|The sizzle of the fire, the smell of smoke—diners love just about anything with char marks. Grilling may be one of the oldest forms of cooking, but its appeal is both timeless and, in the case of international cuisine, trendy; grilling internationally inspired fare has been an emerging restaurant trend over the past three to four years, according to Kara Nielsen, a trend analyst at The Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco.
Guests’ interest in healthy dining is part of the grill’s popularity. “All over the country, healthy food is more than a trend, it’s a lifestyle,” says Arthur Meola, corporate director of beverage for Grill Concepts, parent company of the Daily Grill and The Grill on the Alley chains. “We do well with seafood specials like salmon and sea bass. Seasonal vegetables like grilled asparagus and grilled artichokes are also big sellers.”
The new economic reality also has helped Grill Concepts’ 31 units. “We do well in troubled times; people think of us as a place to come home,” notes Meola, referencing the cultural association that grilling has to family and cooking in the back yard.
Food and drink pairings are not an afterthought for The Daily Grill, which offers daily specials, each with a wine pairing, in addition to $10 flights where guests can choose three two-ounce pours of any by-the-glass wine. They have 20 to 25 wines by the glass, priced from $6.95 to $11.95.
When it comes to pairing, “a lot of our items tend to be full-flavored,” says Meola. “There’s an intensity with grilled foods, so we make sure the wines have a full-bodied profile. To train the staff, meetings are held every two weeks where they taste a specific wine and discuss how it works with menu items.”
For something like their New York Pepper Steak, topped with bacon and onions and menuing for $29.50, Meola says he might recommend the Dancing Bull Zinfandel, $7.95, Francis Coppola Syrah, $8.95, or other Rhône varietals, since they hold up well against the steak. “Merlot or cabernet sauvignon also works with a simple preparation that doesn’t have a strong, flavored sauce.”
At Wazuzu, the pan-Asian restaurant at the Wynn’s 2000-room Encore hotel in Las Vegas, executive chef Jet Tila says beer is the natural accompaniment to their grilled offerings. “Bubbles work with heat,” he notes; “effervescence is cooling and refreshing.” Popular grilled items at the restaurant include Korean Galbi Short Ribs, $25, Satay Skewers, $12, Tila’s Thai Barbecue Chicken, $19. Nine beers are on the menu, including traditional Asian beers such as Kirin, $7, and Tsingtao, $7. There also are more surprising offerings, however, such as Duvel, $12, Rogue’s Morimoto Imperial Pilsner, $20 for a 25-ounce bottle, and Soba Ale, $16 for 22-ounces.
When it comes to smoky, carbony, leathery aromas and flavors, says Tila, he looks for sweetness in the beverage. “A beer that’s too big doesn’t work; floral or fruity works. Stella Artois, priced at $7, has enough body but it leaves a nice finish.”
At Spanish-themed La Fonda del Sol in New York City, chefs use a plancha, a grill pan that slopes downward from the center. It’s used to cook and finish dishes, from tapas to entrées. “With anything that comes off the grill, you get one more level of flavor, and you don’t perceive how sweet something is without the bitter,” says executive chef Josh DeChellis. “The plancha gives a nice char or bitterness, and it is a great excuse to look at sweet and tart beverages, to refresh but also to intensify contrast.” He pairs its $17 Scallops with Confited Potatoes and Salsa Verde with Spanish wines such as Albariño Terras Gauda San Campio Rias Baixas, $13.95, or Benziger Family Sauvignon Blanc, $10, which have both sweetness and acidity.
Complex grilled dishes also offer great wine and cocktail pairing synergies. With a rich dish like the Cochanillo—suckling pig with smoked dates and Brussels sprouts, $28—DeChellis suggests a pairing with tempranillo such as the Artadi Orobio Alavaesa Rioja, $12 per glass, which he says has lighter oak and a touch of smoke.
He adds that the sweet and sour flavor profiles of cocktails also work well with pork dishes. “Margaritas fit well with the food, as does our Pisco Sour, $9.50,” he says. “Those drinks pair well with the Braised Pork Cheeks with Judiones Beans, Sausage and Parsnips, $13.” Though braised, the pork is crisped on the plancha before serving.
Grilled food often means spices, from Southwestern rubs to Mediterranean marinades. At Zaré at Fly Trap in San Francisco, the Persian-influenced flavors are an exciting opportunity for guests to try unusual wines and cocktails. Sommelier Chris Blanchard says the Europe-weighted wine list at Zaré was the most fun he’s ever had putting together a list. “With smoky flavors, you want something with personality. A barrel has some of the same characteristics of smokiness; the sugars caramelize in the barrel to produce smoke and oak. You can pair barrel-fermented chardonnay with grilled pork or chicken, especially if it has citrus—and syrah is one of my favorite choices.”
For salty or spicy grilled dishes, Blanchard likes something with a bit of residual sugar. He recommends riesling or ripe offerings from the Old World, including Spain, and wines such as Niepoort Codega, $44, a white wine from Portugal that has good smoke and minerality.
Oxidation also can work. “Oxidization is almost suggestive of smoke, and sometimes botrytis has a gunflint quality.” A popular oxidized wine on the menu is Château Musar, $50, a white wine from Lebanon made from the country’s ingenious obaideh varietal that has earthy, musky flavors well-suited for Middle Eastern cuisine.
Trying something new at Zaré isn’t limited to entrees and wines; bar manager Reza Emaili’s cocktail list offers exotic flavors like rosewater, cardamom, pistachio and minted vinegar syrup that reflect the Persian heritage of the restaurant’s chef, Hoss Zaré.
The concept’s Grilled Moroccan-style Wild Salmon, $22, often is paired with Mezcalifornication, $10, a combination of mescal (which provides a limestone flavor), tequila (which lends smoky heat) and roasted bell pepper purée and lemon. The flavors of the dish are mirrored in the drink.
Esmaili also pairs Tokaji and tequila with bright floral riesling. “You don’t have to stick with just wine or spirits; as long as there’s balance and restraint, you can’t go wrong.”
Ultimately, there’s no one flavor profile or beverage type that pairs best with grilled fare. For DeChellis at La Fonda del Sol, the cardinal rule is that there is no one right answer; a beverage can mimic a flavor profile, or it can offer juxtaposition.Tila at Wazuzu agrees; he presents staff tastings that include both complementary and contrasting beverages to help develop palates and highlight the various roles that beverage can play with grilled food.