Liquid & NitrogenNot long ago Derek Brown—a Washington, D.C.-based sommelier and mixologist (and a W&S Best New Sommelier 2007)—was asked to help out with wine pairings for a meal at Rogue 24, prepared by guest chef Rubén Garcia, head of research and development for José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup.
At nearby Minibar and his other restaurants, Andrés is renowned for his ultra-modernist approach. The menu didn’t disappoint. The meal started with three bites: an interpretation of baba ganoush with yogurt, sumac oil and eggplant; a riff on the fruit rollup, composed of ovulato paper and dehydrated raspberries; and finally “dragon’s breath kettlecorn. ” That’s popcorn caramelized with curry powder, compressed into discs and dropped into liquid nitrogen, the eating of which somehow results in a “smoke” that exits your mouth by way of your nose.
Brown, who has successfully faced down such fantasia as kimchi cracklings and pizza paper—not to mention the standard molecular repertoire of gelées, airs, ices, soils, gravels and foams—was initially daunted. “How is one drink supposed to cover these three bites?” he wondered.
Such are the daily challenges that sommeliers face in modernist kitchens. Chefs like Andrés, Ferran Adrià, Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz, and tomes like Nathan Myrhvold’s Modernist Cuisine, have upended tradition in ways that are both thrilling and disruptive, with flavors reconstituted, textures reinterpreted, meals broken down into unrecognizable forms. Such practices can wreak havoc on the basic tenets of wine pairing. “It can be kind of maddening,” says Brown.
It can also be liberating. “Usually it pushes me,” says Dewey Dufresne, who directs the wine program at wd-50 in New York for his son Wylie. “I mean, if he’s going to challenge people’s taste buds, I figure I have to come up with something just as playful.”
Sommeliers who work with these unconventional dishes often speak with admiration of Canadian François Chartier. His book Taste Buds and Molecules, to be released in the US this spring, breaks down food and wine pairing to the molecular level. But most admit that the only one who comes close to Chartier’s heretical rigor is Chartier himself.
For the rest, versatility is the operative word: They seek out wines that circumnavigate several elements of a dish, even the far-flung ones, assembling an arsenal of Champagnes, Sherries, rieslings and pinot noirs.
And some go-to wines are more ambidextrous than others. At Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, William Brajnikoff likes to employ Cornas or Côte Rôtie because their aromatic range—whether smoke, meat, garrigue or cassis—offers more opportunities to intersect with components on the plate. At Hugo’s in Portland, Maine, Janet Webber addresses a savory sea urchin ice cream with the 2009 Fondo Antico I Versi Bianco, a Sicilian blend of grecanico and insolia, because of the wine’s uncanny ability to feel rich and broad in the attack but lean and angular in the finish. In molecular cuisine, the most useful wines are the most elastic.
Of course, some compositions are so precariously balanced that it takes an extremely deft wine choice not to clash with the interplay of flavors and textures. “As a rule, you definitely want to go lighter than the food itself,” says Lucas Paya of Andrés’s Think Food Group, which includes Spanish-themed The Bazaar at SLS in Beverly Hills. “It helps with managing complex textures.” At The Bazaar, Paya often uses lighter Sherries, not only because they’re Spanish, but because with a complex dish they’re positively chameleonic.
Champagne comes close to serving the same function, he says; when he worked at El Bulli, he’d often pour the same Champagne at different points in the meal. Older vintages of Bollinger RD, for example, became changelings with air, growing deeper and more vinous as they spent time in a decanter, allowing them to play different roles throughout the meal.
Champagne crossed the mind of Derek Brown as he wrestled with his pairing conundrum at Rogue 24, but he thought it a bit of a cop-out: “I mean, soda water pairs with everything, too.”
And anyway, striking the exact foil in this instance might be beside the point. In pairing with modernist dishes, he says, it’s just as important not to disrupt the “mood” on the plate, to maintain the whimsy and sense of play built into it. “A lot of the time I have to find a way to get around a literal pairing,” he says, “and make a connection from another direction. It’s like phrasing, the way a jazz musician will work a musical phrase from one song into another. No one would say it belongs there, but it opens up other possibilities. The impact isn’t about flavors, it’s more nostalgic, or emotional.”
That’s how Brown got around his quandary. Inspired by the baba ganoush, he devised a cocktail with Middle Eastern overtones involving lemon and rosewater, firmed up with liquid nitrogen and shaded with hibiscus. “Was it a perfect pairing? Probably not,” he concedes. But the cocktail managed to mirror the mood of the dish itself.
— Patrick Comiskey