DOES Indian Pale Ale really go well with truffle fries or lobster mac 'n cheese? Does a mixologist brew of sugar snap peas muddled in tarragon and dry vermouth really pick out the nuances of, say, slow-roasted Iberico pork belly on braised heirloom beans?
Every so often, a new bar or izakaya sprouts up to cash in on the craft beer and bespoke cocktail wave. But now, a smattering of new establishments are instead focusing on how to enjoy food with the right beverage. While the classic pairing has always been food and wine, more adventurous diners are discovering the matching qualities of everything from whisky to tea.
Says Geoffrey Weckx, chef and co-owner of week-old 13 per cent Gastro Wine: "It's about having this harmony of flavour, with the different levels and structure of the two being balanced. You can't have a powerful wine, then eat food that's too light." Young executives in their late 20s to early 30s are particularly interested, continues his business partner, sommelier Bruno Vaillant: "They're more curious than those in their 50s or 60s, who already have their own ideas which are difficult to change."
It's the young ones who return from overseas studies who are more open to his suggestions - as long as they don't feel like they are being overcharged, adds Mr Vaillant, who has been in Singapore's wine industry for 20 years. Price points are important, agrees Darren Micallef of the two-week-old eatery Gemmills. "I think people are now looking for simple pairings with a little more value, but also different - it's becoming a popular concept even in Melbourne."
Beyond wines, there's burgeoning interest in alternatives, like sake. In the past year, over 20 sake bars have sprouted up, and Bar Ippudo is focusing on otsumami and sake pairings to differentiate themselves. They often field calls for pairing events, but have had to turn bigger groups away because the 12-seater can only accommodate up to 25 standing guests.
If you don't drink alcohol, there's always tea pairings at French restaurant Beni. Sommelier Hiromi Muraoka notes that while 60 per cent of their customers still prefer wine, tea pairings are popular with Asian diners. "It's very natural for most people to order wine when they go to restaurants - almost all of our Western customers pick wine. But for Singaporeans, the tea culture is already quite established here, so it's not hard for people to understand it, or appreciate it."
13 per cent Gastro Wine
14 Aliwal Street, #02-01
Tel: 6291 6816
Open Mon to Sat, 5pm - 1am
BRUNO Vaillant and Geoffrey Weckx are a match made in heaven - but not in the way you might think. One is a wine connoisseur from France and the other a Belgian chef who earned his stripes at Michelin-starred restaurants - and both wanted to run their own place, hence the idea of 13 per cent Gastro Wine came about.
"At first we wanted to share an office to save on costs, but then he is such a wine lover and I am such a food lover, I said why don't we do something together?" says chef Weckx, who used to own a restaurant in China before selling it and moving to Singapore about five years ago.
Located on the second floor of a shophouse in Aliwal Street, 13 per cent Gastro Wine is named after the average alcohol content in wine. By night, they serve over 100 wines from about 60 wineries around the world paired with a modest menu of modern European dishes, but by day, the duo uses the space to run their respective businesses - Mr Vaillant's wholesale wine company, and Mr Weckx's Belgian candy business, Victoria 1938.
The food menu ranges from small bites such as Belgian-style fries cooked in beef fat (S$8), to savoury tatins (S$16) and main courses such as a grade six wagyu sirloin steak (S$45 for 200g).
"The advantage is we bring in the wine ourselves, and we've drunk almost all of them," says Mr Vaillant, 45, who moved to Singapore two decades ago.
"When we recommend pairings, it comes very naturally. For example, the tomato tatin has tomatoes and balsamic, so you have to be careful about having a red wine because otherwise the two acidities will clash," he explains.
Instead, he recommends an Albarino - a white wine from Spain - for its dryness, or an aromatic Riesling from Germany. So far, people have been happy to take on his recommendations, and often order their food to suit their wine.
Prices for the wines range from a comfortable S$40 per bottle for a Blayais rose, to a few hundred bucks for something like a 1999 Bordeaux from Leoville-Las Cases (S$446), none of which can be found in supermarkets, says Mr Vaillant. Some are even exclusive to them because he imports them himself.
While the list currently seems dominated by European wines, he highlights that it's not the region that catches his eye, but the technique used in production and his personal preference.
He says: "I like delicate wines, not big, bold, and beautiful ones where alcohol is predominant over fruits. Like a chef and his menu, of course my wine list is a reflection of my personality."
Mixing it up
CUSTOMISED PAIRINGS: For events, Gemmills can design pairing sessions starting from S$35 to S$40 per person, which includes three wines and accompanying bites.
110 Amoy Street, #01-02
(Entrance on Gemmill Lane)
Tel: 6221 5564
Open Mon to Sat, 8am to midnight; closed on Sun
IF you're sick of the rowdy bar-hopping crowd along Club Street, head to the end of Gemmill Lane. There, you'll find a plainly marked backdoor which opens into the two-week-old Gemmills.
This bar and cafe isn't your typical happy hour watering hole - the hideout boasts a selection of 50 wines comprising both old and new world labels which they sell by the bottle, and also baked goods and charcuterie to go with them.
Co-owner Darren Micallef also runs Mediterranean restaurant Maggie Joan's next door. He's been working in the front of house since he was 14, so developing a passion for wine came naturally.
While the outfit focuses on traditional food and wine pairings, they mix it up with interesting varietals and blends. Says Mr Micallef: "We like interesting labels from South Africa, America, and Chile. People are trying to grow varieties in climates where grapes are not normally exposed to, and we like the experimentation they are doing."
But they "try not to pigeonhole things too much", he says of their relatable approach. "We just like to understand what people like to drink - for instance, locals seem to prefer less full-bodied wines, so shiraz blended with tempranillo seems like a good choice for many here."
