who submitted over 400 recipes as candidates. And Toni Neumeister, vice president of Crystal Cruises' food and beverage operations (see Silver Spoon, Food Arts, November 2007) proffers the best bites from the Crystal fleet, where the key to cocktail hour is packing big flavor into small bites that won't preclude a grand dinner.

What, we asked each, would you pair with a…

Martini—the classic version made with gin and dry vermouth and the vodka variation.

Toni Neumeister: "We prefer to make this ultimate classic with Bombay Sapphire, which is smoother and a bit more effeminate than some more traditional gins. With these more feminine flavors, I would use just a touch of dry vermouth, topped with a lemon twist. So you have the drying, smooth, herbal gin that is very mild, and with this I'd pair salmon tartare on cucumber jelly. Salmon is a fatty fish and brings this sort of fatty texture along with a smooth and luxurious taste, so the food and drink complement each other. On the tartare, we also use a little yuzu juice, which matches the lemon twist. For the vodka version I suggest seared tuna carpaccio with white sturgeon caviar and wasabi/yuzu sauce. The vodka Martini, with its smooth grain character and hints of lemon, complements the delicate flavors of tuna, salty caviar, and the light spicy lemony sauce."

Bart Buiring: "Mini Black Angus beef sliders are perfect for the vodka Martini. Like the Martini, sliders are always popular, and the two together are very classic steakhouse. Our sliders have a proprietary sauce [think Thousand Island dressing], lettuce, tomato, and a really delicious bun. Sliders are often dried out because people try to prepare them like a hamburger, and this would be especially bad with a Martini. What we've done is kept the beef a little rounder, more like a ball than a patty, so they stay juicy and medium-rare, without cooking too quickly. Barbecued pork sliders would complement the gin Martini, which has a kick, and the flavor profile is clearly stronger than the vodka Martini, so it's good to have something more flavorful with a little bit more spice."

Michael Kornick: "Gin pairs well with many items, especially those with juniper berries, pepper, or herbs like tarragon and peppermint. A Martini is dry and strong and wants a bit of fat on the palate. I prefer full-flavored aromatic gins with appealing botanical character. With an olive garnished Martini, I love salmon tartare, flavored with tarragon and brunoise fennel. I would finish the tartare with virgin olive oil, minced serrano chiles, shallots, capers, parsley, and chives, and serve with thin slices of toasted, seeded rye bread. Caraway is harmonious with gin and picholine olives.

"Dry vodka Martinis with olive garnish begin to get interesting when they are dirty with olive juice or blue cheese olives, but that only makes food pairing harder. I have two suggestions: First is spicy ground lamb burgers with sheep's milk blue cheese and green olive tapenade (chopped Spanish queen olives stuffed with pimento, mixed with garlic, shallots, parsley, tarragon, olive oil, and a touch of Dijon mustard), charred rare or medium-rare. Keeping it bloody and juicy is critical to the match, as lamb is lean and overcooking will make it dry and you will need to drink the Martini in gulps! Second is crispy fried quail ‘Buffalo style': Quarter a quail. Remove the breast bones and the blade bone along the thigh and the wing tip; season with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika. Bread with flour, seasoned egg wash, and fine bread crumbs; fry in peanut oil for two to three minutes. Toss in Buffalo wing sauce; La Nova is the original from Buffalo. Serve with blue cheese dressing and fennel, celery, and jicama sticks."

Manhattan—while the traditional rye whiskey is staging a comeback, Bourbon remains the standard partner with this drink's sweet vermouth and bitters, served straight or on the rocks.

Kornick: "I like to complement the smoky charcoal character of the Bourbon in this drink by adding a touch of cherry juice. As for the food, smoke, cherry, chocolate, and fat are the key flavors. I love clams casino, made with rendered smoked bacon. First shuck a dozen or so cherrystone clams; prepare a compound butter of bacon, bell peppers, onion, garlic, chile flakes, black pepper, and thyme, all minced and folded into sweet butter. Top with toasted, garlicky panko bread crumbs and, if possible, bake in a wood-burning oven. For a sweet pairing, try bittersweet chocolate truffles, flavored with dried cherries and a bit of Bourbon."

Buiring: "With a Manhattan, I immediately think of our rosemary lamb chops. They are a substantial plate with four to the order, and a salsa verde–style coating to them. They're always the most popular item on our menu during testing, and many women were also happily standing there enjoying this meat dish. Happily, I think that change is also true of the Manhattan. It may be a bit more of an adventurous pairing, because lamb does not have the presence here in the U.S., but with this meat's delicate sweetness, and the great look of this dish, it is deserving of a Manhattan."

