Recently, I had lunch at ssäm, a small Asianish restaurant in Manhattan that serves rice bowls and wraps. To accompany my bowl with Berkshire pork, beans, slaw, and a red kimchi puree, I had a Dr Pepper. It seemed like an odd combination, but since there were very few other beverage choices, I reasoned the Dr Pepper was offered because it complemented the food. Once I began eating, I discovered how nicely the Dr's peppery fizz complemented the richness of the pork and beans, while cutting through the heat of the kimchi. As they say in the biz: it was a good pairing.
Of course, I'm not always so lucky. There've been plenty of times when my beverage didn't work with my meal, and a few times when clearly the drink was at odds with the dish. That's why Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page's new book What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea – Even Water – Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers is a wonderful addition to my culinary library. Not only does it include chapters such as "Food and Beverage Pairing 101" and "Selecting and Serving Beverages," it also includes wonderful lists of ingredients (beef tacos, Kit Kat candy bar) and the drinks that can accompany them (Syrah, African tea).
Dornenburg and Page have also filled their book with tons of expert advice from wine directors, sommeliers, and restaurateurs, and included sample tasting menus (with their wine accompaniments) from some of America's best restaurants. The book is so packed with information, it will take a while to digest it all. But that's good, because this is a book you'll actually use as a reference over and over again, whether you have a wine you're not sure how to pair, or whether you've got an ingredient and need a beverage partner. Or maybe it's just a season, "Winter" and you want something new to drink. In that case, barley wine, Burgundy, and hot buttered rum are all recommended.
As great as its information is, what really recommends "What to Drink" is its tone. We all have an image of an obnoxious sommelier or server who huffs when one member of the party wants beer, and the others insist on red wine with fish. But Dornenburg and Page don't scoff at such pairings. They avoid the snootiness often associated with wine. They don't fill their book with rules, only thoughtful suggestions. On page 22, they write:
The success of any pairing is measured by what happens when a sip of the beverage you're drinking interacts on your palate with the bite of food you've just eaten. When those sensations are jarring or otherwise unpleasant, you've stumbled upon a bad pairing. When those sensations are mildly or even wildly positive, you've got yourself a good match.
Ah yes, like my pork bowl and Dr Pepper! I couldn't find a listing for Dr Pepper in "What to Drink," but I did get a chance at the end of my meal to talk to ssäm chef and owner David Chang about the pairing. Turns out he and his chefs just like Dr Pepper, so they decided to stock it. The grand pork/Pepper pairing plan I'd suspected didn't exist. Which goes to show you can plan your drinks and your food all you want, but a little serendipity can still be good. I imagine Dornenburg and Page would agree.
Feel free to share your favorite food/beverage pairings in the comments.
Note: this entry is part of a Virtual Book Tour for "What to Drink with What you Eat." For more information, please visit the Virtual Book Tour schedule.