Vincenzo Arnese is waxing lyrical about his latest find and the dish he will match with it at the newly opened Mauro Colagreco at Raffles London at The OWO. So far, so sommelier. But it’s not made from grapes, nor does it contain alcohol – it’s a Pet Nat made from quince, courtesy of the Wachstum König winery in Styria, and it’s heading for his soft-drink pairing menu.
There’s something intriguing going on in the world of fine dining – wine is no longer the only choice with a meal, especially when it comes to pairings. Kombuchas, nut milks, juices et al are shaking up the drink offering in a Michelin-starred restaurant near you – particularly if you live in London – as increasing numbers of us reduce our alcohol intake or stop drinking altogether.
And why should the alcohol abstainers and modest drinkers miss out? That’s the reasoning of a growing number of sommeliers who are throwing themselves into finding creative soft-drink alternatives, channelling their inner scientist as they don white coats and spin up centrifuges in search of complex non-alcoholic drinks pairings that in some cases even trump the corresponding wine offer. It’s also bringing sommeliers closer to the kitchen as they work directly with chefs, often contributing to waste reduction as they gather up leftover trimmings to turn into drinks ingredients that could prove key to the perfect pairing.
Why should the alcohol abstainers and modest drinkers miss out?
Mauro Colagreco’s new place is the first UK outpost for the Côte d’Azur-based three-Michelin-starred chef and the latest in a growing number of top restaurants that are focusing on non-alcoholic drinks as well as their conventional wine lists. ‘About 15% of our guests choose the soft-drink pairing option but that’s increasing by the week,’ says Arnese, who is also a judge for the IWSC. ‘We want to offer that same level of excitement that we give to everybody else, so we approach the soft pairings as if they are a dish, working with our chefs instead of the bartender.’
As you might expect, it creates significant extra work; it’s more time-consuming than putting wine pairings together, sommeliers will tell you. ‘A lot of thought goes into our soft pairings,’ he continues. ‘There’s more research, more trial and error. And we always work with the chefs on this – they know about technique and how to arrive at the texture and flavour that we are looking for.’
The ‘Carrot’ course pairing on the current menu is one of Arnese’s favourites (Colagreco always puts vegetables centre stage on his menus), with sea bass sashimi and sea buckthorn also featuring in the dish. For this, he uses UK producer Crossip Drinks’ zero-alcohol homage to Islay whisky, Dandy Smoke, which incorporates wood-smoked Lapsang tea leaves. ‘It’s my nod to Sir Winston Churchill and the history of the building [Churchill had a suite of offices in The OWO (The Old War Office) as Secretary of State for War from 1919- 1921]’ he grins. ‘I also add sea buckthorn for acidity, plus some juiced carrot trimmings. The drink is a win-win, as we have reduced wastage and really connected to the dish.’
Another favourite is ‘Lettuce’ – a dreamy, unusual combination of red oak lettuce, smoked fish, and vermouth sauce, paired, daringly, with a glass of vermouth. It works. The non-alcoholic version is no less of a thrill, as Arnese blends Seedlip ‘Garden 108’ with a zero-alcohol vermouth, Everleaf Marine, and a celeriac leaf oil made by the kitchen under his instruction.
‘I always try to find ways to capture attention and using vermouth in a pairing menu is one way to do that. Sometimes when I visit restaurants, the wine pairings are boring – seven courses and seven wines. Here, in addition to wine, we use drinks such as cider, sake, and vermouth for our pairings. I’m looking for the best possible match, whether it contains alcohol or not,’ he says. ‘It’s exciting stuff.’
Five more of the best non-alcoholic drinks pairings in London restaurants
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A non-alcoholic drinks pairing option was introduced two years ago at Brazil-born chef Rafael Cagali’s dynamic two Michelin-starred restaurant Da Terra in Bethnal Green’s historic Town Hall Hotel and requests for it have continued to soar. Overseen by head sommelier Maria Boumpa, with a little help from the kitchen and its surplus ingredients, pairings include moqueca (an elegant take on the classic Brazilian fish stew) with a passion-fruit kombucha, and pork feijoada (a black bean-based stew) and chimichurri with a cherry, grape and umeboshi juice. ‘It’s a challenge sometimes but it’s fun,’ says Boumpa, who also reports that guests asking for a mix of wine and non-alcoholic paired drinks is now the norm here.
Honey-fermented milk served with dessert is the style at 16-cover Cycene in Hackney. But it’s not the sommelier who creates the non-alcoholic drinks pairings at this Michelin-starred restaurant in Shoreditch, it’s one of the chefs, Caitlin Jones (pictured, centre). Each drink is made specifically for each course, such as ‘delicate pumpkin, miyagawa and greengage kernels’, for a dish of linguini, sea urchin and bottarga. ‘The uni sauce enhances the flavours in the drink,’ explains Jones. ‘Because the drinks I create sometimes echo the wines’ profiles, the sommelier and I inspire each other to think outside the box,’ she says.
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Three Michelin-starred chef Simon Rogan’s Soho chef’s table has one of the capital’s leading soft-drink menus, with their Beer Bucha, a hop-fermented kombucha, the non-alcoholic drink of choice for many. ‘It’s a chance for us to get extremely creative,’ says sommelier Charles Carron Brown, whose favourite pairing is ‘Plum Blossom’, a Japanese tea with dehydrated plum leaves brewed up with freeze-dried blackcurrants from Rogan’s farm, served with a duck main course that comes with beetroots and raspberry vinegar.
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La Dame de Pic
Three-Michelin starred French chef Anne-Sophie Pic is obsessed with tea – in fact, she insists that her signature Berlingots (tiny goat cheese-stuffed ravioli-style pasta in a mushroom broth) are served with an aged high-altitude Taiwanese tea – even for those choosing the boozy option. At her two Michelin-starred London restaurant at The Four Seasons Hotel at Ten Trinity Square, the pasta is filled instead with a washed-rind cow’s cheese, St Cera, which sommelier Alessio Ragusini pairs with a kombucha made with the tea, perfectly highlighting the mushroom and nutty cheese. The rest of the soft-drink pairings are equally inventive: there’s a Tom Collins that combines zero-alcohol lemon-infused gin with a citrus kombucha to go with raw scallop, brown butter sauce and yuzu. An astonishing centrifuged red-fruits drink blitzed with mushrooms and sumac is served with venison, radicchio and pickled rose.
This Michelin-starred restaurant from husband-and-wife-team Woongchul Park and Bomee Ki in the shadow of London Bridge thrillingly combines Korean flavours with European techniques. The team also offers a soft-drink pairing option that is fast becoming more popular than wine, reveals general manager and sommelier Vita Gargiulo. ‘We have so much fun with it – there really is no limit to creativity when it comes to soft pairing. We work together with the kitchen,’ she explains. A favourite is the coffee kombucha with their Mont Blanc dessert (chestnut cream, pine nuts, crispy rice and tonka bean Chantilly). Another winner is the burnt cabbage juice with lemon thyme oil, served with barbecued wagyu, Jerusalem artichoke, jangajji (pickled vegetables) and baechu kimchi puree.