The best UK restaurant food and drink pairings
Discover the restaurant experts taking the possibilities of food and drink pairings well beyond the traditional wine list, including spirits, beers and non-alcoholic offerings
Wine dominates restaurant tables, but you don’t need to limit your choices to red or white when deciding what to drink with your main. Forward-thinking food lovers are pouring fizz, beer, ciders and shrubs alongside their meals to create sensational new flavour interactions. Is it time to up your food-matching game? We asks the experts how to do it.
Jo Radford, bar guru at Edinburgh’s Timberyard, regularly pairs ciders with dishes. Ciders are versatile – “from bone-dry to sweet and unctuous” – and, like wine, boast crucial acidity, particularly with fatty foods. “Drinks without acid can seem flabby,” says Jo.
At Somerset’s The Newt, a hotel that produces cider from its orchards, head maker Paul Ross echoes that comparison. When pairing cider with a dish you must consider its acid, tannin and sweetness levels, and its aromas and flavours to achieve a balance of the four Cs: complementary flavours; contrast with “strongly spicy, sour or sweet foods”; cleansing finish; and coordination. That is, pairing light dishes with light ciders, such as white fish with The Newt’s floral Fine Cyder: “No tannins, clean acidity.”
As makers experiment with ancient keeving or ‘icing’ to create sweet yet complex ciders (ice ciders can be found on dessert menus at London’s KOL and Chester’s Hypha, to name a couple), cider’s flavour spectrum will only grow. Jo says: “Producers are starting to blur cider, beer, mead and wine. Cider is not constrained by rules. There’s freedom to explore.”
Judy Joo, chef-owner at London’s Seoul Bird restaurants, says that in South Korea, fried chicken with beer is such a popular combo that it’s known by the portmanteau ‘chimaek’. “Refreshing lagers are best with fried food,” advises Judy, who serves Korean Hite. Meanwhile, thousands of miles and two Michelin stars away at Hackney’s Da Terra, chef Rafael Cagali pairs wholemeal sourdough and bone marrow with Boxcar Brewery’s 6.3% dark mild.
Matching beer with food is clearly a winner globally and thanks to craft beer’s stylistic variety – from hoppy IPAs to sweet pastry stouts – that trend is growing in restaurants. With its 750ml sharing bottles and swanky glassware, modern beer wants to be taken as seriously as wine.
At her exceptional pub-restaurant, The Moorcock Inn near Halifax, Aimee Turford uses beer to “open up different pairing opportunities”. Its carbonation can provide exciting variation in wine-focussed flights and certain ingredients – classically asparagus and artichokes. And, in Aimee’s view, sweet roasted vegetables, pungent garlic and pickled foods do not work well with most wines: “Beer can save the day.”
Good food beers are complex, offering plenty of scope for contrast and sympathetic overlap. Sourness is useful, too: “Acidity is one of pairing’s foundations.” Consequently, Aimee loves funky, often wild-fermented Belgian beers. She recommends pairing cherry kriek beers with game or charcuterie, or matching lambic beers with oysters, smoked fish, hollandaise or steak with béarnaise sauce. “The beers’ savoury notes sit well with smoke, and their acidity cuts rich cream.”
Matching is about thinking logically and laterally. Full-bodied Belgian tripels, such as Westmalle, can stand-up to buttery, garlicky dishes but also “their spiced notes add an extra dimension, the way herbal Pernod might in a mussel stock”.
Whisky’s food-pairing potential is well known. Peaty single malts, for example, might partner with game on a Burns Night menu. Gradually, other spirits are being used, too. London’s Decimo serves Pensador mezcal with jalapeño and cider vinegar-dressed oysters. Head of bars Eder Neto says its “highlighted minerality pairs well”.
There’s also excitement around mixed drinks and cocktails. At its simplest, as Fiona Beckett notes at Matching Food and Wine, you might match a juniper-forward gin and tonic with a juniper- flavoured pâté: “The secret is in the botanicals.”
