Having drinks paired with a tasting menu is one of the unique experiences of fine dining, especially at a coveted Michelin Star restaurant.
Until now, those driving or not keen on alcohol, have been on the outside looking in at the rest of the table, with a soft drink in hand – but now Simpsons in Edgbaston is offering a drinks pairing with a difference.
Sommelier de Rang Marketa Dlouha has designed a 0% ABV pairing for each course that comes as close to wine pairings as possible and features cold, fizzy sparkling teas.
It’s available for lunch and dinner menus and can run alongside those doing the wine tasting option. Giving it the taste test, I ventured into Birmingham’s most distinguished restaurant in Highfield Road to review this pairing alongside the seven-course tasting lunch
Saicho as a bubbly alternative
Simpsons has been a force in Michelin dining for over 20 years and it maintains that level by pushing on with fresh ideas under the stewardship of Chef Director Luke Tipping. This latest pairing for those abstaining from alcohol is a nod to changing trends.
Sommelier Marketa talked us through the flavours and intricacies of each pouring with as much detail she would a wine. A nice touch to make it feel extra special.
Most of the courses featured drinks from Saicho, a brand new sparkling cold-brewed tea brand that comes in a range of three sparkling teas – Jasmine, Darjeeling and Hojicha.
While they are all designed to be served chilled in a champage flute, that is where the similarity ends. It was fascinating to taste just how different each one was, particularly when combined with certain dishes.
Husband and wife team Charlie and Natalie Winkworth-Smith came up with Saicho as Natalie turns bright red from the slightest sip of alcohol. But this beautifully-bottled drink is really taking off and proving to be an exciting alternative to Champagne or Prosecco.
It’s cold-brewed for twenty-four hours to extract the most delicate and complex flavours from the tea leaves, before being finely balanced with a hint of sweetness and acidity, then ‘sparkled’ into an effervescent drink
The menu started with Simpsons’ famous extravagant canapes and breads, masterfully-made tit-bits to whet the appetite before the Heritage Beetroot arrived.
This complex dish mixed various types of sweet pickled and raw beetroot with pieces of frozen goat’s cheese and sorrel. Its sweetness contrasting ideally with a sparkling herbaceous tea, making it more sour.
It was followed by a Carrot Broth that looked too beautiful to eat. Amazingly tender, flavoursome Skrei cod peeped out of the soup, which managed to harmoniously combine flavours of black garlic, trompette mushrooms, chickweed and even fennel pollen.
Saicho’s sparkling Darjeeling was paired with this dish – the natural sweetness of the carrots blending with the musky, spicy notes of the sparkling tea. A very aromatic drink, using Darjeeling grown 200m above sea level in the Himalayas.
Another fish dish followed of Gilthead Bream. Crispy on top, flaky white fish underneath and swimming among shrimps in a creamy, lick your lips juice. A string of monks beard vegetables placed saucily across the top. Divine.
This time, Marketa looked to Japan with Saicho’s Hojicha drink to pair. This was probably the most challenging as it’s a heavily pungent tea from Shizuoka prefecture, with hints of seaweed and chestnut. All the same, a wonderful experience to taste this fizzy cold drink alongside the food.
Wine, but not as you know it
It’s not just cold tea during the pairings either. To add variety, the main course of Cumbrian Chicken came with a de-alcoholised red. This Cabernet Tempranillo by Ramita from Spain had a 0.5% alcohol content. It’s sweeter than wine as although it’s made from the tempranillo grape, the sugar has not turned into alcohol during the process.
If anything, it tastes a little like cold, weak mulled wine. Its light taste throws the rule about red wine and white meat out the window, meaning it could be paired with the moist chicken.
Accompanied by a roasted charred onion, enticingly sticky and sweet, with turnip and a pickled walnut puree – yes, pickled walnuts, a la Strictly’s Len Goodman, but deliciously creamy. In fact, the whole dish was surprisingly light yet warming – ideal for winter.
Moving on to the finale of desserts, there was an artistic flourish with the exquisitely presented Blood Orange. A cheesecake in a small bowl with a vibrant topping of blood orange granita, decorated with edible flowers and dried orange pieces .
Underneath was hidden cheesecake foam with ginger running through it for a fresh, crunchy palate cleanser.
Matched alongside was a light, refreshing sparkling Jasmine tea from Saicho. A sweeter drink with more sugar that elevated the flavours of the orange. My favourite of all the pairings with its light jasmine taste fizzing in the mouth.
Saving the best ‘til last, the extraordinary meal finished on a high with Yorkshire Rhubarb. Far from as simple as it sounds, this dish made the most of all those exceptional Michelin star techniques to create a simply unforgettable pudding.
A crunchy white chocolate choux bun followed with cream and rhubarb pieces next to a scoop of heavenly rhubarb sorbet.
I could hear murmurings from nearly every table about how delicious it was. Even Marketa said it was one of the best desserts they have had at the restaurant.
Paired with this was a light, fresh pink cocktail of Seedlip Grove non-alcoholic gin with citrus, rhubarb, grenadine and lemon. A fruity finish to a decadent meal.
What the non-alcoholic pairing does is allow those not drinking booze to still take part in the occasion of a pairing menu alongside those that do. It gives more choice and chance to revel in the fine dining and drinking experience at somewhere as special as Simpsons.
The Sommelier’s Selected 0% ABV Pairing, which may contain traces of alcohol up to 0.5%, costs £25 for lunch and £30 for dinner and features the full range of Saicho Sparkling Teas.
The seven course tasting lunch at Simpsons costs £75 per person. You can find further information on the menus or make a booking at the Simpsons website here.
For more information on Saicho, visit its website here.