The Genuine Hospitality Group’s intrepid wine director Eric Larkee’s Uncorked column comes often (but never enough!) to TGK. Here we take the reins to discuss something special and top of mind these days, whether sailing on the high seas with Royal Caribbean or sidling up to white table cloths and fine china at The Cypress Room on the mainland: the Tasting Menu. They come in all shapes and sizes, yes, depending on the city you are in and the chef behind the line, so how does our newest restaurant approach this complex dance between food and beverage, and the people behind them — and in front i.e. the customer? To explore all the angles, I first sat down with Larkee to talk pairings for Part I. Ellie spoke with chef de cuisine Roel Alcudia for Part II, coming tomorrow.
JS: So how did you go about defining what the tasting menu would be like at The Cypress Room?
EL: I think the idea started with 150 Central Park. Michael and I having experiences at restaurants with elongated tasting menus as well, with really small portions. We liked more of the portion size that we were dealing with on Royal where it’s not just a bite-sized tasting menu. We felt like we could do something interesting here.
JS: So what is the process with pulling these together with the kitchen? When you are doing a tasting menu for an event, it’s a one off, but when you are creating a menu that lives on for a few days it’s a different animal, right?
EL: The wine always follows the food, but the food gets informed by the wine. Sometimes [the chefs and I] will talk about progression of dishes throughout the menu. [Sous chef] Mike Beltran and I had a conversation about this on a Monday, I think it was last week. I asked to flip the order of two of the dishes, and he asked why. I said I think this one will go best with this wine, and this other one with this other wine, and I wouldn’t want to drink this wine after this wine. So, I think this dish will be better after that one…
EL: Every menu should at least represent Chablis or Nebbiolo at some point, since we focus on those wines in The Beverage Book. It doesn’t necessarily have to have both because a lot of the time Michael’s food, as well as Roel’s, calls for more white wine than it does red. There might not be a place for a Nebbiolo each time, but we do want to showcase the wines from the list. But you know, in a way picking the wines for the list went the other way around. I wanted to make sure that the wine list had wines on it that would be useful for the tasting menu and because there is such a limit to the number of wines that we have on the list, it’s was like “so this wine is a hammer and this wine is a saw, this wine is a screwdriver, I need a full toolbox.” They have different purposes to them — I don’t need four hammers, and I don’t need four saws. You know I’d love to have a miter box, even though no one knows what that is [laughs], but it’s a handy tool when you are doing wood-working. So it’s a similar thing with that. There might be a wine on the list that might seem weird, but I know that if Roel does a certain dish I am going to have the wine for that.
JS: So everything has a role and its place in context.
EL: Yea, exactly. When you have such a small selection, you don’t want to waste your options on redundancy. A lot of these great pairing wines are also some of the most affordable as well.
JS: The Larkee mantra. Just because it is expensive doesn’t mean it’s great!
EL: Well some of them are [laughs.] I don’t know, I just had a ’59 Lefitte last night which was pretty awesome. And expensive. I’d say just because it isn’t expensive doesn’t mean it isn’t tasty.
So back to one thing you were asking about earlier, regarding a formula… There isn’t necessarily one, but I do like to start off with sparkling. From my time in NYC doing tasting menus we always started off with sparkling. When we started the project with Royal Caribbean in 2011, and I said I wanted to start off with sparkling, it was like a revelation to them. They said they had never done that before.
JS: Which seems bizarre to even me. It’s festive. And it makes you feel special!
EL: Yea, well it’s a festive event. And another thing too that’s going on is intoxication. Pretty much every culture across the globe offers a beverage of some sort when people get together. For many it’s a caffeinated beverage, others it’s an alcoholic beverage. It’s a greeting thing. And what caffeine does is gets you going and stimulates conversation. Alcohol does that as well. And with sparkling wine, the bubbles actually do get you drunker faster. They do!! And so champagne is the fastest way to stimulate conversation and get the dinner going.
JS: And so back to the semi-formula, you can break it somewhat… It’s not always wine as a pairing, right?
EL: And I was actually thinking about that in my head too. Yea, with Royal we used things like Guinness with a chocolate dessert which was awesome. It stepped through a threshold there for them which I thought was fantastic and there’s a certain thing where people kind of hesitated on it a bit, but then once they had it, they got it. The question here with Cypress is can we incorporate more spirits and cocktails into a beverage pairing with the meal, and I think the answer is yes but you’ve gotta have that engaged audience, which we are still working towards. But then again Miami has such a great cocktail culture, maybe I’m wrong in that sense. Frank Bruni did a piece where he punked [sommelier] Aldo [Sohm] for Food & Wine magazine. He went into Le Bernardin and refused most of the initial pairings, finally denying all wine with the final savory course. It’s a great article to dig up and look at, and he had played with stuff like that at Wallse when I was there, did things like pairing a PX vinegar with a dish. And yeah, bringing beer in as well. The thing about having a beer with dessert is that the bubbles sooth the stomach after the meal. Aldo paired a beer with the dessert in that article too. I think there could be an incorporation with that, but I think a lot of the cocktails here have too much going on to really be good pairings.
JS: Like cocktail wines, they are – great – cocktail cocktails.
EL: Yea, like I often talk about how there’s cocktail wines and food wines. You want the wine to complement the dish without overpowering it in anyway, so in some ways I think you’d want to go with single spirits. But then I worry that there is so much alcohol that you can’t really go there but, there could be some interesting spirits. Some of these Gins and Eau de Vies we have. The fruit flavors going in there possibly could be good. I’m leaning trying to look at the bar now. And some of the liqueurs…sounds like Goodspeed and I may have a project ahead of us…
JS: So do you see this direction as being the next place you go with pairings for the tasting menu or is it ore a matter of seeing now things progress as they do, as the seasons change and with how the kitchen handles new ingredients?
EL: The thing about this is being able to possibly adjust for the guest as part of the experience, but having that depth of knowledge with which to work comes with time. I can have Bradley or Michael write out a menu and look at it and be like “this goes with this and this goes with this” and have a question or two like “where’s the acid coming from in this dish” or “how pickled is this going to be?” or a couple things here and there, and have such a great dialogue with these two who I’ve worked with for almost four years now. It’s still a new relationship here [at Cypress]. We’re learning what it is, and getting to know Roel’s food. Stopping by and having one or two of the dishes every day will be key, and having that conversation with [restaurant managers] Nicole [Ciani] and Marty [McCart] who are here every day.
JS: Like I say with tennis…
EL: You gotta bat it back and forth.
JS: Well yes, but also you gotta hit a lot of balls.
EL: Practice. It is practice.