As I ponder the potential of pairing cocktails with cuisine, there’s one discovery that I can no longer keep to myself.
Pairing wines with food is a natural science. The same is true with beers. Even agave spirits like tequila and mezcal play beautifully together with certain ingredients at the center of the plate.
But cocktails? Aren’t cocktails designed to be balanced on their own? Yes, said mixologist Marlee Palmer, but she’s not one to shy away from the challenge of shaking up a drink to match with one of her restaurant’s dishes.
This is what happened, somewhat spontaneously, on my recent visit to Obon, Palmer’s workplace and play station at 350 E. Congress Street.
As I sunk my teeth into one of their Spam buns, I was immediately smitten with the subtle spice of the togarashi, a toasty chile pepper blend that Obon’s Chef Creamer had snuck into a creamy mayonnaise that smeared the bun’s interior. Watching my curiosity grow with every bite, the ever-observant Palmer swung into action and presented me with a Gangnam Style cocktail just seconds later.
This cocktail is one of more than 10 signature selections on her beverage menu, representing the Asia regions of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and China. In curating this list, she drew from her time living in and traveling around Southeast Asia, picking up stories and traditions along the way.
“These cocktails come from a culinary influence,” Palmer said. “They come from the foods that I’ve eaten over there and ingredients that I’ve never seen used in a cocktail.”
The Korean-inspired Gangnam Style gets things going with toasted sesame infused vodka, fresh raspberries, fresh lime, rice vinegar and, ta-da, togarashi.
“Togarashi is an amazing spice, and as soon as I tried it for the first time I was obsessed,” Palmer said.
It was the bridge that connected the togarashi notes in both Creamer’s spicy mayo and Palmer’s cocktail that made it a perfect pairing, revealing to me the wisdom behind the weird.
If this sounds weird to you, Chef Creamer would say mission accomplished.
“Obon is about traditional styles with as weird of a twist as we can put on it,” Creamer said. “Traditional is great, and we have lots of traditional items, but the things that shine on our menu are the things that we get weird with.”
Let it be said that Spam now stands as a symbol of Obon’s oddity.
Their tribute to the iconic canned meat product starts with a Chinese bao bun, which Creamer calls “Chinese fluff bread that’s almost gelatinous in nature,” onto which fried Spam, house-made pickles, green onions, kimchi and that spicy mayo are placed.
“The fattiness of the Spam begins to melt away as the kimchi coats over your tongue,” said Creamer. That’s the weirdness of Obon, he said, and Palmer’s behind-the-bar strategy concurs.
“I like to get people who would normally order something more stationary to branch out and expand their palate,” she said.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Obon’s palate-expanding exercises finally solved the cocktail pairing puzzle for me, albeit synchronistically.
It’s true that well-crafted cocktails and dishes should stand on their own, and Obon’s do in spades. But when Palmer and Creamer are in the house, their no-rules mantra inspires a weird and wonderful companionship.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at email@example.com. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.