The glass of bubbly at the table looks suspiciously like sparkling wine, yet a sip of it suggests something else. It is crisp and sweet, absent of the familiar tinge of bitterness and buzz. Preludio’s beverage director/sommelier Chip Steel doesn’t have a name for it yet, but it is to be paired with a macaron of foie gras mousse and truffle shavings from the fine-dining restaurant’s new summer menu.
For now, it’s just ‘Sparkling Yuzu with Ginger,’ a spirit-free look-alike to a glass of Eric Rodez grand cru champagne which shares surprisingly similar characteristics: effervescence and all.
These non-alcoholic pairings — poetically dubbed the ‘prudent pairing’ — is slow to pick up at Preludio, as compared to the traditional degustation of wines. But the sobering experience has been on the rise in recent months.
More restaurants in Singapore are shaking up new alcohol-free concoctions for the dining table, to be taken as seriously as wines.
For the health-conscious, the pregnant mums or the unfortunate person bearing the burden of being everyone’s chauffeur, it’s a welcoming activity without nursing tepid soft drinks or sparkling water. It’s also a blessing on the wallet: an eight-course non-alcoholic pairing at Preludio is priced at S$118++, nearly a fraction cheaper than the alcoholic option.
But these experiences don’t just come right out of another bottle. Artful craft, a dose of creativity and a pinch of good humour goes into the making of each concoction. Beyond that, these pairings are — if we may borrow the words of Robert Parker — meant to be ‘intellectually satisfying.’ Each drink accentuates, offers another dimension or a harmonious expression to a dish.
It’s been more than a decade since Noma’s chef Rene Redzepi pioneered juice pairings with fermented fruits and vegetables. Since then, Copenhagen restaurants and other international establishments have taken a leaf of Redzepi’s cookbooks.
Singaporean restaurants, such as the now-shuttered Restaurant Andre, had slowly introduced this idea a couple of years back. But the advent of non-alcoholic spirits, fermentation fads and healthful living has given rise to fresh ideas.
In the past few months, more restaurants are adopting non-alcoholic programmes to accommodate the trend. Preludio’s ‘prudent pairings’ see chilled infusions and Seedlip concoctions that emulate facets of wine and other spirits. Modern European restaurant Cure offers kombucha and tea pairings alongside biodynamic wines. At Esora, Japanese tea blends like genmaicha with basil leaves are placed on the same pedestal as sake.
Restaurant Zen, a local offshoot of Stockholm’s three-Michelin-starred Frantzen, goes for juice pairing programmes that have taken off in Scandinavia. General manager Aaron Jacobson notes that these juices and pairings make up a tenth of beverage sales — a small, yet considerable portion.
“Considering that non-alcoholic beverage pairings are usually an afterthought in other markets, it constitutes a large portion of sales and it’s fun for us to have a creative outlet we all get to work on. Typically, non-alcoholic sales only make up around 2 percent of sales in a restaurant, so it’s quite reassuring,” he adds.
Working a brew
Too many cooks spoil the broth, so the adage goes. But in the case of cooking up non-alcoholic drinks and pairings, both kitchen team and sommelier find their work coinciding in different ways.
It’s certainly different from the ways of traditional wine pairings. A process that requires years of research, studying and tasting of various wines is now complemented by experimenting with all sorts of ingredients and culinary techniques.
At the newly-opened restaurant Cloudstreet, head sommelier Vindohan Veloo has had the opportunity to discover spirit-free drinks ranging from infusions to juices. “The challenge for me personally is that I’ve never worked in a kitchen,” he shares. “Sometimes I’ll taste something and know that it needs more acidity, or needs more salinity, but I’ll really depend on help from the kitchen to figure that out.”
No shortcuts are taken, each drink sees tons of trial-and-errors and preparation in the process. Take for instance a grapefruit and long pepper concoction which is paired with Cloudstreet’s pan-seared turbot dish. The ‘labour-intensive’ beverage sees Veloo slow-cooking grapefruit juice for a quart of syrup and running tomatoes in a robot coupe overnight for tomato water.
Regardless, sommeliers continue to rely on what they know the best: their palate and knowledge of wine. The ‘formula’ to a good pairing is deeply referenced from this.
Says Aaron Jacobson on Restaurant Zen’s juice pairing: “For example, high acid in a dish calls for the same in a drink, and delicate food calls for delicate flavours in a beverage. Outside of that, it’s fair game for us to be as creative as possible.”
“What is interesting about the juices is that after blending and creating we often find that it ends up becoming complex, much like wine, and therefore what people perceive can be subjective due to how the ingredients interact with each other. We are often surprised by the unexpected connections that flavours make through layering and bonding during infusions.”
An experience for all
Still, diners won’t necessarily have to come in with a deep understanding and discerning palate for wine to enjoy a good non-alcoholic pairing.
A starter of foie gras terrine with popping candy and coffee kombucha glaze at Preludio could be paired with a glass of spicy mead. For those who can’t quite enjoy the heady spirit, there’s the Cherry Express Burst Boom, a fun mix of earl grey tea, espresso, macerated cherries and a dash of pop rocks.
The relationship between dish and drink is no secret. Most importantly, it works. Cherry Express has just the right touch of tannins and a faint sweetness that complements the dish. Like the mead, the drink looks similar and is presented in a wine glass as well.
Besides the advantage of leaving a business luncheon more clear-headed, diners at the table are afforded the chance to enjoy and discuss gastronomy together — drinker or not.
“My intention is not to leave anyone uncomfortable or left out on the dining table, so everyone gets a similar-looking liquid,” Chip Steel shares. “We do want people to take up these pairings. Sometimes people buy a bottle or bring their own. Now, diners are trusting us to make good decisions in finding the perfect synchrony with food and wine.”
Additional reporting by Timothy DePeugh
This story was first published on LifestyleAsia