[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]n an ideal world, Luke Whearty’s customers would visit his underground cocktail bar, pick from one of the omakase food and drink menus, and trust him to take care of the rest. At least, that’s his end goal, which is why he’s working on upping the ante when it comes to the food offerings at Operation Dagger.

Since opening three years ago, Operation Dagger has always offered a strong drinks programme with house-made spirits and liqueurs, as well as a selection of “natural” wines made in-house by fermenting things like cabbages, tomatoes, and oranges. But after a recent renovation that gave Whearty more kitchen space to work with, he now offers more complex bar snacks like flaxseed crisps with tomato jam, pickled cucumber, and garlic flowers, as well as three- and five-course omakase menus (S$95++ and S$150++ with drink pairings).

Operation Dagger - Burrata and Heirloom Tomatoes
Burrata and Heirloom Tomatoes. PHOTO Operation Dagger

His is not the only establishment dedicated to juggling both food and drinks, however. These days, bars are going beyond deep-fried chicken wings and pizza, to well-thought-out dishes with good-quality ingredients, while restaurants are taking more risks with drink pairings and venturing into uncharted territories like sake or non-alcoholic pairings.

It reflects what’s happening in Australia, especially in Melbourne where he’s based, adds Whearty.

“There’s a law in Australia where you can’t serve alcohol without serving food, so it makes people want to put effort into their food because standards are so high in Melbourne that you can’t just serve fried food with your drinks. It pushes people to serve proper, unique dishes, so these days it’s not uncommon to go to a wine bar for dinner. In fact, a lot of the hottest dining venues at the moment are wine bars,” he says.

Fixed pairing menus are also becoming less common, as bars and restaurants alike are taking the opportunity to encourage interaction between the staff and customers, he adds.

That’s the case at ATLAS, a bar that opened at Parkview Square in Bugis earlier this year. Its general manager Nadine Hosford explains that they prefer to speak to guests individually and get to know their personal drink preferences before recommending a pairing.

“We have over 1,000 gins and 350 champagnes, so it depends on every guest’s preference. Except at lunchtime when people prefer a quick lunch set with straightforward pairings,” she says. Some of the gins the bar offers are picked up by staff on personal holidays to places like Bolivia or Portugal, while many of its champagnes are grower champagnes.

Carrying an exclusive variety of drinks is one way to stand out in a competitive market, adds Hosford.

After all, as The Black Swan‘s head sommelier Yeo Xi Yang points out, Singapore’s strategic position in Asia also makes it easier to get limited edition bottles like boutique wines and small-batch whiskeys, so restaurants have a better chance of getting their hands on something unusual and exclusive.

At Duxton Hill, for instance, a 1½-year-old bar named Bar-Celona specialises in serving cava – a Spanish bubbly that is a more affordable alternative to champagne. Russian-born owner Sergey Apalkov shares his pairing strategy: “In general, dry cava should be paired with seafood, or meat, or jamon, while semi-sweet cava is good for desserts or fruit. Dry cava should be paired with expensive food, when it’s important to taste the flavours in the food. Otherwise, it’s okay to have a sweeter drink.”

It’s a different approach from how things are done at BAM!, where the pairings follow what Spanish executive chef Pepe Moncayo calls his “ang moh” approach. BAM! has been serving tapas alongside an unusual pairing of sake since it opened in December 2013, and was recently relaunched with an omakase-only concept.

Pepe Moncayo, chef-owner of Bam

Moncayo explains: “I have been trained to start a meal with cold and acidic dishes, then allow the flavours to become richer. I don’t start with a wagyu and finish with a cold tomato soup. So my pairing is the same – I start with something light and finish with a full-bodied sake.”

His is not the only restaurant that offers sake alongside non-Japanese food; this popular rice wine also appears in pairings at modern Chinese restaurants like VLV and the three-week-old Restaurant Ards.

Chef Ace Tan of the latter says this is likely because pairing drinks with Asian food is not a very common practice, so it is not “restricted by the boundaries of red and white like with Western food. You are open to chooses from whatever alcoholic beverage complements the dish.”

Group sommelier Vincent Tan of VLV agrees. He brings up an example of a pairing menu he once created, which consisted of champagne, sake, white wine, red wine, beer, and even a sweet wine from Malaga in Spain. “To me it’s not about Chinese or Western food – it’s all food to me. All I care about is the taste, and what beverage matches it best. I’ve always wondered why no one pairs drinks with Chinese food, it’s so complex,” he notes.

This complexity sometimes makes it easier to pair the dish with different drinks, so he is able to make recommendations based on the diner’s preferences. For example, the Chairman’s Crab is made up of steamed egg white with crab, a light bonito stock, shaved bonito, and ikura salmon roe. “It pairs easily with sake, a number of wines, a Suntory premium malt, or a complex champagne,” he adds.

Restaurant Ards takes it one step further, and offers a non-alcoholic pairing menu as well. This includes teas like pu er from China and matcha tea from Japan, as well as housemade juices like a fresh coconut that has been burned over the fire and finished with a fermented coconut cream.

It’s a little out of the ordinary, but Tan explains: “Every dish has an identity of its own so we want to add value to them. It’s all about accentuating the experience so that it’s not just about the food but also a unique beverage that holds its own but at the same time also brings out the flavours of the food.”

Story first appeared on The Business Times.