Pairing food and drink is a time-honored practice, and one most closely associated with wine. In a typical wine pairing dinner, a chef prepares several courses, each accompanied by a different wine; done properly, the ingredients in your glass complement those on your plate, making the sum of your meal greater than the whole of its parts. More recently, the availability and complexity of craft beer have brought beer pairings into vogue. They may occur at gastropubs instead of five-star restaurants, but the principles are the same.
Cocktail pairings are comparatively rare. That might be surprising, especially in light of the culture and popularity of modern mixology. But matching cocktails with food presents a number of challenges. One obstacle is that the drinks themselves may already contain a complex mix of liquor, bitters, and herbs. Common mixers, such as citrus, don’t get along well with certain dishes, and some liqueurs may be so bold as to overwhelm your palate. Alcohol content poses another problem. Cocktails are by their nature more potent than beer and wine, and if you end up hammered before the second course even arrives, you’ll probably inhale your food just to soak up the booze – which defeats the purpose of eating deliberately and enjoying the flavor interactions.
Difficult though it might be, it’s no surprise that Cambridge’s Moksa would embrace the challenge of a cocktail pairing. No stranger to hosting creative events, the Central Square Pan-Asian eatery and cocktail lounge hosted a “New Year, New You Cocktail Dinner” in late January, pairing a three-course meal of small plates with cocktails designed by beverage director Noon Summers.
An intimate crowd gathered for the festivities, which began with a champagne cocktail.
Complete with a tea-smoked sugar cube, it was a light, elegant drink that lent itself to some engaging pre-dinner conversation among the dinner guests.
We also got a plate of edamame to snack on.
And with that, the pairing officially got under way. The first-course cocktail was a classic – a Martinez, made with Edinburgh gin, sweet vermouth, and allspice dram. Even by itself, the drink was outstanding. Noon described it as “food friendly,” which it certainly was.
Dry, with a hint of sweetness at the end, it matched well with the first dish – yellowtail sashimi with ginger, chive, and a sake-yuzu soy drizzle. The dry and bitter elements of the Martinez didn’t dominate the mild flavor of the fish, and the aromatics brought out the flavors of the citrusy, spicy soy sauce.
The next cocktail would warm the heart of anyone who’s endured this horrendous New England winter – a hot toddy. With distinct floral and herbal notes, Noon’s hot toddy combined whiskey, Grand Marnier, tea that she brought back from a recent trip to Thailand, and spices, including a hibiscus flower syrup. The tea flavor was strong but not overpowering, and the drink was served at the perfect temperature. “I didn’t want to overheat it,” Noon explained. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t taste the whiskey.” (This may be why every hot toddy I’ve made at home has been disappointing.)
Accompanying the hot toddy was a dish called Chow Fun – a roasted mushroom blend served with Asian greens and shrimp. As someone who doesn’t love mushrooms, I was a bit leery going into this one. But of all the evening’s pairings, this may have best demonstrated how flavors can work together to create something bigger than the individual components. The herbal flavors from the tea and hibiscus brought out the earthy essence of the mushrooms, which in turn took on the rich flavors of the vegetables and spices. The orange flavor of the Grand Marnier paired beautifully with the shrimp.
The evening ended on an appropriately sweet note. The Radiant Orchid cocktail, named for the 2014 color of the year (you’ll just have to look that up), combined Grey Goose vodka; Noon’s “farmhouse cordial,” made from freshly grown herbs; Concord grape juice; and Lambise, a cocktail beer.
Served alongside it was a smooth, creamy panna cotta made with Concord grapes. It was a simple yet masterful combination. Grape was clearly the central flavor, appearing in both the cocktail and the dish. But the tartness of the lambic and the herbs in the farmhouse cordial provided balance, resulting in a well-rounded dessert pairing that was fruity but not overly sweet.
I spent the entirety of the evening enjoying the splendid flavor combinations and happily discussing the meal with the other guests. It was only later that I came to fully appreciate the forethought and expertise that made the night so successful. There were some obvious relationships between the food and drink ingredients, like the grapes that featured in both the Radiant Orchid and the panna cotta. Other connections were more nuanced, like the spices in the Martinez accentuating the yellowtail dish. No matter how pronounced or subtle, identifying those key flavors ahead of time and knowing how they’ll behave is critical.
What’s more, Noon’s carefully selected cocktails prevented us drinking too quickly and not appreciating the accompanying dishes. One would be hard-pressed to chug a Martinez; with such dry and bitter liquors, it’s a sipping cocktail if ever there was one. Likewise, no one gulps down a warm drink like a hot toddy. The drink portions were also smaller than usual, which made them well suited to the small plates.
It seems inevitable that cocktail pairings will grow in popularity, and as “New Year, New You” demonstrated, the possibilities are enticing. But the success of such endeavors depends on the right balance of creativity, skill, and restraint. And it doesn’t hurt to have a mixologist of Noon Summers’ caliber at the helm.
This also wasn’t the last such event at Moksa. Tonight, in fact, they’re hosting a decadent chocolate-themed pairing, with items like warm cocoa nibs whiskey punch, spicy scallops with white chocolate and wasabi drizzle, and a house-made chocolate Irish cream.
Yeah, that doesn’t sound too awesome or anything.
Address: 450 Massachusetts Avenue
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.