Riddle me this: If I say steak, you say red, right? And if I say fish, you say white. If I say summer, you say rosé. We've reached a point where we feel like we don't even need sommeliers anymore (but we do). Serving a rib eye with, say, a Two Buck Chuck merlot may not be inspired, but there is a consensus that merlot is "right" and Chardonnay is "wrong."
Beer pairings are catching up steadily but slowly, like a bellied, middle-aged man chasing after his Pilates-loving wino wife on a morning jog. Breweries are cooler by the day—just ask one of the dozens in the Triangle—yet if I say steak, you say what? Ale? Porter?
Cocktail pairings are the underdog, and that is what Alley Twenty Six wants to change.
Shannon Healy opened the Durham bar in 2012 and expanded into the space next door in February. The extension effectively doubled the business in size, adding another bar, an open kitchen, and a thirty-six-seat dining room with a full menu spearheaded by chef Carrie Schleiffer. The kitchen serves food until eleven p.m. on weeknights, with late-night specials running through two a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
In many ways, it seems like Schleiffer was made for this. She worked on the opening team at Bar Virgile; served as executive chef at G2B Gastropub in Durham and sous chef at One in Chapel Hill; and logged time at nationally known spots like Gramercy Tavern and Tabla in New York City.
Her menu, which aptly described itself as "upscale" in an early press release, includes snacks, meats, and cheeses, plus small and large plates. Alley Twenty Six is less liquor-and-mixer, more, as they put it, "farm-to-sip." The new food program is just as complex. Instead of chicken and waffles, for instance, you'll find chicken-fried duck confit with a spiced waffle, luxardo cherry sauce, and—in a neighborly nod to Dame's down the road—a chicken liver mousse schmear.
But what caught my eye wasn't the lobster roll with French fries, the tuna tartare with lotus root chips, or the foie gras mousseline with crostini. It was on a menu page that preceded the listing of those other items: four suggested cocktail pairings, priced between the low to high twenties.
Over the course of two visits, I ordered them all.
The answer to the question that I started with (Do cocktails really "pair" with food?) quickly became clear: absolutely, if you have people like Healy and Schleiffer doing the pairing. But then another question cropped up: Does the new Alley Twenty Six pair with the old? Of that, I'm still unsure.
On my first visit, I turned left into the dining space. It gleams in a new-car sort of way, pristine and shiny and beautiful. Also like a new car, you resist having too much of a good time. If your friend says, "Hey! Want to take my new Ferrari for a spin?" you do want to. But you don't do it.
Even at eight on a Saturday evening, in a mostly full dining room, the ambiance felt stiff, like the cocktails. (On the bright side, if you're on a first date or having a business dinner, you can actually hear yourselves speak.)
Along the far wall, bottles of Lillet Blanc and Punt e Mes are on display behind a shimmery glass panel, a museum-like touch and a welcome countermeasure to the open shelves that serve as the backdrop in most bars, including the one just across the wall.
I like it better over there. On a Sunday night, there's a d.j. and a crowd of people that make you feel like, Wow, who knew Sundays were so fun?
The cocktail/food pairings are fun in theory but fancy at heart, like Scarlett O'Hara going to a barbecue in a corset. Going out for a burger and drinks, you imagine one thing, but Alley Twenty Six gives you another.
The namesake burger—paired, naturally, with the namesake cocktail—has black truffle, cheddar, bourbon bacon jam, arugula, and chipotle aioli. Crowded? Totally. But during a moment of build-your-own burger mania, that's supposed to be thrilling, right? The accompanying cocktail, with Wild Turkey 101 bourbon, dry vermouth, Cynar, Luxardo Maraschino, and celery bitters, is just as busy.
This was the only large plate included in the suggested pairings during my visits, though the selection evolves with the seasonally driven menu. (Pairings are also offered with any weekend specials.)
My favorite was the oysters and Foula Kahuna, which evokes what I imagine Hawaii to be like: a bright beach and a cool breeze. The beer cocktail marries Ponysaurus Scotch ale with pineapple-infused scotch, then celebrates the occasion with drunken pineapple syrup, lemon, orange, and mole bitters. The more you sip and spin the little umbrella, the more you adore the oysters—cornmeal-crusted, deep-fried, and swimming in a spicy remoulade.
I was excited about the burrata with smoked strawberry, toasted almonds, basil coulis, and strawberry chips. It was set up with the Cloud Cover, a cocktail with a similar sweet-sultry personality—strawberry-infused mezcal, mezcal-infused strawberry syrup, Chartreuse, lime, and egg white. But the burrata stood us both up (eighty-sixed). When I asked our server what might pair second best, he suggested the goat cheese croquettes with roasted beets, grapefruit, and mint. And they really hit it off.
The French 75 and Scotch egg are in an I'll-call-you situation, but the cocktail keeps checking its phone and is starting to feel bad about itself. It shouldn't. It's a fine French 75, with cava instead of the usual champagne.
And the Scotch egg is gooey-centered, sage-scented, and dreamily salty-crispy. Which should be a shoo-in with the sweet drink, right? Salty and sweet. Fatty and acidic. Opposites attract.
Still, I wonder what would happen if the pairing were more playful, more punny—maybe a Scotch egg with a scotch-and-St. Germain Elderflower cordial? Salty and sweet with an herbal interest in common?
Thankfully, nothing is off limits among the creative collaboration shared by Schleiffer, Healy, the bartenders, and sous chefs. I'm excited for Alley Twenty Six to keep leading the way.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Double Date."