Sensory Science: Food And Drink Pairings
Behind the Palate
Unexpected local taste pairings make for sensational fun
II can still taste my food and beverage pairing “aha” moment, a sublime experience while dining on herb-crusted lamb chops and sipping a 2012 Vieux Télégraphe “La Crau” Châteauneuf-du-Pape red wine. The earthy Syrah and rich Mourvèdre tannins brought out the lamb’s gaminess; the lamb’s herb crust highlighted the wine’s savory sage and rosemary flavors. The food and wine seamlessly entwined into one beautiful sensation, a symphony in my mouth.
Wine lovers have been matching the fruit of the vine with food for centuries. In the French, Italian and Spanish wine-producing areas, regional foods have long paired naturally with the local wine. Think tangy Loire Valley goat cheese with crisp Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc), fruity Chianti and acidic tomato-sauced pasta or citrusy Albariño and the briny seafood of coastal Galicia, Spain.
As America’s wine culture blossomed in the 20th century, restaurants started offering wine pairing menus and food and wine magazines recommended wines for their recipes. Pairings grew in popularity as wineries began offering small bites with sips. Now, pairings break the stodgy old “white wine with fish and red wine with meat” rules. Matching body and texture is more successful than adherence to arbitrary rules. Pairings also go beyond food and wine and the beverage doesn’t have to be alcoholic.
In this spirit, I discovered innovative pairings in the South Bay and Peninsula—where you can find them, why they work and a few to try at home.
Salsa and Tequila
The biggest mistake people make with tequila is trying to pair it with super-spicy concoctions. This intensifies the spirit’s alcohol and overpowers delicate flavors—especially true for silver tequilas. At Morgan Hill’s La Niña Perdida, Executive Chef Miriam Vega offers a variety of scratch-made seasonal salsas ($3 each) for perfect pairings with specific tequilas.
For unaged silvers, fresh and tart tomato or tomatillo salsas, or a creamy avocado tomatillo jalapeño blend, work best. Tomatillos’ lemony note brings out tequila’s unexpected citrus element, and the fresh salsa’s tang cleanses your palate. Barrel-aged reposados call for salsas with roasted tomatoes, dried chiles, onion or garlic to highlight the tequila’s smokiness. With its cinnamon and clove flavors, smooth añejos drink like a fine Cognac. The best salsa partners are less spicy, with smoked or roasted chiles and warm baking spices echoing the spirit’s flavor profile.
Tea and Macarons
Forget coffee with these famous French cookies. Delicate, nuanced aromas and flavors make tea a much better partner. Palo Alto’s Chantal Guillon offers a vast array of the colorful meringue pastries ($2.50 each) and black, green and rooibos teas ($3.50 a cup). I like to sip a citrus-infused green tea with a perfumey lavender–black currant macaron because the tangy citrus brings out the cookie’s tart fruit flavors. A French breakfast black tea may be robust, but it plays well with the apricot-hued, passion fruit macaron, amping up the exotic tropical flavor. In my favorite pairing, a full-bodied vanillaspiked rooibos tea goes hand-in-hand with a salted caramel macaron, melding together for a lingering creamy finish.
Champagne and Potato Chips
Forget pricey caviar and go for the ultimate hi-lo mashup—Champagne and potato chips! I’m a fan because sparkling wine’s bubbles cut through fried foods like potato chips, and sparkling wine’s high acid tempers the saltiness and cleanses your palate. Do this pairing at home any time. Grab a bag of classic chips or try truffled and spicy sriracha varieties. I like a bright, yeasty 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs with the classics. An earthy Pinot Noir–based Blanc de Noir brings out truffle’s savory umaminess, and the tannins in a fresh, fruity rosé tame the sriracha heat.