Elsewhere, bartenders are exploring the interaction between cocktails and dishes. At London Sri Lankan restaurant Paradise, Ellen Visser uses South Asian aromatics in her drinks, such as a lemongrass negroni paired with spiced prawn skewers. At Fulham’s Fenn, oysters with seaweed butter and Exmoor caviar might come with Fenn’s Red Snapper, a bloody mary-like shot made with smoked Fishers gin. “A refreshing alternative to crisp white wine, it offers fantastic sweet, acid, smoky flavours,” says manager Harry Cooper.
Even more radically, Fenn’s chicken liver parfait goes well with a classic sidecar. Rich chicken livers are lifted by cognac’s “nutty, honey and caramel flavours, plus the citrus from the triple sec”.
In 1930, Parisian store La Samaritaine de Luxe challenged makers to create a smooth champagne that could be enjoyed with food. Besserat de Bellefon succeeded and, ever since, food pairing has been in its DNA, says export manager Julien Martin: “Preserving malic acid – the original fruit acidity – gives our wines plenitude and freshness. Secondly, fine bubbles that are 30% thinner ensure our champagnes never take over food but complement it.”
Champagne is usually marketed as a celebratory tipple or aperitif. Besserat de Bellefon champagnes, available in restaurants including London’s Mama Shelter and Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill, also highlights its food-friendly character. Each champagne comes with its own food pairing suggestions, such as Bleu Brut with sardines and yuzu, or the Millesime with bellota ham.
This is rare enough to be notable. But you can increasingly spot sparkling wines served with food. Sandia Chang, sommelier at London’s Kitchen Table, paired champagne with pasta during truffle season: “The bright acidity and richness of some chardonnay-based champagnes comes across like wine.” At Simon Rogan’s Henrock in Cumbria, a sparkling rosé created by the chef with Hampshire’s Exton Park vineyard (“It’s full of bright red fruits and floral aroma,” says sommelier Charles Carron Brown), is served with vanilla parfait.
Similarly innovative, cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield has created a sparkling wine with English maker Fox & Fox to accompany cheeses such as Golden Cross – a soft goat’s cheese – or the triple-cream Brillat-Savarin. “Fizz cuts its butteriness beautifully,” says Paxton’s head of retail Hero Hirsh. She urges people to defy convention: “It may seem unusual to pair cheese with what’s usually an aperitif. But it can be such a good match, it’s worth serving cheese at the start of a meal, or sparkling wine at the end.”
Alcohol-free drink and food matching
When choosing non-alcoholic drinks to pair with the tasting menu at Perthshire’s Killiecrankie House, co-owner Matilda Ruffle craves complexity. “People don’t want lots of sodas or sweet juices. Restaurants recognise this and, as demand for non-alcoholic drinks has grown, so has the innovation.”
Today, restaurants are creating or sourcing non-alcoholic drinks that enable striking pairings – rare teas, foraged cordial syrups, kombucha. At Mother Root, Bethan Higson creates shrubs or switchels sold in restaurants such as The Ledbury and Sheffield’s Jöro. These so-called ‘drinking vinegars’ (historic combinations of cider vinegar, honey, fruits, herbs and spices, all diluted with soda) are not overly sharp. Instead, the vinegar sits in the background. It “amplifies and intensifies” the ingredients it’s mixed with, while offering nice acidity: “It cuts through the fattiness of some dishes and gives drinks brightness and structure.”
At Edinburgh’s Aizle, the emphasis is on creating grown-up soft drinks designed to emulate its paired wines. “Guests like it when their drink matches almost like for like,” says operations manager Jade Johnston.
Providing interesting softs requires considerable effort. Aizle makes its own tonic water (“That was a project!” laughs Jade); chinotto, an Italian spiced cordial made from roasted citrus fruits that pairs well with beef; and kombucha, the “acidity and funkiness” of which can be used in a similar way to pinot blanc.