Balanced heat in appetizers rouses palates, titillates taste buds and enhances the dining experience, especially when paired with the right beverages

Spicy starters: balanced heat in appetizers rouses palates, titillates taste buds and enhances the dining experience, especially when paired with the right beverages

Michele Grayson

There are wake up calls, and then there are rude awakenings. Tempting taste buds toward greater awareness rather than shocking the mouth with an appetizer’s blast of bold heat is the approach menu makers across the country have been taking as they finesse the spicy heat in starter courses.


“Spicy is good, but not at the expense of taste,” says chef Roy Yamaguchi, founder of Tampa, Fla.-based Roy’s Restaurant chain, which has 34 units worldwide. “You’ve got to balance layers of flavor and spice. Heat is secondary.” Phil Costner, vice president of research and development for the 871-unit T.G.I. Friday’s, talks along the same lines: “It’s never just about the heat,” he says. “It’s about balancing heat and flavor.”

The right beverage also serves to balance the experience. “If the appetizer is very spicy, very clean beverages are the best match,” says Jacques Bezuidenhout, beverage manager at the famed Harry Denton’s Starlight Room in San Francisco. “You want to relax the palate, but still stand up to the dish at hand.”

Tequila stands up well, as do sparkling wines and lagers. Because effervescence can accentuate and liven up spice, with beer, he advises, “Stay with a light lager–crisp, clean and with a little flavor.” Sticking with a lager from the country where the spicy cuisine originated also makes sense.


Determining just which spices to include is perhaps the most exciting part of the hot food adventure. Some spices once considered exotic–such as wasabi–are now mainstream. Marinated Fried Chicken Tenders with Wasabi Guacamole is rapper Ludacris’ favorite appetizer at the Prime Grill, a new Kosher steakhouse and sushi bar in Beverly Hills, Calif.


Wasabi oil packs a punch when paired with Qube Restaurant’s Sumo Shrimp appetizer in Seattle, Wash.; the shrimp gets a little nori–thin seaweed–black belt. To accompany this, guests can select from spice-infused cocktails, including the Buddha Samba, a Margarita with a cumin salt rim and made with tamarind infused tequila, or the Pink Geisha, a Saketini made with Nigori sake and cranberry, created by bar manager and sommelier Angel Angular.

T.G.I. Friday’s appetizer of Crispy Green Bean Fries with Cucumber Wasabi Ranch dip is proving to be “wildly popular,” says Costner. When used in mashed potatoes a few years back, wasabi was “a little too eclectic for our guests,” he recalls. Served in a sauce with the green beans, however, it works. “[This] shows where we’re headed: Taking a flavoring that’s been used one way in another culture and retrofitting it to be very exciting, acceptable, fun and American.”

A host of less-familiar flavorings and spices are moving in from the fringe: harissa (the Tunisian paste of dried red chiles, garlic, cumin, mint, cinnamon, coriander, caraway, salt and olive oil), zhoug or zhug (a Yemen paste of cilantro, green chiles, garlic, cardamom, black pepper and olive oil), chaat masala (a hot-sour spice blend of black salt, green mango powder, cumin, coriander, chiles, asafetida and ajwain, and so much more.

Spice-trend ambassadors including Floyd Cardoz at New York’s Tabla and Bread Bar now make exotic flavors more accessible. Appetizers at Tabla include roasted beets tossed with ginger, with toasted bacalao (salt cod), red onion, fresh green chiles and red wine vinegar, and an apple and potato salad seasoned with tamarind chutney, yogurt and chaat masala. Cardoz’ method of putting known ingredients with lesser-knowns is one fail-safe formula to help diners over the threshold.


The simplest vehicles for spices are traditional bar snacks. Chef Bill Kim at Chicago’s Le Lan restaurant does a Curried Blue Popcorn popped in oil that’s been curried with fenugreek seeds, cumin and chipotle chiles, then sprinkled with Korean sea salt, Japanese togarashi seasoning (seven-flavor powder) and nori powder. Also fun is Jen Solomon’s spicy Red Chile Roasted Nuts at District, a wine lounge in San Francisco. Solomon toasts guajillo chiles, grinds and combines them with cayenne, and then tosses roast pecans, almonds, cashews and walnuts in the spices with salt, sugar and olive oil.

Pairing acidic and fruit-forward beverages with these spicy, salty snacks works well. At Le Lan, Kim suggests the Candied Kumquat Mojito (rum, sparkling water, kumquat-infused simple syrup, fresh kumquat and blue mint), while at District, sommelier Caterna Mirabelli suggests a glass of McCrea Roussane Red Mountain 2005, which she says is “structured and powerful, yet still elegant on the palate.”

Looking at dips, cool and creamy hummus–that wildly popular Middle-Eastern blend of chickpeas, sesame paste, lemon juice and garlic–has proven itself a great flavor conduit at several Big Burrito Restaurant Group concepts in Pittsburgh, Pa. The nine-unit Mad Mex does Pepita Hummus, with toasted pumpkin seeds. Alanson Peet, executive chef at Big Burrito’s Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen, serves sumac-crusted scallops with Baba Ganoush–eggplant blended hummus–made spicy with chile powder. Bill Fuller, corporate chef for Big Burrito, likes a Margarita with the Pepita Hummus, but prefers “any Alsatian-style wine” with the Baba Ganoush.


One way to familiarize guests with new spice sensations is to offer samplers. Lining up small tastes of highly-spiced offerings works well with everything from Korean kimchees–Le Lan offers several house-made kimchees nightly–to Latin ceviches, salsas and Indian chutneys.

Five salsas are served every day at Andina Restaurant and its Bar Mestizo in Portland, Ore.; guests sample the salsas with oysters, shrimp and clams at the raw bar. To accompany? You can’t go wrong with the Pisco Sour, says owner Doris Platt.