Neumeister: "A Manhattan is primarily whiskey, so you have the light smoky flavor of the barrel, and the sweetness of Bourbon, with its vanilla and caramel. I think that to complement these flavors I prefer our baby Kobe beef burger on brioche buns, because you have the smokiness of the meat and also the bit of sweetness of the bun. The meaty texture is also important because the Manhattan is a powerful drink, and a good pairing equally considers weight and texture."

Margarita—a classic sour, made with Tequila, triple sec, and fresh lime.

Kornick: "Margaritas range from very dry and tart to sweet with plenty of Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or Orange Curaçao. I prefer mine less sweet, just a bit of simple syrup, fresh lime juice, and Tequila, served in salt rimmed tumblers. So rather than pair food with more salt and acid, I look to spicy flavors that a tart Margarita will cut right through. One of my favorites is grilled swordfish tacos, with spicy salsa verde and corn on the cob with Mexican-style mayonnaise flavored with cayenne pepper and cotija añejo cheese."

Buiring: Country of origin is always a good starting point when pairing wine or cocktails, so I'd suggest a crisp chorizo quesadilla. This particular quesadilla has some oomph with the addition of chorizo. The key to making a quesadilla special is to keep it thin and crisp, so you don't have a doughy supermarket tortilla. We pan fry it, cut it into very small pieces, and serve it with salsa, so this is a very fun and shareable item, which goes with the feeling of a Margarita.

Neumeister: "With Tequila and fresh lime, a Margarita has this tanginess, a sweet-and-sour balance, that makes it great with spicy foods. Eggplant fritters with capsicum aïoli come to mind as a good match for a few reasons. You see, eggplant needs something to enhance its flavor, so it really accepts spiciness well, with flavors like garlic and paprika. They are lightly crunchy outside while the eggplant itself is smooth, so you have these flavors and textures that benefit from each other."

Mojito—a long drink made with muddled lime and mint, simple syrup, and rum.

Kornick: "For the Mojito, I always stay with spicy foods, this time focusing on the carbonation and the mint. The palate cleansing nature of anything fizzy allows foods with a higher fat content to still maintain a spicy, herbaceous edge. I love recipes that also contain mint with this drink, like Kumamoto oysters and minted gazpacho shooters. I serve them individually in a shot glass with a gazpacho made by juicing cucumber, bell peppers, garlic, mint leaves, citrus, and chiles with tomato juice."

Buiring: "With the freshness of a Mojito, I'd offer our chilly water lobster flatbread. The very clean flavors of mint will work great with rich fresh lobster and tarragon pesto. The Mojito is a classic, but it's also sort of a new classic, and I think a bar food that falls into that same category is calamari. It's incredibly popular, and we serve it in a paper cone and keep the batter very light, almost tempura style, so it's a fresher take, not heavy or greasy. We serve it with a rémoulade, which is more eggy and benefits from the crispness of the Mojito."

Neumeister: "One of the wonderful things about dining on a ship is that wherever you are in the world, from Alaska to China, you can enjoy food and drink that evoke that sense of place. With a Mojito, what could be better than pan con lechón, a traditional pressed sandwich made with Cuban bread, roasted pork, onions, cheese, and pickles. These are flavors that certainly feel right together, like a taste of Old Havana sitting by the pool."

Scotch Mist—simply Scotch on chipped ice, with a twist of lemon.

Neumeister: "In this case, we offer a snack that shares a heritage and an ingredient—bannocks, or oatcakes. These barley and oat flour biscuits are baked on a griddle. In modern times bannocks are often eaten with cheese, so we gratinate a bit of cheddar and melt it on the biscuit. The grainy sweetness of the biscuit echoes that in the Scotch, and cheese is always a great match with Scotch's smoky notes."

Kornick: "I think the drink needs a touch more lemon than just the peel. At MK we put 1 teaspoon lemon juice and 1 teaspoon simple syrup in the bottom of the glass, top with crushed ice, shake vigorously, then serve with a twist. I normally eat cheese at the end of the meal, and with a Mist I love English farmhouse cheeses. I'll also add grated cheddar to buttermilk biscuits to make miniature English cheddar cheese biscuits, served topped with smoked Virginia ham, melted cheddar, and Lakeshore whiskey flavored mustard.

Buiring: "We've asked each of our hotels to develop their own cheese selection, so I think any regional selection that includes a classic blue, soft, hard, and smoky will be exciting. The only one I would avoid is a soft goat's milk, which is a bit too delicate. You could also play off cheese in a cheese soufflé, which could be marvelous."