Spirited Dining

Magic often happens when lively libations are paired with fabulous food

By Wendy Lemlin | Photography By Noushin Nourizadeh

“Eat, drink, and be merry!” Since biblical times, that phrase has happily exhorted us to indulge in the pleasures of the palate as a formula for the enjoyment of life. The thoughtful combining of food and spirited beverages results in a gastronomic experience so much more than the sum of its parts, with each component enhancing the other.

This is especially true when cocktails, many with myriad ingredients and nuances of flavors, are paired with special dishes. Sometimes the combination succeeds because the flavor profiles meld and play off of each other, and other times it’s the result of a pleasing contrast. From appetizers to dessert, our favorite chefs “get in the spirits,” and show us how it’s done.


Bernard GuillasThe Marine Room

Espelette Lemongrass Scented Cobia Crudo paired with a San Diego Stormy

Made with Malahat Artisan Ginger Rum, ginger beer and lime, Executive Chef Bernard Guillas deems the cocktail “the perfect storm of flavor and freshness” paired with the appetizer he and Chef de Cuisine Ron Oliver created for the restaurant’s new winter menu. “Cobia has a rich, buttery flavor and dense texture which slowly absorbs the curing ingredients of espelette pepper and dried lemongrass powder,” Chef Bernard describes. “Pomegranate seeds, Nashi pear, lemon-infused olive oil, fennel pollen, cashew pesto, and purple basil flowers add synergy to the delicate flavor of the fish. The pairing excels because the fresh lime juice in the Stormy echoes the citrusy character of the lemongrass, while the ginger’s sweetness and touch of heat work with the spice of the pepper and the fruitiness of the pear and pomegranate.”


Nicolas Caniglia, Bella Vista Social Club & Caffé

Piatto Di Formaggio E Salumi paired with Malbec

During the winter months, happy hour comes with a side order of spectacular sunsets at this café on the cliffs of Torrey Pines. For sharing the experience with friends, owner Nico Caniglia recommends a full-bodied red wine, such as malbec, with a gourmet meat and cheese platter. Arranged on a wooden board are such continental delicacies as dry salami, Prosciutto di Parma, soppressata and mortadella, with camembert, gorgonzola and manchego cheeses. Tasty cornichon, pepperoncini, stone-ground mustard, fig jam and grilled slices of ciabatta complete the assortment. “The flavors of the meats and cheeses are very bold,” Nico explains, “and they deserve an equally robust drink to accompany them. For me, that should be a red wine to savor while you watch the sun setting over the ocean.”

Steven Riemer, Oceana Coastal Kitchen

Yellowtail Crudo paired with a Barrel-Aged Rum Mojito

Located at the beach in the tropical-themed Catamaran Resort, the aptly-named restaurant’s bayfront location inspired Executive Chef Steven Riemer to pair a dish that plays up a connection to the water—yellowtail crudo with aguachile, avocado and pickled radish—with a cocktail that conjures up the tropics—a mojito made with house barrel-aged white rum, Grand Marnier, dry vermouth, grenadine, mint, lime, sugar and soda. Says Chef Riemer, “When I think of tropical drinks, I always think rum. The lime in the mojito aligns with the lime in the aguachile on the crudo, and both the cocktail and the crudo match the tropical ambience of the restaurant. The flavors are complementary to one another, offering balance, and evoking a sense of time and place.”


Jason Knibb, NINE-TEN Restaurant & Bar

Stone Crab & Old Bay Spaghettini paired with a Si, Señor

“I find that the successful pairing rule is to complement, not overwhelm, the core flavors of the dish,” Executive Chef Jason Knibb elucidates. In addition to the Old Bay seasoning, his housemade pasta dish is vibrant with the flavors of toasted garlic, Fresno chile and lemon, while the Fortaleza Añejo Tequila, starring in the cocktail, smoothly shows off the fresh taste of muddled celery and lemon. “The Old Bay tastes predominantly of celery and celery salt,” Knibb points out. “The celery in the cocktail highlights the pasta. Lemon is a classic accompaniment with crab, accentuating the meat’s sweetness. Hence, the lemon zest on the pasta and lemon juice in the cocktail. Only a small amount of simple syrup is used to round out the body of the cocktail without masking the refreshing acidity that will lighten up the dish. The smoky flavor of the Añejo Tequila works in tandem with the roasted garlic.”

