San Diego seems like a lifetime ago, though it was definitely not forgettable between the main event and the two mezcal paired dinners hosted by Kettner Exchange and Solare. I am still dreaming of that divine curry like sauce that topped the striped sea bass at the Kettner dinner and the risotto with lemon gelee at Solare. Yep, that good.

The genius of both these dinners is that the food was built around the mezcal and not vice versa. Chefs at both restaurants created special dishes that would enhance the flavors of the mezcal so that the tasting experience was seamless. It definitely worked, and was made even better by how completely different the dinners were – one that incorporated more Asian seasonings and the other that was more traditionally Sicilian – further proof that mezcal can be paired with just about any regional cuisine. One of my future goals – to do a mezcal dinner paired with Indian food, hint hint.

Kettner Exchange mezcal pairing dinner

The Kettner Exchange dinner was organized by Chris Simmons of Sipping Life. A long time evangelist for tequila, he is now incorporating more mezcal into his repertoire, and for this dinner was excited to include raicilla, sotol, and bacanora in the mix. He and Chef Brian Redzikowski put together a list of spirits – La Venenosa Raicilla Sierra Occidental, Derrumbes Mezcal Salmiana San Luis Potosi, Rancho Tepua Bacanora, Sotol Coyote Durango, and Koch Mezcal Espadin Ollo de Barro and then created the menu from there.

I was seated at a table with a mix of some people new to mezcal and others very acquainted with it. As we came in the door we were handed a cocktail that was very bright and citrusy and opened the palate perfectly for what was to come.

The raicilla was paired with Skuna Bay Salmon and Hamachi ceviche. The raicilla really brought out the sea salt and umami of the fish, while the fish brought out a sweetness of the raicilla. It was quite a bold choice to open the dinner, especially for people new to the world of mezcal. This dish was followed by the Derrumbes Mezcal paired with a Duck San Choi, which perfectly balanced the meatiness of the duck and the pepperiness of the mezcal. The third course featured the Rancho Tepua Bacanora with a deep fried striped bass that has the most amazing crab based curry sauce drizzled over it, the kind of sauce that has you wanting to lick fingers, plates, other peoples fingers, i mean, I need to stop right here before this turns into a penthouse forum letter. It was that good. And the Bacanora, despite its crazy Miracle Grow like smell, did not overpower the dish and let it shine. Honestly, I could have stopped the meal here I was so completely satisfied, but there were still two more courses to follow.

The next dish was billed as a Pig Mac Bao, which is what you imagine it to be – two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles onions all on a sesame seed bao bun. It was paired with the Sotol Coyote, which had a strong alcohol bite that really helped cut the fat on the dish. This was the crowd pleaser dish, though for me, the fish remains the standout. We finished with a chocolate extravaganza paired with the Koch Mezcal Espadin. You can never go wrong with this pairing – Chocolate and Mezcal go together like Bonnie and Clyde.

Chris did a great job of stepping in throughout the meal to talk about what we were eating and drinking, and why we were eating and drinking what we were. It created a very relaxed evening and I greatly enjoyed talking to the people I was seated with – particularly Bruce who works with Amtrak and with whom I was able to indulge my love of train trips.

Solare Mezcal pairing dinner

Two nights later I found myself at Solare, an Italian restaurant in Liberty Station. It was an uncharacteristically cold and rainy night, so we were greeted with a warm cocktail with orange and rosemary that featured La Venenosa Tabernas. The dinner was put together by Solare owner Randy Smerik and Chef Accursio Lotá. On hand to talk about the evening’s selections was La Venenosa owner Esteban Morales.

I was seated next to Randy, who got to hear my moanings et all during the meal. While I hate to name a favorite cuisine, I have to say, Italian is probably top of my list. It is what I feel most comfortable cooking, and its focus on cured meats, grains, olive oils, and super fresh ingredients truly satisfies me on such a deep level. But to pair this with mezcal, and very bold mezcal, was something new to me and a giant hand to forehead moment of doh, of course.

We opened with the Derrumbes Oaxaca paired with a quick cured pork filet that created the perfect sweet/salty balance between the two flavors. This was followed by the risotto with lemon geleé and charred hiramasa yellowtail paired with the Derrumbes Durango, to which I say, hands down the best risotto I have ever had, which happened to be paired with one of my favorite mezcals, and is now the number one reason to return to San Diego. I would eat and drink this all night long such was the perfection and balance of all the flavors. The third course was the La Venenosa Black Agave Maximiliana paired with braised beef cheeks and Mediterranean octopus in a sauce of Sicilian chocolate, pepperoncino, pistachios, braised endive, and a marsala reduction. This was a truly hearty dish that balanced out the dry raicilla. I will be honest and say, this would be a tough raicilla for me to drink on its own, but paired with such a rich dish it really shined in a way I never would have imagined.

The final dish was a chocolate baretta with orange gelatin and apricot chocolate fondue and a slight drop of guava sauce paired with La Venenosa Puntas (about 65%). Again, that mezcal and chocolate pairing, but this was set apart with the added bonus of a puntas. The thing about puntas is that despite the high alcohol percentage they can be incredibly smooth. Once the crowd got over the high proof, they were amazed by the deep flavor and how the alcohol was barely present in the taste. It was the perfect compliment to the chocolate and the perfect ending to a wonderful meal and presentation by Esteban.

What is most exciting to me with these kinds of dinner pairings is the level of creativity involved in building meals around the spirit, rather than trying to fit the spirit to the meals. Drinks are often a secondary part so to have them placed front and center is a testimony to how far we have come in educating the industry about the possibilities of what mezcal can bring to a dinner. These two meals really highlighted the breadth of flavors to be found in mezcal and I think opens the door to what else it can be paired with. I mentioned Indian food earlier and given the raw seafood involved in the above meals, I think there is a case to be made for a sushi pairing. I can’t wait to see how much further we can push the envelope on flavor pairings.