Cohesive Cocktails

Smoke Of The Day from Bottlefork in Chicago.
Smoke Of The Day from Bottlefork in Chicago. Bottlefork

Beverage directors and chefs join forces and create pairing menus to please every palate.

For those diners who don’t want to commit to a hefty plate of pecan-crusted trout or slow-roasted ribeye, the Bar Bites menu at Firebirds Wood Fired Grill offers salvation. The upscale-casual chain, with locations from New Jersey to Arizona, now offers an alluring happy hour menu in the FIREBAR, which invites patrons to plunk homemade tortilla chips into jalapeño-Pimento cheese dip, devour crispy shrimp tacos, and buoy pretzels with Sam Adams beer cheese. Such a roster of snacks demands fine liquid company beyond the ever-quenching beer—and so, in addition to signature martinis like the pineapple-infused vodka Double Black Diamond, the bar whips up seasonal craft concoctions including the Bourbon & Peaches with Buffalo Trace whiskey, Grand Marnier Raspberry Peach, Aperol, and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. These pairings reflect the creative synergy between Firebirds’ corporate chef and the beverage team. This cohesive relationship, now in the spotlight at restaurants across the country, adds an interesting dimension to the ritual of imbibing.

Just as discussions and off-the-cuff brainstorm volleys between the kitchen and bar lead Firebirds Wood Fired Grill to implement dishes like the cocoa spice–rubbed pork tenderloin with an au jus made from Woodford Reserve bourbon, the number of restaurants sharing similar dialogues and dedicating testing periods to spawn like-minded pairings are plentiful. At Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis beverage director Robb Jones works closely with Chef Gavin Kaysen to create riffs on classics that help illuminate the food. For a guest who doesn’t want to follow up, say, his braised lamb shank with artichokes by digging into a toasted coconut parfait, a creamy, egg white–frothed Aquavit Fizz might just sate as a nightcap instead. Likewise, Adam Kamin, head bartender of Bottlefork in Chicago, weaves everything from sweet potato to chile de árbol to orange flower water into his drinks, a nod to those ingredients that Chef Kevin Hickey celebrates in the kitchen.

As food menus increasingly emphasize the importance of seasonality, the interplay between kitchen and bar has grown even stronger. Alan Henkin, beverage director and partner at Basta in Boulder, Colorado, and Cart-Driver in Denver, says that when he and Chef Kelly Whitaker talk about the connections between food and beverage, the words regionality, structure, and flavor often crop up. But none might be as vital as seasonality. “Sometimes our discussions take the form of a meeting, and other times an R and D session. Often the kitchen will give the beverage team tastes of new components they are working on,” Henkin explains. “Recently we procured some beautiful new mushrooms, and the kitchen was trying to decide what to do with them. They sautéed a few, and we all tasted them together. This inspired the beverage team to open a bottle of French Pinot Noir that they thought would pair well with the mushrooms, which then drove the conversation further into using certain cooking techniques to tie into the wine. This dish ended up on a tasting menu, and the wine was recommended as a pairing.” Such an approach, he adds, is how the bar team frequently starts researching and developing a new cocktail. All it often takes is the sight of a lush, in-season ingredient to spark inspiration. “When we get close to a cocktail recipe that we like, we always let the kitchen team try it to see if it is in balance. In other words, we try to fully utilize each others’ palates,” Henkin says.

Why spend the time investing in such collaboration? Henkin believes these mind-thinks are fruitful for building rewarding experiences for his customers on two levels: “Partly you want the guests to have options to pair with the food, and partly you want to create a cohesive conceptual menu that can take the guests of the restaurant on a culinary journey,” he says.


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