Dining: Flooding the Market

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

In his own way, Michael Mascha is trying to turn water into wine. On his web site, www.finewaters.com, Mascha, a 47-year-old anthropologist from Los Angeles, discusses the hundreds of waters bottled throughout the world and how best to appreciate them, and he recently helped the Setai, a new hotel on South Beach in Miami, Fla., compile its water list. Mascha also has conducted water pairings at the Los Angeles restaurant Patina, and in October at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, National Marine Suppliers & National Provisions, a company that supplies groceries to numerous megayachts, will present an expanded range of bottled water offerings and meal pairing suggestions that reflect Mascha’s guidance.

Mascha’s interest in water began when his doctor counseled him to cease drinking wine because of a heart condition; he has since placed his 2,000-bottle collection in storage but shares the vintages with friends who visit for dinner. Faced with the deprivation of his preferred drink, he trained his attention on a more basic one. Mascha can detect the distinguishing qualities of a bottled water, but he acknowledges that novices usually find it difficult to recognize variations in mineral content, pH levels, and, in carbonated waters, the size of the bubbles. “It’s about 1,000 times harder to be a water connoisseur than a wine connoisseur,” he says. “Water is subtle, and not as overpowering as wine. But if you had a five- or six-course meal, and you changed the water with every course, the differences [between the waters] would become obvious.”

Some might think that Mascha is all wet, but at least one leading American restaurant agrees with him. New York’s Alain Ducasse at the Essex House has provided a dozen waters since it opened in 2001, usually presenting several bottles in a silver caddy. Sommelier Andre Compeyre says that no diner has requested water pairings yet, but if one does, he will be happy to accommodate. “It can influence your dining experience, since the qualities in water are multiple,” he says. “An individual water’s levels of minerals and salts give it a distinctive taste.”

As the cellar master for the Setai hotel, which formally opened in August in Miami, Alejandro Ortiz presents patrons with the 10-water list on which Mascha consulted. (The waters are available throughout the hotel, not just at its restaurant and three bars.) Ortiz, who has earned an advanced rank from the Court of Master Sommeliers organization, says that not all guests accept the notion that water pairings can improve a meal. “We get a lot of smirks and smiles,” he says. “Mostly, they don’t think the choice of water makes a difference, but many people are really surprised at how water changes their appreciation of the food.”

Although few diners may appreciate how, for example, the slight tartness of the Scottish bottled water Gleneagles complements fresh seafood, Mascha will continue encouraging restaurants to provide more choices. “It’s boring to go to a restaurant and [always] drink the same two brands of water,” he says. “It’s like drinking the same wine every time.”

Premium bottled water pairings soon may be de rigueur at fine restaurants, and perhaps even on megayachts.

Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, 212.265.7300, www.alain-ducasse.com
FineWaters, www.finewaters.com
The Setai, 305.520.6000, www.setai.com

Photo by Jim Fets
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