A year into the pandemic, many of us have come to lean on the kind of comfort classics at dinnertime that provide not just a sense of sustenance, but also of familiarity in these thoroughly disorienting days. One of the more interesting results of this renewed focus on the American culinary canon—often with the help of great local restaurants—has been a forced reconsideration of what wines and spirits pair best with these dishes that so reliably anchor us and provide a sense of normalcy.

Guy Benny, owner-operator of Conshy Seafood Co. in Conshohocken, PA, opened his restaurant last year right before the pandemic hit. Yet he has managed to thrive: The elevated comfort classics that he specializes in have made it a staple in the community, and a perfect lens through which to consider the sort of unexpected pairings that are possible when you think and drink outside of the proverbial box.

His crab macaroni and cheese and lobster rolls are good examples of dishes whose potential pairing partners are far broader than they usually get credit for. Macaroni and cheese, after all, is generally considered to work best with beer, as does lobster roll. But Benny actually recommends Prosecco with them, which makes sense: The amplified acidity cuts through the richness and creaminess of both dishes, the bubbles prepare the palate for the next bite, and the interplay between the fruitiness of the Prosecco and the natural sense of sweetness in the phenomenally fresh crab and lobster meat he uses bridge the two perfectly. A classically crafted Soave, like the Pieropan Soave Classico 2018, is also a home run with those dishes.

Of course, as is often the case with beloved local destinations all over the country, Conshy Seafood Co. has managed to tweak their dishes in ways that challenge previously held conceptions. At the recommendation of esteemed Chef Daniel Stern of Philadelphia’s R2L—which sadly closed last year; it was a phenomenal restaurant—Benny hired Chefs Oscar and German Flores, whose fine-dining backgrounds have impacted the menu and the business in unexpected ways. “The creativity, care, and consistency they bring to each dish, the things they’ve learned and cultivated under the tutelage of Daniel Stern, and their quest for perfection in every meal, whether it’s a simple mac and cheese or an elaborate lobster dinner finished in beurre blanc, really shines in everything that comes out of this kitchen. People are starting to recognize that our little, mostly takeout, spot is producing the same quality meals they’d find at a fine dining establishment, but at [far lower] prices.” So why not treat an affordable, casual, yet beautifully crafted take-out seafood dinner to the same thoughtful pairings that you’d employ at a white-tablecloth establishment?

Chef Reuben Harley, of Chef Big Rube’s Kitchen in Philadelphia, is making some of the best fried chicken in the region—the crust shatters against the teeth, the meat inside is impossibly moist and tender, and every bite is gorgeously seasoned. Personally, I’ve been pairing sparkling wine with it—the Graham Beck Brut Zero 2012, a Méthode Cap Classique sparkling wine from one of South Africa’s greatest practitioners of the style, is nutty, biscuity, and boasts enough caramel-coated almond notes to match up gorgeously with the fried golden crust, but enough acidity to cut through the richness and prepare the palate for the next bite. Flavors of dried apricots and crisp apples also make it generous enough to enjoy on its own.

Bourbon works, too: The natural sweet-nutty character of the Four Roses Small Batch Select is hard to beat with a great plate of fried chicken. Chef Harley himself loves a mouthwatering Italian white wine alongside his brilliant bird. “My bone-in fried chicken parts—breast, thighs, drumstick and most certainly the wings—I prefer a white wine,” he noted. “My favorite is Pinot Grigio.” He explained, “I like the Pinot because of the light crisp taste that harmonizes with the spice note of my chicken.” Successfully pairing wine with fried foods is often predicated on higher acidity, which not only provides a counterpoint the frying, but also gets the palate ready for the next bite. And any pairing that makes you want to both drink more of the wine and eat more of the food is likely a good one.

And then, of course, there is the hamburger, which for so many of us has been the go-to dish during these challenging months. One of my favorites is from Ripplewood Whiskey & Craft in Ardmore, PA, where they layer the beef with Lebanon bologna, gouda, onions, and a classic special sauce. The spicy-sweet character of a great rye Old Fashioned always cuts the richness with ease, but it’s been generous, tannic yet fruit-forward red wines that have become my standard liquid fare on the table next to the massive sandwich. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel blend of the Paraduxx 2017 Rector Creek Vineyard Red Wine sings alongside the dish, as does the plushness of a rich yet balanced Pinot Noir, like the remarkable 2017 L’Usine from the Sta. Rita Hills of California’s Santa Barbara County.

For this spectacularly realized hamburger, Ripplewood’s Bar Manager Ian Boston McCafferty prefers a Philly classic: “I’d say my legit favorite pairing would be a hazy, citrusy IPA like [the] Tired Hands Alien Church, with a neat pour of our own single-barrel Eagle Rare. [It’s] an elevated City Wide, as it were,” he explained, referring to the pairing of a beer and shot…but in this case, a highly respected craft ale and a sipping whiskey. “The Eagle Rare cuts through the heft of the burger and the IPA goes great to clean the palate for the next bite.”

The point is this: Comfort foods, however elevated or classic, have become emotional and gustatory staples more than ever this past year. And pairing a great wine, spirit, or beer with them has an almost alchemical ability to make a meal into an occasion, even if it’s removed from a take-out bag and enjoyed at the kitchen table. These days, we all could use more of that. I think we deserve it, too.

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