Nonalcoholic drinks raise bar, spike sales at upscale eateries

Nonalcoholic drinks raise bar, spike sales at upscale eateries

On the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, Orla Murphy-Lascola, co-owner and sommelier of American Seasons [3] restaurant, used to buy organic syrups for her Italian-style sodas.

“Then we started making our own,” she says.

That’s happening a lot these days. With carbonation equipment so inexpensive that it’s even springing up in people’s homes, chefs, mixologists and sommeliers are using their skills to raise their nonalcoholic programs to the same level as their food, wine, spirits and beer. Whether they’re concocting their own sodas and lemonades or pairing soft drinks with foods just as they would wines, many restaurants are taking their virgin-drink programs very seriously.

“I make a lot of infusions for my martinis,” Murphy-Lascola says, “and Michael [Murphy, chef and co-owner] had been making his own sodas to go with certain food items,” mostly as light palate cleansers, used instead of sorbet.

Now her lavender soda is a favorite among guests. She got the idea from her lavender vodka, which she made by adding organic lavender to vodka and placing it in a warm-water bath.

“Otherwise the color doesn’t take very well,” she says.

For lavender syrup, she puts three inches of lavender over an inch of sugar in a plastic container that she then fills with “really hot water.” She leaves it until she can smell the lavender, about 15-20 minutes, and then plunges the container in ice water, which she thinks helps improve the infusion’s quality.

“I don’t know if that really does anything, but I think it keeps the lavender flavor and color longer,” she says.

She pours about three ounces of syrup in an 11-ounce glass, adds about seven ounces of soda and tops it off with a bit of water to keep it from being too fizzy. She sells the drink for $3.50.

Ben Daitz, co-owner of a New York banh mi sandwich shop called Num Pang [4], says making his own lemonade is part of quality control.

“We want to make everything that we can in-house,” he says, “because when we can control the process from beginning to end, it comes out better.”

He makes a tart blood orange lemonade by adding a simple syrup, made with honey instead of sugar, to fresh-squeezed lemon juice and blood orange juice, and finishes it with a pinch of salt.

“We find the tartness cuts through the richness of the sandwich,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it’s exactly like pairing wine with food, but with every food and beverage pairing there’s a thought process involved.”

Harbour, a new seafood restaurant also in New York City, carries three lines of premium soda with flavors ranging from lavender and juniper to root beer and cream soda. General manager Thierry Sighel uses them to prepare pairings for the restaurant’s six-course, $45 tasting menu.

For six 2-ounce pours of soda, he charges $10. He also offers a beer paring for $12 and wine and sake pairings for $17-$20.

“Sometimes I like to decant the soda,” to remove or reduce the carbonation, Sighel says, depending on what he’s pairing it with.

“We do the same kind of thinking process that we do with wine,” he says. “You can either go with flavors that complement the dish, or that contrast with it.”

Recently he paired kampachi crudo made with serrano ham, shrimp, jícama and basil with lavender soda.

For Arctic char with miso, grapefruit and yuzu, he used a lightly sweetened premium orange soda. A soft shell crab with celery root, pipérade and a soft-poached egg was paired with lemon grass soda.

He poured orange cream soda to go with lobster, wild ramps, crispy peas and baby carrots.

Depending on the tastes of his customers, when serving a hanger steak au poivre he either pours a cream soda, to contrast, or a juniper soda to complement the flavors.

Justin Noel, the bar manager of Pranna [5], a restaurant in New York featuring foods of Southeast Asia and India, also makes nonalcoholic drinks that go with the food.

For his lemon grass Thai-basil soda he muddles a few Thai-basil leaves and adds lemon juice and a lemon grass syrup made by boiling the herb with sugar and water. He shakes it, strains it over ice, tops it with sparkling water and garnishes it with Thai-basil leaves. He charges $6 for it.

“It’s kind of a play on an Italian soda,” Noel says.

At Asia Nine Bar & Lounge [6] in Washington, D.C., owner Nuthinepan Tantivejakul imports frozen pandan leaves to make into a drink. Also known as screwpine, pandan has a flavor somewhere between mild tea and grain. It’s served as a sort of iced tea in Thailand.

“This is very authentic Thai,” says Tantivejakul, who simmers pandan and jasmine leaves together for about an hour, adding some pandan purée to give it a richer color. She sweetens it with sugar to suit the American palate.

Rainlove Lampariello, mixologist at Rouge Tomate [7] in New York, makes seasonal drinks to go with the seasonal menu.

“They’ve basically given me a kitchen,” he says of his work area, which includes two big industrial juicers, a citrus juicer and an array of blenders. “With that in mind, you really have to raise the game with all the drinks.”

He says product cost for alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks are about the same because he uses such high-end fruit.

“Even our cranberry juice here is fresh,” he says.

He buys the berries whole and cooks some of them in watered-down agave syrup until just before they burst. Then he discards the cooking liquid and purées the cooked cranberries with about equal amounts of raw ones.

He makes his own grape soda simply by mixing the juice of puréed and strained Concord grapes with seltzer. His lemon-lime soda is made by steeping citrus rinds in boiling water with agave syrup, which he then adds to sodium-free soda.

He serves brand-name colas, though.

“I’ve never tasted a cola that’s as good” as the brand-name ones, he says.

In Alexandria, Va., however, Todd Thrasher, partner of the Eat Good Food Group and manager of its flagship Restaurant Eve [8], is doing his best to make a great cola.

He started by reading the ingredient list on a cola bottle—carbonated water, high-fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavors and caffeine—but found it unhelpful.

So instead he starts with what original colas started with: a cola nut.

“I’d either get the whole nut itself or the powdered form,” he says.

He, too, adds caramel coloring, cane sugar, water and phosphoric acid—a common ingredient in an early variety of sodas, appropriately known as phosphates, although sometimes citric acid is used instead.

For different varieties he’ll add cherry, vanilla and lime, or fermented lime.

“I think people dig it,” he says.

While most bartenders make a gin and tonic by simply adding prepared tonic water to gin, Thrasher starts with bark from the Brazilian cinchona tree.

Cinchona bark, also known as quinine, is the main ingredient in tonic water, and Thrasher uses it to make his own.

It took him a while to figure out, but Eve executive chef Cathal Armstrong helped him when, while drinking a bottle of tonic water, he realized it tasted like the Japanese citrus yuzu.

Thrasher’s tonic water has quinine, yuzu, lemon grass, sugar, tartaric acid and phosphoric acid. He reduces all of that to one-fifth its original volume, adds water to that and then carbonates it by squirting it out of a seltzer bottle loaded with a carbon-dioxide canister.

He says the seltzer bottle gives the soda a creamy texture. He doesn’t want that texture in his cola, so he carbonates that using his company’s water purification system, which has two lines—one for still water and one, with a carbon-dioxide tank, for sparkling water.

Melissa Horst, service director at another of the group’s restaurants, The Majestic Café [9], is phasing out commercial ginger ale, lemon-lime sodas and club soda in favor of her own.

The lemon-lime soda is made by macerating citrus fruit with water and tartaric acid for around 12 hours, depending on the quality of the fruit. She uses that to make a simple syrup and then adds carbonated water.

She also makes seasonal sodas. Her featured flavor at the moment is made with strawberry syrup infused with Balinese long pepper. She mixes one part syrup with three parts carbonated water and pours it over a single iceberg-like cube picked off giant ice cubes that they make. She serves it in old milk shake glasses with squiggly straws. An 8-ounce serving is $4.— [email protected] [10]