Perfect Strangers

Food and drink pairings that are deliciously unpredictable

Most people know the standard cocktail/food pairings at ethnic eateries—margaritas with Latin-inspired food, beers with German dinners, et cetera. But what if what you really want isn’t a predictable fit? It seemed like a fairly absurd plan to me, but Paul Short, program director and culinary instructor at Madison College, encouraged me to try it. Exploring the diversity of a menu, he told me, is natural. “I think when people go out to eat to try ethnic-style foods, they are looking for the adventure of it,” Short says. “They want a challenge.”

Game on.

German: The Essen Haus

The quintessential wiener schnitzel—breaded and pan-fried veal—is hearty, meaty and meant to be washed down with a full-blooded German lager or pilsner—think Spaten or Warsteiner. A sweet Riesling wine made from grapes grown on the slopes of the Rhine River is another classic pairing. At Essen Haus, where lederhosen and oompah music are in, the menu is old-world comfort-food and ample varieties of biers on tap, served by the liter or in a distinctive boot.

But besides the beer and wine, manager Neale Hansen says people really enjoy the coffees, which serve as a pleasant pick-me-up after a heavy wurst or spaetzle. German coffee hardened with hazelnut liqueur is the most popular, but for something completely different Hanson has a suggestion that might surprise you.

“We have a full bar here, so people order a lot of blended margaritas, pina coladas and who knows what else,” says Hansen. “But I would say we do sell a number of those more tropical drinks with dinner, and you can’t get too much further apart [from German food] than that.”

So I tried a wiener schnitzel with a margarita. What resulted was a pairing of food and drink that clearly fogged up my preconditioned mind, yet proved a surprisingly good match. Maybe it’s because I like wiener schnitzel with just about anything, but the sweet margarita worked with the dish just as a Riesling might, kicking up the flavor of the meat.

Italian: Lombardino’s

Here at one of Madison’s most celebrated restaurants is where my adventure gained steam: What could possibly complement a delightful and authentic Italian meal better than a glass of wine? Enter chef/owner Patrick O’Halloran and general manager Michael Banas. Both presented plenty of suggestions for exotic starter pairs.

Banas offered up his most recent concoction, a cucumber spritzer made with Ketel One vodka infused with local cucumber, muddled mint, lime and topped with soda water. He paired it with salmon crudo (or another fish-based dish). O’Halloran suggested a blood orangecello martini with anything light and fennel- or basil-based.

Despite plenty of persuading, both had a tough time naming any cocktails that might pair with the main course. “In Italy most drinks are only sipped in the beginning [of the meal],” points out O’Halloran. “And then you move to a wine with dinner.”

Instead they recommended a more exotic wine such as an Aglianico with your main course. Aglianico grapes grow in the volcanic soil of southern Italy, imparting an uncommon touch of spice that can be a perfect match for shrimp or mussels.

For dessert the pair picked a ten-year-old Spanish brandy with a selection of desserts, like the dark cherry or cranberry tart. 

Irish: Claddagh

What comes to mind when you venture out for Irish fare? For me it’s the traditional pub grub familiar to anyone who has explored the bustling streets of Dublin—shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, or fish and chips, paired with a Guinness or Jameson on the rocks. But beer and whiskey aren’t the only lucky libations patrons enjoy with their Irish eats.

“A lot of women would rather pair their shepherd’s pie with a glass of wine,” says Claddagh general manager Emily Hudson.

Hudson suggests starting with a sweeter red before moving into a dryer white or red to match your interest. Bartender Ryan Polenz says his most popular sweet reds are the Mirassou Pinot Noir and the McWilliams Shiraz. I fancy dry whites so I took his suggestion of Canyon Road Sauvignon Blanc to go along with my personal favorite, shepherd’s pie.

While I still prefer a Guinness or Harp, my dry wine preference melded well with the demi-glazed vegetables and ground beef in the potato-crusted dish. The combination proved to a be rather pleasant blend.

Russian: Arbat

Russia is famous for its vodkas, so for an initial visit to the motherland’s closest Madison-area cousin, Arbat in Fitchburg, sampling liquor—served with a pickle for smoothness—with dinner is a common occurence. I would suggest sticking to the Ukrainian vodkas or the more minty styles. For the hearty (or foolhardy), any stiff Russian vodka shot will certainly warm the body and calm the nerves.

One of the reasons I enjoy Arbat is its great selection of Russian beer. The Russian Baltika Company based in St. Petersburg produces an excellent line to match just about any taste. At Arbat you can choose from the No. 3 through No. 9 varieties.

My favorite is the No. 7, a light and sweet lager-style (akin to an American Rolling Rock), which I generally pair with pelmeni—bite-sized meat dumplings—or vareniki—potato dumplings. Both come with sour cream and cole slaw. The beer complements the pelmeni, but then again, “Everything goes with pelmeni,” says waitress and bartender Yana Orletska. Her suggestion for an unusual pairing is a Baltika teamed up with Norwegian herring served with delicious pierogi and fresh onion.

For a non-Russian beer option Orletska suggests the Duchesse De Bourgogne, a popular reddish-brown Belgian ale. Similar to many new-style American ales, its rich taste pairs nicely with just about anything on the menu.

Japanese: Sushi Muramoto

For my final unusual pairing, I decided to challenge myself with the idea that gave birth to this story in the first place: sushi accompanied by a martini. To give this daring combo a try I chose Sushi Muramoto, where Chef Shinji is known for his tendency to bend the rules when it comes to ingredients and delight the palate in the process.

For my drink, bartender Andy Alberth suggested either the Lychee or Muramoto martini. The namesake drink is a curious blend of Ketel One, wasabi-infused shochu, wasabi and ginger-stuffed olives. It tastes like bland shochu (which is unrelated to sake) and a little spicy due to the ginger and wasabi. The Lychee is a different animal: a fruity blend of lychee purée and liqueur with Grey Goose L’Orange. (If you’re unfamiliar with lychee, it’s a subtropical Asian fruit akin to a strawberry). Alberth says other popular selections are the Asian
margarita and the Soho Sunset. Both feature lychee prominently and both are ideal with a meal.

If you don’t fancy a martini, manager Sara Waters says a citrusy white wine is a good match for the fragile taste of sushi. “It’s a
pretty difficult balance to pair drinks with sushi because it’s such a delicate taste,” she says. “You want to pick something that is not too strong, because it’s easy to overpower it.”

Her favorites are the Robert Hall Viognier, the Shaya Verdejo or the Choya Plum Wine, which is made in Japan and listed on the menu as “sweet and perfect with sushi.”

I tried sushi with a lychee martini for a pleasant surprise. The drink was outstanding as the lychee tamped the dryness of vodka, and its light, sweet taste meshed well with the fresh sushi.

Now It’s Your Turn

If you’re as serious as I was about trying something different the next time you dine out, Short suggests a little homework first.
“One of the things I tell my students all of the time [is that] research is huge,” says Short. “Look into the cultures and what the cuisine or favorite staple is where you’re going to eat and search for it on the menu ... It might just be something that you want to order.”

Your sophisticated taste buds will be glad that you did.

Jason Karnosky is a Madison-based freelance writer.

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