Big Burrito Restaurant Group’s Mad Mex restaurants feature the fun “Pickadippa” appetizer, giving guests their pick of any three salsas or dips for $6. Choices range from coolly spiced avocado-tomatillo salsa to smoky fire-roasted tomato chipotle and fiery pineapple-habanero.

Similarly at Palo Alto, Calif.’s Junnoon, the eclectic modern-Indian restaurant, guests build samplers from four chutneys (green papaya, garlic chili, tamarind and coconut ginger) and three raitas (avocado, spinach and apple walnut). While the complexity of Indian spices adds challenge to beverage pairing, general manager Maneesh Rawat says it’s a common misconception that Indian food can’t be successfully paired with wine. Selections that “have a lot of fruit, softer tannins and high acidity,” are good bets, such as Vouvray Domaine Pichot 2005, Freemark Abbey Viognier 2003 or St. Francis Zinfandel 2004.


Taking guests further up the spice trail, spiced sauces work well when tossed or drizzled over snacks. Clams steamed in wine at Sea Salt Restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. get a highly aromatic spicy finish when sous chef Donna Collins adds zhoug, the Yemen chile and herb paste. “It really turns heads when we stir a tablespoon of this into the steaming broth!” says Collins.

Chef Brandy Stewart, of the Caribbean-Latino restaurant Kaya in Pittsburgh, Pa., sends tofu cracklings out to guests with a chipotle barbecue sauce including peanuts, allspice and honey. Cumin and garlic-seasoned Black Bean Falafel are served with cucumber chipotle aioli. And cayenne pepper spiked Corn and Lentil Beignets have a green curry dipping sauce. Bartender Joe Deck says Sangrias go well with these dishes as do fruity rum drinks such as the Reggae Sun Splash–peach schnapps combined with pineapple, orange and cranberry juices and rum.

At his new contemporary Peruvian tapas restaurant in San Francisco, Piqueo, chef Carlos Altamirano does a tapas dish called Yuca Balls that are stuffed with queso blanco and served with two sauces: panca sauce (blanched Peruvian dried chiles and fresh Ahi Marillo chiles combined with cumin, garlic and Peruvian beer) and refreshing salsa criolla (red onion, tomato, cilantro, lime juice, salt, pepper and olive oil). The beverage suggestion here is house-blended Sangria, featuring fresh fruits macerated with sugar and brandy.


Topping salads with spice-steeped ingredients is a natural counterpoint to the built-in coolness or blandness of other ingredients. At Celadon in Los Angeles, executive chef Danny Almaleh’s Ahi Summer Rolls with mango, avocado, daikon sprouts and ooba leaves get extra kick from kochujan, a Korean hot chile and bean paste sauce. Bar manager Jason Bran likes to serve this with fruity sake cocktails. His Lychee Lemonade has Absolut Vanilia, Soho Lychee Liqueur, cranberry and lemon juices. The Sakura Breeze blends Ginza No Suzume Sho Chu, Cointreau Liqueur and pomegranate juice with muddled tangerines.

Appetizers that involve spice blend marinades or rubs offer additional levels of nuanced heat. Lamb riblets are given a dry harissa rub and then slowroasted on a grill and are matched with yogurt spiced with zatar (the North African mix of sesame seed, sumac, thyme and cayenne) and cumin at Heidi Krahling’s Pan-Mediterranean restaurant Insalata’s in San Anselmo, Calif.

Alice Weingarten, chef/owner of Alice’s Key West Restaurant, in Key West, Fla., does Southwestern Pot Stickers with a cumin-scented chicken, fire-roasted green chile and manchego cheese filling. Soothing the heat, “people like fruity drinks like our Pomegranate Cosmo, or something Cuban-influenced, like Mojitos, or Caribbean beer.”

Chicken Panuchos–tortillas stuffed with black beans, deep fried and topped with achiote-seasoned chicken, pickled onion and guacamole, is one of the new Bocaditos–little bites–served at Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken’s Border Grill in Santa Monica, Calif. Extending the happy hour “$3 Bites,” more complex $5 and $7 Bites like this one were added recently, and these pair well with the best selling Blood Orange Jalapeno Margarita, featuring blood orange and jalapeno infused tequila.


At Foodfight Inc.’s Eldorado Grill in Madison, Wis., executive chef Kevin Tubb makes a mouthwatering Stuffed Ancho Chile appetizer. Tubb marinates the anchos overnight in cider vinegar spiced with cinnamon, coriander, allspice and brown sugar, and then stuffs them with slow-smoked pork butt. The garnish is sesame-lime vinaigrette, featuring garlic-chile paste, with pickled red onions and corn relish. Standing up to this? Tubb recommends a flight of tequilas or a single, robust reposado.

In cultures where a wide variety of heady spices and chiles are used daily, cooks have devised methods to smooth and mellow flavors. Mexican moles almost always require toasting or frying dried chiles, herbs and spices to release natural sugars and round out flavors. Hot peppers used in Peruvian sauces are seeded, peeled and rinsed many times, then blanched before being made into a paste that is cooked again with other spices, explains Andina’s Platt.

At Tabla, Cardoz suggests dry toasting whole spices in a hot skillet, a method that makes raw ingredients less sharp and also lessens the heat of dried chiles. Blooming whole spices in hot oil is another way to quickly extract flavor and aroma. Cardoz’ recent cookbook, One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors (Morrow Cookbooks, 2006), details his methods.

No matter how the spice gets in the dish, balance and heat control–coupled with an enhancing beverage–ensures the guest reaction is “Ahhh …,” not “Ouch!”

Michele Grayson writes about culinary and menu trends, as well as foodservice, from Chicagoland.

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