The cafe and bar stocks classics, such as a 2011 Pommard (S$110), which they pair with duck rillettes (S$10). Boring to some, perhaps, but sommelier Ferdauz says the devil's in the details. For instance, his choice of sweet on sweet pairing is a Roussillon muscat (S$62) with a chocolate and hazelnut tart (S$8), and the wine retains its notes of honey despite the velvety richness of the ganache.
For those who love a good bubbly, he recommends staying away from the commercial stuff. A Clover Hill Tasmanian Cuvee (S$64) is more value for money, especially when taken with - what else - Brie de Meaux (S$7/50g). The homemade grape chutney and cumin or charcoal crackers kick it up a notch on the palate with spicy and earthy flavours.
For events, Gemmills can design pairing sessions starting from S$35 to S$40 per pax, which includes three wines and accompanying bites.
Simplicity and harmony
Bar none: Bar Ippudo is focusing on otsumami and sake pairings to differentiate themselves, for example, Isenonami Junmai Ginjo and crispy corn.
1 Scotts Road, #04-23, Shaw Centre
Tel: 6235 2547
Open Sun - Thu, 11.30am - 10pm; Fri - Sat, 11.30am - 11pm
FOR those who suffer from red wine induced headaches, there's always sake to consider. It's startling how much variety comes from just fermenting rice, water and yeast - no sulfites or preservatives too.
In the last 10 years or so, sake has undergone a transformation in Japan, says Ryu Fujibe, Ippudo's assistant general manager. As with wine, there's a old-versus-new world division, and modern boutique breweries have been concocting refined, fruitier variants in small batches.
"Originally, sake is warmed or drunk at room temperature. However, modern ones can usually be enjoyed at cooler temperatures, especially with food," he says. "Personally, I prefer modern sake, but after a certain age, many start to appreciate the long history of classic sake and its complexity and structure".
Bar Ippudo stocks a range of over 80 old and new world sakes, from more than 20 breweries. Sake can be described as "juicy", "tasty", "masculine" or "feminine" - the list goes on - and these dimensions have to be considered when matched with otsumami (S$6 a dish), which are simple but well-seasoned small plates.
"Normally, we pair food and sake with the same character - harmony, like the character of the Japanese," says the F&B enthusiast, who started out in the company as a ramen cook.
For instance, the classic-style sake Isenonami Junmai Ginjo (S$92) has a bouquet of vanilla, which ripens into notes of banana when heated. These notes are mirrored in the taste of their crispy corn, lightly crusted with caramelised corn starch.
Another pairing which stands out is the beef tataki with modern-styled sake Zaku Megumi no Tomo (S$84). The seared beef slices bring out the umami flavours in the tasty sake.
And for those who prefer light-tasting liquor, there's Bijyofu Tokubetsu Junmaishu (S$74), with notes of watermelon that are enhanced by Ippudo's signature dish Goma Q, or crunchy cucumbers marinated in sesame dressing.
Even the cups matter - unbeknownst to us, Mr Fujibe had been serving each label in his pick of the store's assortment of quirky cups. Discerning diners can request a cup tasting. "With our selection, I think many patrons will be able to find their 'Cinderella' sake," he says with a smile.
TEA IN A BOTTLE: Royal Blue Tea's Queen of Blue Deluxe and Irika (left) and main course meats such as ozaki wagyu go well with Irika.
Mandarin Gallery, #04-16B
333 Orchard Road
Tel: 6235 2285
Open Mon to Sat, 11.30am - 3pm, 6.30pm - 11pm
AT Beni, your wine glass is filled with a golden liquid from what looks like a bottle of late harvest Riesling. Except that it tastes nothing like it. Instead, this French restaurant in Mandarin Gallery is serving an exclusive range of teas from the Royal Blue Tea company in Japan.
Conventional food and wine pairing is of course available, but Beni has gone a step further by offering those averse to alcohol a chance to experience the same nuanced pleasures with tea.
For instance, sommelier Hiromi Muraoka recommends the Queen of Blue Deluxe - a semi-fermented blue tea with a medium body and some spice notes - to go with a seafood starter because it brings out the shellfish flavour.
However, she presents a Gyokuro Hojicha Kaho (roasted green tea) to go with the main course because it's the most rounded and full-bodied tea in their range, and can carry the heavier flavours of protein.
"The founder of Royal Blue Tea (Keiko Yoshimoto) believes there is a terroir for tea, just like for wine," says Ms Muraoka. "She does not drink alcohol herself, and every time she goes to a European restaurant, she feels like she's not fully enjoying the experience."
Of course it helps that their teas are made from high-end tea leaves handpicked in limited quantities from plantations all over the world. Some of them are even purchased only through private auction, before being gently cold-brewed for three to six days in sterile stainless steel tanks at their factory in Kanagawa prefecture.
After brewing, the final product is put into dark-coloured wine bottles to protect the sensitive content from oxidation and sunlight, and storage instructions are as specific as keeping the bottles standing upright instead of lying on its side, so as to minimise the exposed surface area.
Prices range from S$178 to S$228 per bottle, or S$22 to $28 for a 90ml glass. If you go for the pairing menu, however, that ranges from S$45 for two glasses of 75ml, to S$120 for six.
Explains Ms Muraoka: "The reason for the bottled tea is that if they sell the tea leaves, consumers may use boiling water, or brew for too short or too long a time, and that would ruin the tea. Making it this way means the tea company can control the final product, and give consumers all the right flavours."
This article was first published on January 30, 2016. Get The Business Times for more stories.