Mareyja Sisbarro, Brockton Villa

Roasted Lemon Mary’s Chicken with Chanterelles paired with Thyme for a Bourbon Sour

Mary’s all-natural free-range chickens are among the best in the industry, and Chef Mareyja Sisbarro roasts hers with lemon and thyme and tops them with earthy sautéed chanterelle mushrooms. Whole grain mustard Béarnaise sauce keeps company on the plate with goat cheese herb mashed potatoes and a watercress frisée salad. The cocktail provides a herbaceous twist on the usual whiskey sour, adding the harmonizing nuances of thyme, maple and lemon to the smoky bourbon. Says Chef Mareyja, “This is a substantial, very robust dish, and the cocktail offers a nice crispness to balance the richness. Both the chicken and the drink are flavored with lemon and thyme, and make an ideal pairing to warm you on a cool winter’s evening.”


Alex Emery, The MED Ocean View Restaurant

Roasted Cod Tenderloin paired with a Coastal Breeze

New on The MED’s winter menu is this flaky cod dish with golden colored accents of aji amarillo purée, roasted carrots, brûléed leeks, and hamhock butter broth. The rye whiskey-based cocktail gets its beautiful orange tint from the addition of fresh carrot juice and roasted carrot purée infused with cinnamon and star anise, and includes orgeat, fresh lemon juice, sugar and salt. It is dramatically finished with atomized allspice dram and flambéed orange. Chef Alex is enthusiastic about this pairing because, “Carrots are my favorite winter vegetable, and their sweet earthiness is found in both the dish and cocktail. The refreshing lightness of the drink doesn’t overpower the delicate fish flavor.” Mixologist/Bar Manager Nicolas Angelos created the cocktail specifically to pair with this dish, noting that “the purée of aji amarillo, a Peruvian chile, has a mild, sweet heat, which is complementary to the carrots in the drink. The dish’s hamhock butter has a lovely smokiness which is echoed in the caramel flavors of the burnt orange, and also ties in with the cinnamon and star anise in the carrot purée.”

Paul Arias, The Fishery

Seared Oregon Albacore with Apple paired with Scar of the Sea Hard Cider

In his pairing, Executive Chef Paul Arias goes applelicious, spicing and searing hand-caught, omega 3-rich Oregon albacore tuna, and serving the super-tender fish with homemade apple jam and an apple frisée salad. “The cider, made from California-grown apples, is aged in oak, like fine wine,” Chef Paul enthuses. “It has a pleasing tartness, which cuts through the fat of the fish. I also incorporate the cider into the jam, so both the elements of the pairing have very compatible flavor profiles. I also like the way the effervescence of the cider contrasts on the tongue with the butteriness of the fish.”


Nathan Lingle, Kitchen 1540

Pomegranate Macaron with Rose Cream paired with a Pom Fizz Farmers Truck Digestif

Dessert and spirit pairings are the perfect conclusion to any meal, and this oversized version of the classic French cookie accompanied by a sparkling digestif will leave you feeling in the pink. Sandwiched between the airy almond meringue cookies is a fluffy filling of delicately flavored rose pastry cream and a hidden treasure of rich jam made from locally-grown pomegranates. Those same farmers market pomegranates are used in the house-infused vodka which combines with champagne in the light after-dinner drink. “This pairing both complements and contrasts,” Lingle explains. “Pomegranate is highlighted in both the macaron and the drink, but it isn’t a sweet drink. It has a more acid profile to provide contrast and balance out the sweetness of the dessert.”

Fabio Speziali, Osteria Romantica

Tiramisu paired with Espresso Martini

An example of what owner Fabio Speziali calls “perfectly aligned flavors with which to end a meal” is found in the coffee-centric pairing of creamy tiramisu with a dark, rich cocktail. This favorite Italian dessert features three tiers of imported ladyfingers, soaked in espresso and marsala wine, layered with mascarpone cream, and dusted with cocoa powder. The martini, made with fresh brewed Italian espresso, vodka and Kahlua coffee liquor, is garnished with whipped cream and espresso beans. Both elements highlight a creamy texture and coffee deliciousness.

So, next time you are dining out, be adventurous! Don’t be afraid to ask your server or mixologist for recommendations for drinks to pair with and enhance your menu selections. In fact, many mixologists are happy to come up with individual creations based on your meal and alcohol preferences. So, raise a glass, pick up a fork, and enjoy! Ρ