Cocktails and Collaboration: Chris Frankel at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino

I've been a fan of Giacomo's ever since I "discovered" the charming small-plates Italian spot for DEFCON Dining. I've been a fan of Chris Frankel since well before he helped me turn terrifying sodas into delicious cocktails. When I heard that he was doing a collaborative dinner with Lynette Hawkins of Giacomo's, I was instantly intrigued. When I realized that, due to the restaurant's beer-and-wine-only license, there would be no hard liquor involved in any of the cocktails, I was even more intrigued.

Cocktails are an (almost) endlessly fascinating subject, in my opinion. They allow for so much creativity, and require so much abstraction of flavor, aroma, and composition, that they are a very good way to learn about the manner in which flavors and aromas interact. Taking those notions outside of the box of traditional, spirit-based cocktails can be very challenging, but Frankel did just that with great success. Almost all of the drinks on offer were very good; several were fantastic.

The first course paired rosato vermouth, kiwi, lime, turbinado, and lumbrusco bianco with tender-chewy octopus and chickpeas. Strong kiwi in the nose, but rounded in the body, the cocktail had a slightly rummy intensity, with the slight sparkle of the lambrusco keeping things light. The octopus had a nicely meaty texture, neither backing away from the octopus's tendencies, nor letting them run rampant. Brightened by lemon and tomatoes, the dish was similarly balanced between light and earthy flavors, with a slight crunch of celery setting off the otherwise softer textures. The pairing offered nice balance, setting off the drink's sweetness and the dish's richness, respectively.

An even better pairing came in the second dish, grilled radicchio stuffed with mozzarella, roasted pepper, and prosciutto, served over wild arugula with a drizzle of balsamic. The first taste offered the rough edge of char, giving way to bright red pepper and the almost meaty chew of cheese, which offered a creamy background. Balanced against this was a tiki-style drink, which first struck me as an odd choice. When the lushness of bright fruit up front melded with the strong, bitter flavors of the dish, it all made sense. In comparison to the fruity, lush flavors of the cocktail, the grilled radicchio took on an intense savoriness. Back to the drink, and you pick up the balancing bitterness of Cardamaro and Cocchi Americano, playing off the sweet pepper and zing of balsamic. This was probably my favorite pairing of the night. Plus, we got to keep the swell tiki glasses.

The much celebrated ravioli with chard, goat cheese, and butter-sage sauce came next. It didn't disappoint. Paired with Vermentino, Bianco Vermouth, Basil and Cardamom-infused Cardamaro - a sort of cocktailian pun, and Boston and Celery Bitters, it took on new dimension. Rounded spice in the drink made the acidity in the cheese pop, making the ravioli even lighter and more elegant than normal. That same spice reinforces the earthiness of the chard. The cardamom, which came on a bit strong in the cocktail, acted as a bridge for the depth of the sage. Taken on its own, the drink was a bit heavy, with overly aggressive cardamom and celery bitters taking over, but eventually giving way to the mellower warmth of vermouth. Paired with the pasta, it shone.

The one drink I didn't care for much was paired with lamb meatballs and lentil stew. Combining Dopplebock with marsala, clove, vanilla, and grapefruit bitters, it was just a bit heavy, while also seeming strangely thin. It reminded me of the chai cola I enjoyed, recently, but washed out. Everyone else seemed to really like this one, so perhaps it was just me. The lentils and lamb were delicious, as always, seeming intensely lamby without being gamy, and employing judicious amounts of mint and garlic. Unfortunately, the dish was also slightly over-salted, in that way that makes it seem delicious on first bite, but increasingly over-done as you eat.

The next dish - a hulking slab of porchetta liberally seasoned with rosemary, fennel, garlic, and pepper - was sided with deliciously bitter sauteed rapini. It was so large that I took half of it home, re-purposing it in a sort of savory custard the next night. It was paired with a headily spiced combination of Barbera, Brachetto d'acqui, maple syrup, and chocolate-chili bitters. It came on like a mulled wine, and was robust enough to stand up to the strong flavors in the pork. Mild tannins in the drink helped tame the sweetness, while the richness of maple and dusky hint of chocolate and chili played perfectly with fennel and rosemary.

Dessert was a lovely panna cotta, its gentle sweetness enhanced with a bit of acidifying yogurt. Simple, and sublime. Sweet Vermouth, Moscato Dolce, Strawberry, Lemon, and Turbinado paired well with it; that is, until one of our fellow diners put in his two cents. He asked to remain nameless, not wanting to be fingered as the culprit who ruined the drink. When he noted "it tastes like walking into a Yankee Candle store," I though I was done for. He was right. Somehow, the spices in the vermouth mingled with the rosewater to create a flavor that was very similar to the oddly disjointed sensory experience of 300 varieties of scented candles. Even odder, it somehow did this in a not-unpleasant way.

Despite a few dishes and drinks that didn't quite land, this was a very enjoyable evening. It was as much fun to listen to Chris and Lynette describe their creative processes, building drinks and dishes around each-others' ideas and flavors, as it was to actually eat and drink. I know Chris has already been thinking about a kitchen to approach for his next collaboration, and I can't wait.

For those of you who missed this one, you can experience the same menu (minus the cocktails, unfortunately) at Giacomo's two-year anniversary dinner on September 8. Six courses are a steal at $33, paired with wine for $55. If you have yet to experience Giacomo's simple and delicious fare, this might be a good chance.

I've been a big fan of the collaborative fervor that seems to be sweeping through our city's dining scene. Restaurants of all stripes seem to be hooking up with beverage geniuses of every persuasion, resulting in truly singular experiences that I relish. I've had coffee, tea, beer, wine, traditional cocktails, and wine cocktails paired with some of the finest food the city has to offer. Now, if someone would get on a dinner with non-alcoholic drink pairings, we'd have all of our bases covered.

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