September 14, 2005 -- HIGH-END New York restaurants are turning water into wine. Well, not quite - but they are crafting their lists of bottled waters as carefully as they stock their wine cellars. Gone are the days of Evian and Pellegrino - a new crop of bottles have landed on menus from the hills of Scotland to the wilds of the Amazon.

At Alain Ducasse at the Essex House (155 W. 58th St., [212] 265-7300), the wait staff presents guests with a selection of six bottles in a specially crafted basket. The choices, which change daily, are part of a larger library of mineral, spring, Natcarb (naturally carbonated) and sparkling waters. The list ranges from Sole, a still water which hails from Nuvolento, Italy, and is described on the water menu as, "Italian alpine spring water, sodium free and high in vitamins," to Ty Nant, a Welsh water from Bethania that the menu declares is "a water which perfectly fits Scotch." All cost $12 a bottle.

Hildon, contained in an almost vodka-esque glass bottle marked with a simple Tiffany-blue label, is found frequently on polo fields and upscale hotels around the U.K. and is rumored to be Queen Elizabeth's choice beverage. Now it's served at Per Se (10 Columbus Circle, fourth floor, [212] 823-9335), along with Wattwiller, a French flat water from the Alsace region, and Ty Nant (all three varieties are $12).

Though many diners may scoff, thinking that it's "plain water," chefs believe the wrong water can ruin a meal - and the right one can elevate it.

Gene D. Donney, CEO of Aqua Maestro Inc., a bottled-water distributor, says there are two main variants that determine water flavor - pH levels (which measure acidity and alkalinity) and TDS, or total dissolved solids. The higher the TDS level, the heavier the water tastes, as there are more minerals.

"Even if you don't have a trained palate, you will know the difference," Donney says "Where pH is the lowest, it is sour. The sourest of water is Perrier at 5.5 pH. A nice neutral water is 7.0 pH, which is the equivalent of distilled water. Anything higher than 7.0 and you start to get a bitter flavor."

A general rule of thumb for matching foods and waters is that light still waters pair best with mild-tasting foods, while heavy sparkling waters should be paired with stronger dishes. Given the new options, packaging, flavors and natures, water selection is something to ponder just as a glass of wine.

"To me water is the new wine," Donney says. "Bottled water service is now very much parallel with the awakening Americans had three decades ago about wine. Not everyone drinks alcohol, but everyone drinks water."

Water also cools the spice, cleans your palate and can complete ethnic experience. Chef Michael Psilakis of Onera (222 W. 79th St., [212] 873-0200) offers Greek bottled waters - sparkling Souroti and still Loutraki ($7 a bottle).

"When a unique bottle comes out, it's more of an occasion and adds to the whole dining experience," Psilakis says. Locality also adds a subtle flavor component that extends from the waters' origin. We all know how the flavor of a bagel is greatly undermined if not made with New York City water.

For every region, there is a water. Chef David Burke of Davidburke and Donatella (133 E. 61st St., [212] 813-2121) just added Equa, a water from the Amazon; Craft (43 E. 19th St., [212] 780-0880) serves Highland Spring sparking well water from Ochil Hills, Scotland; Aquavit (13 W. 54th St., [212] 307-7311) has Voss artesian water from Norway; and Casa Mono (125 E. 17th St., [212] 253-2773) complements their Spanish tapas menu with Font D'or sparkling bottled from Girona, Spain. Each costs between $7 and $9 a bottle.

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