How to Be a Cocktail Matchmaker
Chef Brooke Williamson of Playa Provisions and The Tripel on pairing food and spirits
By Richard Foss
It’s common knowledge that food and wine should be paired to enhance each other, but that’s as far as it goes for most drinkers. Few pause to consider the many ways their favorite tipple interacts with their meal.
Chef Brooke Williamson has thought a lot about the subject, carefully curating symbiotic food and drink menus at each of her restaurants. The Tripel (333 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey) specializes in Belgian ales, Hudson House (514 N. Pacific Coast Hwy., Redondo Beach) is cocktail-centric, and the multifaceted Playa Provisions has a bar for its seafood restaurant and a whiskey-oriented backroom hideaway called Grain.
We spoke about food and spirit pairings at Grain, where I sampled a flight of bourbons and snacked on homemade pretzels with cheese sauce.
You own restaurants that serve alcohol and bars that serve food. How do you think about creating menus for both?
At Playa Provisions we are wine-heavy in the main dining room and seafood restaurant, but we serve a lot of cocktails. We keep the mixed drinks there on the fresher, brighter, fruit-forward side, while in the whiskey bar we focus on the classics. We have signature cocktails that use classic flavors with a twist, but the style is very alcohol forward. Every bar that we have has a very specific focus, and our whiskey bar is probably the most distinctive in terms of how we put cocktails together.
Why is the kind of creativity that goes into the updated versions of bar snacks at Grain so rare in other places?
The intention of classic bar snacks was to fill you up and absorb some of the alcohol, but also to keep you drinking. They were fried and salty and spicy, which makes you want to drink more. That strategy gets food
to people so they keep buying drinks, but there probably wasn’t much thought about flavors in combination.
Do you secretly like any of those classic bar snacks?
I love a great chicken wing. There are still places serving hot wings that go straight from a freezer to a fryer and get doused with a generic hot sauce, but people are doing crazy wonderful things with chicken wings now. We serve our version of chicken wings, but we work to make them worthy of a place that serves $18 cocktails. If you’re going to spend the money on really great whiskey, you should have food that shows it off. I don’t think bar food should be neglected just because it’s bar food.
Grain specializes in whiskey, both straight and in cocktails. How do you match those smoky and powerful flavors?
I recommend the pretzel bites because they have elements of sour, salty and creaminess. Those are flavors that go well with the bourbon but don’t deflect from an appreciation for the specific blends.
Deviled eggs make a lot of sense because of the creaminess and the way they take the heat off of really high-alcohol whiskeys. We don’t have deviled eggs here, but we serve crispy chicken skin with deviled egg mixture and just a bit of hot sauce that we make with pickled habaneros. There’s a classic profile flavor-wise, but we twist it to the point where you don’t think of it as a deviled egg.
We have a poutine made with duck confit and duck gravy with melted cheese curd. Our goal is not just a balanced menu — maybe you don’t want something fried, but you want something that will go with a big, bold cocktail. We make our best effort to make each dish something that makes your mouth entertained but that also goes with the drinks we serve in that venue.
I have been to whiskey bars that pair Scotch with barbecue because both have smokiness …
Pairing like with like can be a great tool, but that doesn’t need to be the case. We do whiskey dinners where we make five courses, each different from the next, and what I think the most fun thing to do is not to mimic the flavors. If the beverage has notes of blackberry, I don’t think of pairing it with blackberries. I ask myself, what goes well with blackberry? If a wine has cherry notes, I don’t pair it with cherries, but with chocolate. As a chef, I start by balancing flavors in my head and playing them off of each other. It’s just more fun.
What about beer? How do you pair an American lager or pilsner?
I’m a Belgian beer drinker, and I don’t drink a lot of lagers because I don’t find them intriguing enough. That said, there are certainly flavors that work well with the simplicity of lagers, that don’t overshadow what they’re being paired with. Clams taste like the ocean and I want to understand how fresh they are, so that’s a good pairing. It would work with sea urchin, with other delicate flavors. They’re similar in having lightness, so they work together.
IPAs are incredibly popular — how do you pair those?
The level of hops and bitterness can range from barely noticeable to in your face. The big, bitter beers go well with citrus, cashew, fruit, tropical flavors and floral notes. The hops can stand up to fried food and burgers, but you also have the option of seasonal produce with fresh vegetable flavors.
What’s an interesting pairing for a carnitas burrito?
I’m on a mezcal kick right now, and mezcal can stand up to grease and spice in a beautiful way. It’s like having barbecue, but with the smokiness in the beverage instead of the food.
If I’m not having sake, I’d have gin. Sushi also goes beautifully with red burgundy. The acidity that burgundy has, the lack of oakiness, makes a strange but beautiful pairing. One of my favorite fish is barracuda, which has an oiliness that compares to salmon. With either fish that oiliness is more obvious when it’s cooked, but it’s still on your palate even though it’s not amplified by warmth. You need the acid of that wine or herbal flavors to cut through that flavor.
That also goes well with gin, and so do soups like Japanese broths and pho. The spice notes in a pho broth go very well with the spices, which is why they’re also great with Belgian beers.
What are some bad combinations to avoid?
There are things on the menu of the seafood restaurant that I wouldn’t want people to order with bourbon. A shrimp cocktail, for instance — the bourbon would overpower the delicate seafood flavors. You can definitely make shrimp in a way that would work with whiskey, but that’s not the ideal scenario.
Another example is that I wouldn’t serve a cabernet at a cocktail party, or any big wine that needs food to enjoy it. I also wouldn’t serve neat whiskeys before dinner. I don’t want to blow your palate out before your food.
Do you hope that customers will learn from your pairings?
If someone has a good experience and comes away with a new understanding of flavor, and they integrate that into their skills as a host and a cook, that’s great. If they have a great experience and only learn that they want to come back again and try more, that’s great too. Either way, we did our job.