Recently, I’ve been watching the movie Silver Linings Playbook a lot, both because it’s been on HBO and because I’m a sap. There’s this epic scene where Bradley Cooper’s character is desperately trying to find his wedding video in the middle of the night, and Led Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be” plays over his frantic search. I try to imagine the scene without the song, and it’s just nothing by comparison. And I’m sure we all have these movie moments where the music mattered so much to us and really made the scene. Chef and author Barbara Werner has figured out that the same can be said for music and food with her new book series and app, Musical Pairing: The Art of Harmonizing Music to Your Meal.
When Barbara invited me to a nine-course music-paired tasting on her at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House near Times Square last week, I expected that she’d just rented out the upstairs meeting room for the atmosphere and would be having a caterer serve us tiny one-bite plates, enough to give us a sample of what an actual musical pairing dinner party could be like. After the first course, I was dying to know the caterer’s name. Because I am dumb. Of course it was Ruth’s Chris food we were eating, and it was all incredible.
My friend Kim and I were seated at a U-shaped table with other journalists, bloggers, photographers, and eaters,
and in front of each of us was a set of Frends headphones in either rose gold or black that were ours to keep.
When Barbara Werner began speaking, we couldn’t help but stop sipping our champagne and admiring our new electronics, because the woman is a real charmer. She was funny. She was honest. She spoke openly about being divorced and how much she loves being a single woman but how she hates the way restaurants announce to all of the other diners that she’s alone the moment she walks in the door. “Table for ONE? Do we have a table for ONE LONELY PERSON?” She didn’t want to have to join Match.com just to be taken out to dinner, she said, but she hated the stigma attached to treating just herself to dinner. So Barbara started wearing headphones while she ate to block out the clatter of silverware as the server removed the extra setting from her table for two, and that’s when she realized that something special was happening.
To start the evening, Barbara’s assistants hooked us all up to iPods,
and then servers brought our food to us as we began listening to the song Barbara had decided to pair with that particular course. She said that she’d specifically chosen headphones versus piping the music throughout the room over loudspeakers to ensure that we’d know it was the music that had made the meal so memorable and not the fantastic conversation we were having with the people next to us.
Our example course was a single scoop of vanilla ice cream, something we all knew well and could use as a baseline. As our dishes arrived, a classical music piece began playing. It was fine. The ice cream tasted like ice cream. But when they switched us over to “Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major”, the ice cream suddenly tasted . . . different. Brighter. Creamier. I knew it was just the power of suggestion, but did I care? If I stop feeling pain because of a placebo pill, I’ve still stopped feeling pain, right? It was a little bit exciting to me to think that my brain could be won over by a couple of violins. I was also probably won over by the fact that this woman was serving me ice cream for an amuse bouche.
The rest of the night would only get better from there, thanks to Barbara’s song choices and this sampling of the Ruth’s Chris menu.
ahi tuna on cucumber with spicy mustard
Barbara explained that her pairings are derived from a simple mathematical formula that takes into account the type of protein, the way it’s cooked, and then all of the side dishes and sauces. Since this tuna wasn’t cooked, its musical pairing number was small, so she needed a song with a matching small number. She was looking for a steady beat with no big sweeps, not a lot of dynamics. What she ended up with was “We Got the Beat” by The Go-Go’s. I absolutely loved the spicy wasabi and ginger with the freshness of the tuna and cilantro.
veal osso buco ravioli
Barbara has a culinary degree and comes from a long line of butchers. She was a self-described nerd in school, a choir geek, and learned about whatever music her crush of the moment was into to make boys like her. And she’s great at talking about food. The way she described the classic veal osso buco had my mouth watering even before the dish was anywhere in sight. This one was infused with saffron and was so rich and buttery. I’m not sure I’d heard of Florida Georgia Line before the dinner, and I don’t usually listen to country music, but “Cruise” had me wanting to dance in my seat and sing along.
