The candles are lit, the table is set, and you've gathered your friends and family to share an amazing meal. All you need to bring that epicurean experience to the next level is the perfect rarefied beverage to complement the flavors in your food. May we suggest, er, juice?
Yes, juice has grown up and left the breakfast table. Blended fruit juices—sometimes enhanced with spices and showcasing unusual combinations such as almond, pineapple, and lemongrass—may have gotten their start in hippie juice bars, but now they're the rage at fine restaurants across the country. Beautiful and exotic, fruit elixirs are sure to be a hit at this year's holiday parties as well.
"When we started our juice-pairing program last May, we had no idea how popular it would be," says James Hackney, chef de cuisine at the elegant L'Espalier restaurant in Boston. Sommelier Nick Tranquillo says about 5 percent of diners are opting for juice pairings. The juices, geared to a mature palate—think freshly squeezed Concord grape juice infused with lavender blossoms—are the perfect treat if you're avoiding alcohol because of allergies, pregnancy, or a simple commitment to maintaining clarity and awareness.
Inveterate cork sniffers might be aghast at the thought of unfermented juice with dinner, but even committed oenophiles should appreciate the idea of combining palate-stimulating flavors to enhance the dining experience. Some of the nation's most innovative chefs have led the charge; you can drink juice paired with the multi-course menus at Tru in Chicago, and the French Laundry in Yountville, California, among others.
If you're hosting a party, juice pairings can elevate the event a notch, without sending you or your guests into hangover territory. For a would-be elixir mixologist, it helps to understand pairing basics as they've been developed by sommeliers.
Wine's ability to enhance the flavor of food comes not from its alcohol content, but from the degree of sweetness, tartness, or crispness and the depth of flavors inherent in the grapes. Well-selected juice pairings can enhance food in a similar way.
"Just as you would pair champagne with fatty foods and beer with pizza, so you could pair a bubbly juice with a rich, savory dish in order to cleanse your palate of the fat,"Hackney explains. "You would pair a tannic or tart drink with something sweet to balance your palate. This is the same methodology that's employed in all wine pairings."
When selecting wine to pair with the innovative, whimsical dishes at Nantucket's American Seasons, co-owner and director of the restaurant's wine program Orla Murphy-LaScola starts by considering the main element of the dish, and whether its overriding impression is fat, sweet, or salty. "Then we find a wine that will complement rather than overpower the flavors."
She does the same thing, she says, when choosing juices. A dish served with a mint sauce, for example, might go well with a juice that includes "the mellow flavor of coconut, and some mango to bring up the sweetness."
If there's an especially sweet element on the plate, Murphy-LaScola will recommend an acidic juice, such as grapefruit (with a hint of sweet mango to balance the tartness), or a raspberry-orange blend. With a very mild dish, she suggests juices with a slightly salty element, such as carrot, celery, or kiwi.
In some instances, a juice pairing might actually be preferable to a wine pairing, even if you typically enjoy wine with your meal. Take salad: Dressed in a vinaigrette, it's notoriously difficult to pair with a proper vintage. But a sweet juice, Hackney says, can balance the acidity beautifully. Such an argument might persuade even the snootiest wine snob at the table to try a fruit elixir with the salad course.
Once you understand the pairing principles, be bold. Plan a dinner with three or four courses—a sour-acidic salad and a sweet juice; a mild soup with a salty celery-carrot juice; and a rich quiche or vegetable gratin with a tannic or sour juice—maybe with a bit of soda water for effervescence. Your guests will love the freshness, the novelty, and the lack of wooziness. You might just start a whole new holiday tradition.
Christie Matheson is a Boston-based writer and editor, and coauthor of Vineyard Harvest: A Year of Good Food on Martha's Vineyard.