Wakame seaweed. Mugwort. Manzanita berries. You might expect these kinds of ingredients on your plate during a meal at Trois Mec, but probably not in your glass.
At Ludo Lefebvre's strip-mall restaurant, going sober no longer implies settling for a bottle of Perrier. The innovative French chef and his team have introduced a new beverage program that's unlike anything else in Los Angeles -- and it's entirely booze-free.
Alongside Trois Mec's buttery, bonito-enriched riff on pommes aligot the sommelier pours a flinty Sauvignon Blanc from Pouilly-Fumé. But for those who opt for the non-alcoholic pairing, something else arrives: a small ceramic mug filled with steamed milk, frothed until it resembles a foamy cappuccino that's been infused with vanilla and Meyer lemon.
"Potatoes and milk. It's a classic," says Lefebvre, grinning.
The restaurant has offered the non-alcoholic beverage pairing for the past several weeks, but it has been easy to miss. Marked with a single line of text at the bottom of the menu, the seven-course drink pairing is set at $25. That's half the price of the wine pairing ($49) and roughly a third of the price of the premium wine pairing ($79).
"We wanted to offer an alternative that was engaging. If someone chose to skip the wine paring, for whatever reason, it didn't have to feel like a hardship," says Adam Vourvoulis, Trois Mec's general manager and beverage director.
Each beverage — seven or so are available at any given time -- is a custom collaboration between Lefebvre, Vourvoulis and chef de cuisine Doug Rankin.
"Some people sort of roll their eyes and ask, 'Is it a bunch of juice?'" says Vourvoulis. Quite the contrary, he says: "Fruit juice spoils quickly, so we use oils from the skin instead. It allows us to create these aromatic, deep-flavored infusions."
The closest thing to juice on the menu might be a bubbly fuschia-colored concoction made from fermented wild blueberries, though even that more closely resembles kombucha. Wine glasses filled with the naturally carbonated soda are paired with charred slices of steak, grilled broccolini and smoked peanut butter. You might be reminded of bone-dry Lambrusco; Lefebvre likened the combination to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Many of the beverages approximate their equivalents in wine. A drink made with acrid, cranberry-like holly berries, foraged from the Hollywood Hills, subs in for a bright rosé on a scallop course. For dessert, Vourvoulis uses smoke-dried lapsang souchong tea flavored with barley and hay to mimic the robust viscosity of cask-aged sherry. Others, like coconut water tea stepped with Buddha's hand, pine needles and wakame (paired with a bowl of mushroom pho), originate from a purely culinary sphere.
"With wine you have a catalog of flavor notes that you work backward from," says Vourvoulis, "but with these drinks it's free association."
For example, Rankin's first attempt at creating a light orgeat-like drink first suggested by Vourvoulis wasn't exactly successful. "Honestly, it tasted like terrible," Rankin recalls.
But after experimenting with grilling the almonds first -- over almond wood — Rankin found the char-flecked liquid took on a smokier, mellower profile. It became an ideal companion for a plate of miso flan with grilled cabbage. "It's a long process of trial and error," he admits.
The inspiration for the program traces back to Japan, when Lefebvre was struck by an alcohol-free pairing offered at a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Tokyo. "It was mostly different types of waters and teas. It was very zen, very Japanese. I wanted to offer my own version of that," he explains.
Soft beverage pairings -- as they are sometime referred to -- aren't exactly new. Thomas Keller has been offering them for over a decade at his bastions of high cuisine, Per Se and the French Laundry. The late Charlie Trotter experimented with custom infused teas made with prickly pear and turmeric root as far back as the 1980s. The most well-known example may be at Alinea and the Aviary in Chicago, where Grant Achatz's modernist creations such as "chilled" hot chocolate and "distilled" root beer blur the line between food and beverage.
Los Angeles, however, has been behind the curve in this particular arena, which seems strange for a city so accustomed to driving.
"The assumption is that you pair wine with your meal," says Ashleigh Parson partner and general manager at downtown's Alma. "If you deviate from that, some people can get uncomfortable."
For Alma, serving non-alcoholic beverages began out of necessity. The restaurant opened in July 2012 but didn't receive its liquor license until February 2013. In that span, then-beverage director Chris Yamashiro (he now works at Craig Thornton's avant-garde dinner series Wolvesmouth) collaborated with chef Ari Taymor to produce a selection of seasonal sodas flavored with offbeat ingredients such as yam and nasturtium leaves.
Even after the license was granted, the drinks played a crucial role. "If Ari felt that a soda went better with a dish than wine or cider, he would pair it," says Parsons. Current beverage director Arielle Dollinger has continued to expand the program, serving soda varieties like salted strawberry and ginger-jasmine-white peach.
Parsons attests to the growing demand in Los Angeles for non-alcoholic drinks. "You'd be surprised how many customers prefer the soda," she says. "They like to remain clear-headed without sacrificing the experience."
At Beverly Hills' Bazaar at the SLS Hotel, the bar staff will prepare mocktail equivalents of José Andres' whimsical cocktails, such as the nitrogen-frozen Caipirinha and the Salt Air margarita. Most high-end cocktail bars will gladly do the same upon request. At both Bäco Mercat and Bar Amá, Josef Centeno offers a wide selection of house-made sodas and shrubs -- a type of sweet-sour syrup made from macerated fruits and vegetables and vinegar -- topped up with soda water.
Matt Biancaniello, the produce-obsessive bartender known for his stinging nettle gin and tonics and mushroom-bourbon cocktails, envisions opening an intimate cocktail bar where customers can order a liquid tasting menu composed entirely of non-alcoholic drinks.
"When you're using certain ingredients, spirits can obscure the flavors," says Biancaniello, "There's so much potential in what you can create when you leave out the alcohol."
At Trois Mec, Vourvoulis estimates that about six tables per night order the non-alcoholic pairing. He expects that number to continue to increase. "One group even ordered the wine pairing and the non-alcoholic pairing side-by-side the other night," he says.
Forgoing the wine list, especially one as meticulously curated as the one at Trois Mec, might seem bizarre to certain diners (and downright sacrilegious to wine geeks). But Lefebvre feels the new beverages are simply an extension of the restaurant's accommodating ethos.
"We are all about hospitality," says Lefebvre. "If someone is vegetarian, we offer a menu that is just as good. Why wouldn't we do the same thing if someone doesn't drink?"
Back in the kitchen, Lefebvre, Vourvoulis and Rankin are tossing around ideas for drinks. Vourvoulis muses about an upcoming asparagus dish. "I'm thinking of something with brine. And lemon." But Lefebvre is ruminating over the murky water that remains after soaking a batch of dried mushrooms.
"That stuff is so delicious," he exclaims, "I think I could drink a whole glass by itself."