fried calamari with sweet and spicy chili sauce
I don’t eat a whole lot of squid in my life, and I was actively trying to control my portions so I’d be able to save room for the THREE COURSES OF DESSERT, but I couldn’t stop shoving this stuff in my maw. Set to the tune of Carly Simon’s “Let the Rivers Run” (the theme from Working Girl), it was bursting with red pepper flavor that’s making me salivate even as I type this. The lemon we squeezed over the whole plate was the perfect bright contrast to the heavy batter.
tempura onion rings
And speaking of heavy batter, next up was the biggest onion ring I’d seen in my life. Barbara called this “the greatest stoner food known to man” and paired it with stoner music, “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones. The coating on this was so thick it went from crunchy on the outside back to doughy again on the inside. I loved getting the best of both worlds, and really, the fact that this was a tempura batter meant that it was surprisingly light. I loved the Thai flavors of the dipping sauce.
crispy stuffed roast chicken breast with sweet potato casserole
Next up was a roasted chicken breast paired with Cream’s “White Room”, perfect for the herbaceous cream sauce that burst out of the chicken when I cut into its crisp skin. But the star of this dish, and maybe reason enough on its own to visit Ruth’s Chris Steak House, was the sweet potato casserole with a pecan crust. It was CANDY. It could’ve easily been dessert. And did I taste a hint of orange in it? The fact that no one is writing love poems to these sweet potatoes is a crime. The Best.
Finally, we got to the Ruth’s Chris signature: a petite filet mignon medallion with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus. This is the dish that inspired Barbara to write her Musical Pairing series. She was at Ruth’s Chris one night by herself, listening to Luciano Pavarotti sing “Nessum Dorma”, when she was inspired to figure out why this song and this food went so perfectly together. The song was so epic–probably too epic for my taste in any other setting, actually–but there was this moment when I was spooning these potatoes drowning in butter into my mouth that I thought I’d never be able to eat steak without music ever again after this.
whipped banana cream pie
Harry Connick, Jr. sang “It Had to Be You” to us as we ate this mini banana cream pie that was more fresh banana than pie. We loved how it was just lightly sweet and how it was so much more “real food” than banana pudding is. The espresso martini it was served with was all chocolate and sugar, on the other hand, and of course I loved that in an entirely different way.
bread pudding with whiskey sauce
This was like an apple pie stuffed into a bread pudding with all of its cinnamon and fruits. It was paired with The Mamas and the Papas’ “Words of Love” and a creamy whiskey sauce that seemed to also have a whole lotta powdered sugar in it.
chocolate sin cake
This really needs no description, because it’s all in the name. Eating this cake is a sin. Especially after eight previous courses and ice cream to start the whole night off. It was so dense and decadent that half of the room left their plate nearly untouched. I, on the other hand, ate nearly all of it but left behind a single bite to show that I’m in control of my appetite. And I’ll regret that decision every day of my life.
Several years ago, when I was a faithful minimum wage bookstore employee, I was so excited to read This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession the moment it arrived in the store. I was dying to know why music affected me so much, influenced my mood so intensely. What the book basically told me was, “We have no idea.” But even if I don’t know why my connection to music is so meaningful, it is. And well, my connection to food is embarrassing at times. As I sat listening to this Florida Georgia Line song I had never heard before and was finding it so unbelievably catchy, I wondered if the food had as much to do with me liking the song as the song had to do with me liking the food. It’s been a few months since I’d had a good tasting menu, so maybe it was partly just that I was experiencing the euphoria of an overly-full belly, but I kept exclaiming, “This is the best night of my life!” Loudly, so my friend could hear me through her headphones. And she was feeling the same way. Whether or not we can pinpoint the science behind musical pairing, we’re dying to host a music-paired dinner party full of the very best/truly, truly terrible songs our iPods can produce.
If you want to do the same, check out the beginnings of musicalpairing.com for videos and contests, and try the beta app at mpwebapp.com to see actual song suggestions based on your menu.
Thanks to Barbara Werner and Ruth’s Chris Steak House NYC for an amazing time!
Ruth’s Chris Steak House
148 West 51st Street
New York, NY 10019 (map)