Love on the rocks

Can creative cocktails compete with wine for a place at the dinner table?

Maenam’s play on a sidecar, the Rusty Bumper, infuses salted plum and cumin and pairs well with several dishes, including an eight-spice ling cod and Yum Plah salmon salad. Alexa Mazzarello photo

The relationship between cocktails and food lacks commitment in many people’s minds. Sure, a good Martini with a plate of freshly shucked oysters is a sexy start to any date, but is it the basis for a long-term love affair?

Spirit-based drinks have more success at the brunch or lunch table, either adding a bit of fizz to eggs Benedict, or providing a restorative hair-of-the-dog to the morning after the night before. The Mad Men-style three-Martini “business meeting” of old fashioned expense accounts has largely become a thing of nostalgia, and few ladies who lunch appear to have the same determination to drink as heartily as did their predecessors.

Is our tendency to see cocktails as a pre-dinner fling—or a no-holds-barred one-night stand—fair?

But is our tendency to see cocktails as a pre-dinner fling—or a no-holds-barred one-night stand—fair? Like most pairings in life, it depends; both sides of the match need to bring something to the table, and together they must balance.

Balance is everything in Thai food, so it should come as no surprise that the bespoke cocktail list at Vancouver’s Maenam restaurant digs deeply into Thai traditions to create inventive, complex partners for chef/owner Angus An’s carefully crafted dishes.

“It was a little bit challenging, at first,” admits Maenam’s bar manager James Welk. “You’re drawing on all these strong Thai elements—sour, salty, sweet, bitter—in a way that works for a cocktail.”

The Thai pantry offers no end of bold aromatics, and Maenam’s cocktail list embraces many of them—lemongrass, tamarind, makrut lime leaf, Thai basil, galangal—in infused base spirits and house made syrups and bitters.

For his Ma Kwam Whan, Welk infuses bourbon with ground espresso and chopped and bruised makrut lime leaves, adds fresh ginger and his own tamarind water and house made pomelo bitters, creating a rich,
slightly sweet mix with a hint of lingering bitterness at the end from the coffee notes.

Paired with Kra Toung Tong—an appetizer of Dungeness crab “cupcakes” that includes peanuts, toasted coconut and a dressing with a base of caramelized palm sugar—the cocktail pushes back the layers of sweetness without masking the delicate crab.

It also, Welk says, works well with red curries and the classic Pad Thai, if customers are prepared to try something different.

“It is a bit of a leap,” he admits. “Most people jump to beer first with Thai, and then maybe a Riesling. But if they step out of the box, they’re usually pleasantly surprised.”

The Acorn’s vegetarian take on a traditional choucroute garni inspired a cocktail with a dehydrated lemon wheel garnish. Shira Blustein photo

Vegetables may not be the first food group that comes to mind when hard liquor is involved, but The Acorn is hardly a typical vegetarian restaurant. Alongside the modern, innovative and stylish cuisine of chef Robert Clarke, the bar program at the Main Street eatery is always pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a cocktail ingredient.

A dinner presented with Vancouver craft distillery Odd Society earlier this year embodied The Acorn’s approach, with local, organic and foraged produce elevated into something totally unexpected and at times, quite brilliant.

A dish based around carrots, chestnut mousse and coconut was paired with Howl At The Moon, a cocktail with Odd Society’s Mongrel Moonshine as the base, which instantly enlivened the palate and balanced out the natural sweetness of the dish with a ballsy fermented blood orange shrub. Later, a cocktail paired with two dishes—one a take on choucroute garni, the other a rich sunchoke chickpea dish—was served with separate garnishes. First, a dehydrated lemon peel dusted with mustard powder, then a honeysuckle smoked beech mushroom. It was a simple, but very smart solution that demonstrated an acute understanding of balance.

Bar manager Aimee Corno comes to cocktails with a strong background in wine, and says the same principles apply when it comes to food and spirits pairings.

“If you have a rich, full and fatty dish, you need to counteract that with tannins and acid. A great cocktail has all the same components of a beautifully structured wine, and there’s every reason it can be as successful a pairing with a meal.”

LOST LUNCH: The lost art of day drinking is exemplified in Todd Haynes’ recent 1950s period movie Carol, when Cate Blanchett takes Rooney Mara out for lunch and orders poached eggs over creamed spinach—with a dry Martini.

SWEET AND SOUR: According to Vancouver cocktail maven Lauren Mote, “Any time you put vinegar in a cocktail, it becomes food-friendly.” Mote has designed the new Oceans cocktail list at Yew Restaurant & Bar to complement chef Ned Bell’s seafood-forward menu. 

—by Fiona Morrow

Make James Welk’s Ma Kham Wahn cocktail.


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