Do you pick drinks from the menu and then fall back on habits – ordering a beer or wine to wash it down, with no thought as to how it will the affect the experience of your carefully selected dish?

At new Melbourne restaurant Lûmé, that’s akin to blasphemy.

“Instead of having a pre-conceived idea of what the drinks and food should be doing, we accentuate them,” says Lûmé’s bar manager, Nick Tesar. “It’s about using a drink to lift a dish.”

Lûmé assists with this conundrum by removing choice entirely – diners don’t actually see the menu until after their meal. This allows for some intentional, inspired obfuscation. At a recent event, Lûmé created a cocktail to pair with a cheese course … that had no cheese.

“We made a smoked salt and sugar syrup and mixed it with Eric Bordelet Granit Poire 2013, Delgado Zuleta La Goya sherry from Manzanilla, and finished it with a spritz of chardonnay lees,” explains Tesar. The phantom cheese, crafted to look like washed-rind camembert, was actually cauliflower. “It was served with a smoked croissant to accentuate the funky farmhouse characteristics of cheese.” The aim, says Tesar, is to, “Enable a different experience in matching to something that would not otherwise exhibit those components.”

This incredible attention to detail is at the heart of Lûmé’s philosophy. “We currently have an unnamed drink made of Ketel One Vodka, Pastis Henri Bardouin, a house-made macadamia orgeat, dandelion and burdock bitters, served on a licorice and lavender tisane ice cube, garnished with a lavender spritz,” says Tesar. He won’t say exactly what the cocktail is paired with (“at the moment it’s dish number 11”) but it was specifically created to accompany the “crystallised elderberry course”, comprising beetroot, mulled wine, liquid nitrogen and ginger bug (fermented ginger soda).

This precision pairing is crucial, says Tesar: “We want to put the food in the best light possible.”

At The Toff In Town in the CBD, cocktail master Jonathan Minihan has his own specifics to consider. Head chef Karen Batson oversees a Thai-based menu that covers five venues, The Toff, Cookie, Magic Mountain, Boney, and Colonel Tan’s at Revolver. The unifying Thai theme means Minihan needs to create drinks for the venues that will work with strong flavours.

“When you’re pairing cocktails with food, it’s always better to have a dish that’s really full flavoured,” says Minihan. “Really hard-hitting, something the alcohol can work with, rather than mask.”

Part of Minihan’s challenge is to create drinks that pair well with the complex, spicy flavour of Thai food as well as provide a cooling effect. “We have one called The British Garden,” says Minihan. “It’s a Tanqueray No. TEN gin-based cocktail with citrus, lavender bitters, fresh muddled cucumber, a ginger-infused sugar syrup and elderflower liqueur. It pairs well with our spicy eggplant green curry, because it cuts through its rich flavour with a subtle floral and cucumber coolness that refreshes the palate between each bite. It elevates the flavour of the eggplant, too.”

Another favourite of Minihan’s is the True To Our Roots, which is a twist on a classic Brandy Crusta. It features cognac, sherry and a homemade carrot puree, and according to the bartender, “goes beautifully with the sweet carrot flavour in the cashew dumplings with chilli soy, without going overboard on the sugar. The salt from the soy helps keeps it in balance.”

As diners clock on to pairing cocktails with drinks, the next step is expanding the palate – something even cocktail masters have room for. “I recently had a Talisker whisky with freshly shucked oysters and caviar,” says Minihan. “Traditionally that’s a faux pas, you don’t do seafood with a brown spirit. But the Talisker has a lot of that sea-salt flavour. It might just be the exception that proves the rule, but it was absolutely delicious.”

Lûmé
226 Coventry Street, South Melbourne
(03) 9690 0142
restaurantlume.com

Hours
Mon 6:00 pm - 11:00 pm
Thu to Sat 6:00 pm - 11:00 pm
Sun 12:00 pm - 3:00 pm

The Toff in Town
Level 2, Curtin House 252 Swanston Street
(03) 9639 8770
thetoffintown.com

Hours
Mon to Wed 5:00 pm - 3:00 am
Thu 5:00 pm - 5:00 am
Fri 3:00 pm - 5:00 am
Sat 5:00 pm - 5:00 am
Sun 4:00 pm - 5:00 am

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View more details here.