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Pair up, while socially distancing, with to-go food and cocktails in Richmond
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Pair up, while socially distancing, with to-go food and cocktails in Richmond

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You drink, you eat. At least that’s the rule these days when it comes to takeout and delivery in Virginia. In April, as a lifeline to local food and beverage establishments during the recent pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam issued Executive Directive 10 allowing the sale of cocktails to-go. In furtherance of this directive, it was ordered that all cocktails “shall be” accompanied by “at least one meal.”

As I see it, this directive is not so much a rule as an opportunity. Before the pandemic, I had thought of doing a column on dine-in food and cocktail pairings, inspired by the gildas from Adarra — those pintxo-perfect brooches of green olive, white anchovy and pickled guindilla pepper — paired with aperitifs of crisp fino sherry. Never did I imagine that to-go food and cocktail pairings would soon become an option.

While restaurants and bars have reopened dining rooms and outdoor patios in recent weeks, many diners are understandably hesitant about their return to dining out. But self-imposed austerity is not the only alternative. To-go food and cocktail pairings are one way of awakening the senses from their COVID-induced slumber, even as we continue to hunker down.

A thoughtful pairing can be exquisite, inspiring, revelatory. Whether you’re looking to contrast or supplement flavors of a dish with elements of a well-made cocktail, there are many ways to design the ideal sip-and-bite. And with such extraordinarily talented and creative bartenders here in Richmond, who better to curate some pairings for us to enjoy at home?

Alewife: Crispy Rock Shrimp & the “Say Yes”

Alewife bar manager Katy Best is a wunderkind of the Richmond craft cocktail scene. Her bright and playfully light spirited creations are always so uplifting. The “Say Yes” ($12, serves one), a cocktail whose name sounds as if it could be the title of a self-help book by reality TV star Bethenny Frankel, is no exception.

With pisco’s Bolivian cousin, singani, as its star, this tickling delight of a cocktail sips like a sour lime gumball. A “play on a pisco punch,” perfect for summer, says Best. It’s dosed with Czechian bitters for depth and balance and perfumed with Amontillado sherry, which imbues the drink with a lovely amber hue.

And what goes greater with a juicy hit of lime than some Calabash-style fried seafood — like a starter of crispy rock shrimp ($12)? Every bulb of rock shrimp is dredged in cornmeal and lightly fried, then daubed in sweet and creamy mayo and dusted with Sichuan pepper.

This dish could easily double as the Southern- ified version of celebrity chef Nobu’s famous tempura rock shrimp. And coupled with a fancy cocktail, it’s sure to have you longing for ’90s Asian-fusion restaurants all over again.

ZZQ: Beef Brisket & the “Hell or High Water”

It’s ironic, I suppose, that Richmond’s so-called meat church offers a cocktail called the “Hell or High Water” ($14, serves two). Ironic, yes, but not out of place. While chowing down on slabs of Texas barbecue in the dead heat of summer, think of it as your own fizzy, tequila-powered air conditioner.

Spiked with lime, grapefruit and a green poblano chile liqueur and topped off by sparkling Topo Chico, this hellishly refreshing cocktail drinks like a blast of brisk, piney air. It plays especially well against the smoky wood backdrop of ZZQ’s barbecued beef brisket ($12/half pound). The fattier the cut, the better, suggests bar manager Dale Richardson.

Every flap of brisket, tender and wobbly and juicy, wears a black bomber jacket of peppery bark, embroidered with delicate inseams of fat. And should you be so lucky as to make off with a few prized burnt ends, those even barkier, fattier nubs of brisket are — well, shall I say? — heavenly.

L’Opossum: Pulled Pork Platter & the “Throwing Shade”

Why not infuse the cornbread with a little foie gras? Or take a French béarnaise and transform it into tartar sauce? We’re not in Kansas anymore; we’re at L’Opossum. And boring old conventions have no place here. This Oregon Hill restaurant is so lavish and eclectic and phallic it might as well be Sir Elton’s personal dining room. It even has its own gay frontman: rock-star chef David Shannon.

Ever the disrupter, Shannon recently named a dish after the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, whose loans have been a source of anger and frustration for many restaurant owners during the pandemic. Unlike this controversial government program, however, Shannon’s “PPP” — pulled pork platter ($28) — is generously apportioned and accessible.

It’s hearty Southern comfort with a tasty hint of rebellion. Frayed cords of coffee-rubbed Autumn Olive Farms pork are galvanized by jolts of tartness from a sour cherry barbecue sauce. The pork comes fixed with savory foie gras cornbread and creamy cranberry beans.

Whether you consider the “PPP” more of a dish or a timely political critique, bar manager William Seidensticker appropriately recommends pairing it with a drink he calls “Throwing Shade” ($22, serves two). Despite its name, this bourbon cocktail — gussied up with aperol and burnt orange, flavors that complement the pulled pork — has nothing sharp or prickly to say. It’s sultry and smooth and caresses your tongue with just the right amount of sweetness. It’s how I imagine a desert sunset would taste if it were turned into a cocktail.

The Jasper: Club Sub Sandwich & the “Zombie”

Barkeep extraordinaire Mattias Hägglund certainly knows how to harness and tame the wildest of flavors. His debonair Carytown speakeasy, The Jasper, is the only place I’ve ever met a Jägermeister cocktail I actually liked. So when Hägglund recommends pairing the bar’s “Zombie” cocktail ($18, serves two to three) with an 8-inch club sub ($8), do you ask questions? No, you just trust the guy.

The sandwich comes on a plush hoagie, thickly padded with a velvet lining of smoked turkey, honey ham, and bacon. Woven into every bite are patches of sharp Tillamook cheddar, along with that unmistakably classic combination of ripened tomatoes and Duke’s mayonnaise.

Meanwhile, the “Zombie,” a concoction so boozy it practically swoons with rum, is a rather boisterous troublemaker of a cocktail. This tiki bar drink showcases a trifecta of blended rums, swaying along like a drunken sailor to an upbeat ballad of citrus and spice. “It’s a pretty potent drink,” Hägglund admits, “which isn’t the worst thing when you’re going through the anxiety of COVID.”

With sandwich in one hand and cocktail in the other, you’ll soon imagine yourself lounging poolside in a private cabana at a beachside resort. Flowy caftans and wide-brimmed sunhats, not included, of course.

Justin Lo writes freelance reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @justinsjlo.


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