Traveling to New Orleans for the first time on my way to Tales of the Cocktail — also a first for me — I was overwhelmed by the city’s celebrated architecture and hints of the vibrant French Creole culture. Almost every street corner boasts antique shops, historic hangouts and the best food from po’ boys to beignets to muffalettas. Wandering beyond the French Quarter, you find pulsating jazz clubs fueling off of the city’s seemingly unlimited effervescence.
Against that backdrop, I attended The Magic of Sidney Frank Spirited Dinner at Iris restaurant, along with Nightclub & Bar Contributing Writer Brandy Rand. Walking into Iris, we immediately were immersed in the restaurant’s otherworldly charms, indulging, without caution, in the whimsy and playfulness that pervade the restaurant.
Fortune-tellers predicted the future, a magician amazed with card tricks and a Voodoo priestess danced around, chanting and clapping throughout the restaurant. With our senses stimulated, we were treated to Chef Ian Schnoebelen’s sophisticated menu, which highlighted charcuterie; dried meats from duck prosciutto to wild boar bacon graced our plates and our palates.
Creating interesting and complex cocktails that brought out the nuanced flavors of the spirited dinner were Todd Richman, corporate mixologist for Sidney Frank Importing Co., Inc.; Spencer Warren, owner of Embury/Firehouse Lounge in Pittsburgh, Pa., which won the 2011 Nightclub & Bar Small Wonder Bar of the Year award; and Mark Stoddard, mixologist at The Bitter Bar in Boulder, Colo.
The pairing of smoked, dried and salty meats with refreshing and sweet drinks was not coincidental but a well-thought-out plan from the get-go.
Intricate cocktails from Todd Richman, Spencer Warren (above) and Mark Stoddard proved perfect pairings to the three courses served during a spirited dinner at Iris in New Orleans.
“I see food and beverage pairing as the chicken or the egg,” Stoddard says. “In this case, I was creating the cocktail to pair with the main dinner course, so I wanted to use ingredients that would stand up to but not overpower the more robust flavors and textures of the dish.”
Richman describes pairing food with cocktails as less forgiving than pairing with wine, because “with cocktails, if the measurement isn’t right on or the sweetness is a little off, it could definitely take away from the pairing experience.”
No worries there. Richman worked with American Harvest Organic Spirit to bring out the richness of the Guanciale on Bruschetta first course. Because the bruschetta was savory and rich, Richman served an aperitif-style cocktail with a special mystic melon syrup creation and Aperol for sweetness. “I wanted to have a little bit of fruit, acidity and bitterness to counter the richness of the dish. American Harvest lended itself well to that,” he explains. His cocktail, A Lock of a Girl’s Hair Brings You Good Luck, was a playful tease for the rest of the dinner.
“I actually read a lot of food recipes and thought, ‘How can I turn those flavors into a drink?’” Warren explains. “I have a tendency to think way outside the box when making cocktails, so I am always using food and chefs as an inspiration.”
Warren’s thoughtfulness translated into a refreshing accompaniment to the saltier duck prosciutto second course. Gekkeikan traditional Japanese plum wine, Gekkeikan Jumai Sake, lemon juice and R.W. Knudsen black currant juice added tartness while Bärenjäger Honey Liqueur and basil syrup sweetened his Laying the Broom Across the Doorway Keeps a Witch Out at Night cocktail.
Exceptional drinks and delicious fare aren’t mutually exclusive. The elaborate awe-inducing presentation of Schnoebelen’s dishes produced wide-eyed, salivating guests. This was matched only by Stoddard’s intricate cocktail, The Gypsy Fortune, made with Michael Collins 10 Year Old Single Malt, aquavit, Verjus Blanc and Cocchi Americano, which accentuated the complex flavors of the final dish: diver scallops and wild boar bacon with edamame hummus.
The pièce de résistance, however, was a small silver spoonful of Bärenjäger honey bacon pearls, resembling light-orange caviar.
“After savoring a bite of food, you take a sip of the cocktail and then finish with a small bit of caviar pearls, which burst with the flavors of smoked meat, brine and honey,” Stoddard illustrates.
With spherical ice from Gläce Luxury Ice Co. in the glass, the drink took on a life of its own, mimicking a crystal ball — with one sip, the cocktail predicted an evening full of joyful times to come.
Good drinks, good food and good company are all ingredients for success. The exciting entertainment at Iris certainly was an added bonus, but the jovial atmosphere and general camaraderie amongst guests created an unparalleled combination for the event. “It felt like a dinner among friends,” Richman recalls.
No tarot cards or crystal balls were needed to predict that. NCB