Hard Cider and Cheese
With 26 craft ciders on tap, San Jose’s new The Cider Junction offers ample food and cider pairing combinations. Wine or beer and cheese pairings are common, but I prefer cider, which is fermented like wine but offers more styles, from still to bone dry to fruity, sour or spiced. Gluten-free alcoholic cider’s apple tannins balance soft, semi-soft or hard cheese textures, and the refreshing acidity cuts through the milky creaminess and cleanses your palate for more. Tart and bone dry, the traditional-style aged Rider Ranch Ciderworks’ Pre-Prohibition Pippin ($9) is an apple explosion in your mouth with Welsh white cheddar, a textured, full-bodied cheese with a salty finish. Off-dry Gowan’s Macintosh Heirloom cider ($8) makes Cypress Grove’s Midnight Moon’s aged cheese even creamier. Try 101 Cider House’s Purple Monkey ($7), a lavender-hued, unfiltered sour cider fermented with banana and butterfly pea flower (a blue flowering vine), which gives this quaff its distinctive color. A sweet fig goat cheese makes this funky cider sing, and the Purple Monkey’s sourness cuts through the rich cheese.
Whiskey and Steak
Ditch the steak-with-red-wine tradition and try some whiskey for a hipster version instead. Bulleit Bourbon, maple syrup, lemon juice and thyme come together in San Jose’s LB Steak’s Thyme Will Tell cocktail ($15), a great match for a 35-day, dry aged 12-ounce boneless rib eye ($52). When pairing whiskey and beef, it’s all about fat content. The aging process intensifies this tender, fatty and savory cut’s flavors and thyme enhances the steak’s savoriness. The maple syrup counters the salty meat, and lemon juice’s acidity cuts through the fat, refreshing your palate.
Try it at home: Turns out whiskey is a versatile spirit and is heavenly with chocolate (red wine’s tannins often turn chocolate more bitter). San Francisco chocolatier Recchiuti Confections has a tasty Whiskey Pairing Collection box ($28) with three chocolates—Fleur de Sel, Kona Coffee and Honeycomb Malt—that highlight caramel and vanilla flavors and the smooth body of barrel-aged bourbon, blended or aged, single malt whiskies.
Sausage and Beer
Artisan sausages call for something more than typical beers, and San Jose’s Original Gravity Public House specializes in craft brews and gourmet links. The key is getting the spice-to-alcohol balance right—hot chiles bump up the beer’s alcoholic burn. Alvarado Street’s Contains No Juice double IPA ($8), with citra hops and clocking in at 8% alcohol by volume (ABV), is perfect with mild brisket, pork, bacon, cheddar cheese and horseradish that makes up the restaurant’s housemade OG sausage ($8). The juicy yet crisp brew cuts through the sharp cheese and fatty brisket with lemony acidity and crisp effervescence. A slightly sweet 5.3% ABV Barebottle Brew Co. Vanilla Espresso Macchiato ($8), a complex milk stout brewed with coffee and bourbon–soaked vanilla beans, stands up to the smoky chipotle-spiked buffalo brisket, pork shoulder and brown sugar of the housemade Chipotle Buffalo link ($8). Smooth nitro stout matches the sausage’s soft, loose texture. For the fiery Louisiana Hot Gourmet sausage ($7), crisp, dry-hopped 5% ABV Barebottle SF Cloud City Keller Pilsner ($7) tames the pork sausage’s pepper heat with sweet malt.
Wine and Sliders
San Carlos’ The Wine Project offers three slider pairing possibilities: Tablas Creek’s Patelin de Tablas Blanc ($50/bottle) aromatic white stands up to the zesty Buffalo Chicken Slider ($8) with bright acidity; ripe stone-fruit flavors balance the heat. Earthy Michel Magnien Pinot Noir ($18/glass, $69/bottle) highlights the shiitake Mushroom Slider’s ($7) umami character. For the aioli- and cheddar-cheese-topped Classic American Slider ($5), fruity Domaine de la Guicharde Côte du Rhône ($9/glass, $32/bottle) is the ticket, as this Grenache-Syrah blend’s spice and tannins enhance the beefy patty.
If you go
Chantal Guillon, ChantalGuillon.com
La Niña Perdida, LaNinaPerdida.com
LB Steak, LBSteak.com
Original Gravity Public House, OriginalGravityPub.com
Recchiuti Confections, Recchiuti.com
The Cider Junction, TheCiderJunction.com
The Wine Project, TheWineProjectBar.com