A Heavenly Food-Cocktail Pairing with Cucina Enoteca
We all know the power of a good food and drink combination: milk and cookies, pie and coffee, or the extensive pairing opportunities that go with pairing wine with just the right dish. These pairings, when done right, can turn a simple meal or beverage into one harmonious and flavorful experience. Although you may be familiar with pairing your drink to match your meal, the concept of pairing cocktails to compliment specifically selected dishes is still uncommon practice in Southern California. However, Newport Beach residents and visitors are in luck, because masterful bartender, Tucky Dias of Newport Beach’s favored CUCINA enoteca, is well-prepared to help enlighten your tastebuds to the power of a carefully crafted cocktail-food pairing experience.
“With wine you have no power to manipulate the flavor, and with liquor you have that power to manipulate it to do what you want,” Tucky says about the benefits of cocktail pairing. When crafting a cocktail to compliment a dish, you have the flexibility to make use of specific ingredients that are going to be the best in that instance, while with wine “you’re stuck with [the flavors] in that glass.”
It is safe to say Tucky got an early start in the business, “I used to make my dad’s Gin Gimlet when I was seven”, Tucky explains, “I tried it when I was 11, and it was disgusting,” he laughs. From then on, especially since starting at CUCINA two years ago, Tucky has been on a linear path deeper into the ever-growing world of cocktails. Cocktails have come a long way since he started bartending 14 years ago, and things are beginning to get a little more interesting in terms of flavor and creativity. It’s easy to see the enthusiasm Tucky has for his job and the thrill it brings when he is creating crazy and exciting new drinks. In regard to how Tucky conceptualizes his inventive cocktail recipes, he explains, “ I consider cocktails to be food — I always have thought of it that way. I never see even a simple Vodka Tonic as just a Vodka Tonic. I think of it differently, it can always be funkafide.” His creations are certainly “funkafide”, and even old classics get quirky new luxurious twists (e.g., Brûléed New Fashion and the Elderflower Gin Fizz — which is Tucky’s first “molecular mixology” cocktail on the menu, and a steady personal favorite of mine).
Before jumping into a cocktail pairing, Tucky shared some quick tips to ensure it is the ultimate enjoyable experience: the best route is to always consult your bartender or server and let them know what you are looking for, ease up on the quantity of alcohol and go for smaller portions (you don’t want to numb your palate!), start with something light and bubbly and only get into whiskeys and bourbons around the third course, and lastly make selections that are going to compliment each other, heighten key flavors, and combine harmoniously.
It is imperative that both the bartender and chef are in-touch throughout a cocktail pairing; this will ensure maximum cooperation of ingredients within the dish and the cocktail. Chef Cesar and Tucky certainly did just that when I tried a cocktail pairing of my own. To start, a beautifully prepared Gin Cocktail, designed to cleanse the palate and lift up fatty oils off the tongue, that was light and bubbly in nature with lime juice, honey water, and a Pernod anise accent. The botanical gin is infused in-house with lemon, orange, rosemary, and cloves, and in this cocktail is paired with Tucky’s secret ingredient — mango-lime bitters, all finished off with a delicate edible flower. Paired perfectly with CUCINA’s delectable Stuffed Squash Blossoms, a set of lightly-fried squash blossoms, stuffed full with herb ricotta cheese, and sitting atop a plate drizzled with opal basil pesto sauce and the citrusy lemon aioli.
Next up, a faultless presentation of lemon roasted beets and vibrant butternut squash topped with currants and pepita, and basil leaf for each beet, all surrounding the fluffiest whipped yogurt I’ve ever had, topped with a home-made dehydrated beet powder. This earthy, but sweet, dish paired absolutely phenomenally with the Levriere vodka cocktail. Tucky mentions, sometimes it’s best to “create a cocktail that’s slightly off balance”, as in this case. The earthy textures and hints of sweetness of the salad pair pleasingly with the citrus and fruity based benedictine, lemon juice, orange, grapefruit, and goji bitters, sugar-rimmed beverage. The vibrance and freshness of the pair as a whole is enhanced through this combination.
Another dish emerges as a fresh, but heavier, looking cocktail is placed in front of me. The Mushroom Bolognese and Bloomsdale Spinach Creste Pasta is homemade frill-elbow pasta rich with five different types of mushrooms, egg yolk, and topped with the smokey sweetness of the sauce-like goat cheese (not to mention, this dish is topped off with yet another mushroom — the crispy shiitake). The decadent flavors of this pasta dish are, once again, complimented impeccably by the Black Manhattan. The Black Manhattan, composed of Rittenhouse rye whiskey, citrusy amaro montenegro, chocolatey averna, and two irresistible bitters: one chocolate-fig-anise and the other a vanilla-walnut, completed with a caramelized orange zest that brings a whole new depth to the mix.
Side note: If you are looking for a meat-driven meal, pair this Black Manhattan with the 18oz Lamb Osso Bucco, a dish boasting beluga lentils, cipollini conserve, arugula, preserved lemon, and a mint gremolata. That is one flavor heavy match made in heaven.
If you are feeling up to possibly stuffing anything else into your stomach, go for the cheese plate. You can’t go wrong with any of their cheese selections offered with various parings of condiment and crostini to compliment your desired cheese. Slow it down a little, and pair this with a glass of wine, such as the Turley Red Zinfandel.
Pairing tip: Think about going for a mid-course palate cleanser to break the flavors between lighter and heavier courses. A dry, bubbly, and herbal apertivi, such as the Lillet, combined with fresh lemon juice, a dash of cranberry juice, rosé, and lime zest is a sure thing to liven the experience.
There is truly something for everyone at CUCINA enoteca, as their diverse California-inspired Italian menu changes often. Tucky confirms that “if it’s not fresh, you will never see it here,” and their ingredients change seasonal to maintain the quality and freshness they are known for — and that goes for both in the kitchen and behind the bar. “People are starting to come in for our cocktails,” Tucky says, although their cuisine remains their number one draw-in, their extensive wine shop and in-house offerings takes second place, and cocktails come in third, “which still makes it a big part of CUCINA.” I whole-heartedly believe CUCINA enoteca is the place to begin your cocktail pairing journey; Tucky, along with the other knowledgeable staff, are there to make it an enjoyable one. Be on the lookout for a cocktail dinner at CUCINA, as it is something Tucky says could be happening in the near future.
Main slide photo credit: Zack Benson