A Gin Dinner at the Brasserie L’École

The first Art of the Cocktail, a fundraiser for the Victoria Film Festival, drew to an elegant close with Dinner with a Twist. Four restaurants hosted a dinner, each with a unique menu and courses paired with cocktails. I wanted to attend, but in the back of mind I wondered if I might be allowed a glass of wine instead.

I snagged last minute seats to the Brasserie L’Ecole dinner which would pair Chef Sean Brennan’s cooking with Hendrick’s Brand Ambassador Charlotte Voisey’s gin cocktails. You might think that four cocktails for dinner is too much; luckily I had prepared my stomach by attending the tasting the previous evening including Charlotte’s Gimlet and Scottish Pair (more than once). I was excited to taste the gin cocktails she would conjure up to match the Brasserie’s food especially because gin lends itself to mixing well with herbs and spices. Hendrick’s gin is produced in Ayrshire, Scotland, and has prominent rose and cucumber infusions along with more conventional gin botanicals juniper, coriander, and citrus.

Gin has always been my white spirit of choice. When I sip a gin and tonic it transports me through space and time. It makes me feel at once like an old British lady and at the same time a British officer in India preventing an oncoming bout of malaria. It is also utterly refreshing.

Dinner with a Twist commenced with a classic cocktail. The French 75 was light, sparkling and pretty, the bubbles danced across the tongue awakening diners’ senses for what was to come.

One of my preferred cocktails came next. The Gimlet refreshed the palette and this lime-rich drink was a good choice to partner with the Halibut, potato confit, smoked sablefish and Savoy cabbage ragout first course. Gimlets work well with seafood because the lime enhances the fish’s subtle flavours. Try one with raw oysters.

For the second course, Chef Brennan presented what reminded me of an abstract installation on a plate in the form of dark squares of juicy Pork Rillon, light pink and white firm, juicy spot prawns accompanied by rich terracotta smooth butternut squash flavoured with harissa. Charlotte announced that the cocktail she had paired for this course was her favourite. It was called the Gin Figgle, an impeccably balanced cocktail with a deep orange colour.   Before I go any further you should mix one for yourself (find the recipe in this week’s recipe box).

Sipping this drink I became convinced that in fact, cocktails do go very well, in this case even better than wine, with food. I was a little shocked. The subtle spicing in both the drink and dish intrigued me. Harissa, a hot chili sauce paste originating in North Africa is not used in traditional French cookery, but appears on the Brasserie’s menu from time to time due to the Chef’s interest in North Africa’s influence on French cookery. The harissa was a good choice as it added that extra je ne sais quoi to the dish without being overpowering. The ginger root had the same effect on the cocktail.

Charlotte Voisey recommends using spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and clove either in a simple syrup, a foam or freshly ground and sprinkled on top as garnish. Another option for a garnish is fresh cilantro leaves topped with mace blades.

Venison loin chop was next on the menu and it was the most beautiful piece of meat to have ever approached my plate. Dark red, and two inches high, the venison had presence.  You could hear diners inhale as they admired the meat. This masterpiece was served with red cabbage, spice-poached quince and parsnip purée and the tender venison delivered on taste and satisfaction. My partner who is not a meat lover is still talking about that venison. Charlotte introduced the Martinez to accompany the venison and it stood up well in colour and taste with two measures of sweet vermouth to one of gin. She declared, “This cocktail is probably as close to wine as you can get” and like a good glass of red wine it did not disappoint.

Dessert was a simple and elegant twice-baked shortbread with a touch of orange oil to go with the strawberry mint mojito, a perfect digestivo after a perfect dinner.Some diners were so impressed that much to Charlotte’s delight, they continued to sip gin once the dinner was finished.

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