Last week, Ray’s and Stark Bar, located inside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, introduced a 43-page water tasting menu that spans 10 countries and prices bottles anywhere from $8 to $20. The menu is listed in alphabetical order by country of origin and rates the water on a scale of sweet to salty, smooth to complex.
If 43 pages of water is too much to wrap your taste buds around, don't fret, there is an in-house water sommelier to aid in the selection process.
The restaurant's general manager, Martin Riese, serves as the first and only water sommelier in the United States. Riese hails from Northern Germany, close to the Danish border.
“Where I’m from, it’s the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. There’s a lot of water there. For me, it was always what I loved because this is the element that everything starts with," he said. "Without water – and everybody knows that, as well – we couldn’t live. Water is the most important element in our life, and it’s responsible for life.”
In 2005, while working in Germany as a restaurant manager, a customer approached Riese with a complaint about the brand of water being served at the restaurant.
“It was almost like a mind-opener for me. He was totally right. We have a selection of wines, why shouldn’t we have a selection of waters?” Riese said.
Riese created a specialized menu of 40 different waters – double what is currently available at Ray’s and Stark Bar.
Riese started to drink water "professionally" in 2009, and co-wrote a book, Die Welt des Wassers ("The World of Water"), on the subject in the German language. He was officially certified by the German Mineral Water Trade Association as a water sommelier in 2010.
"It was more like learning by doing, I would say. I was drinking water, water, water all the time. You cannot believe how many times I had to go to the restroom for that,” he joked.
Riese believes that just as customers have a choice in food, wine and spirits, they should also be free to select the right water to fit their palate. He insists it’s not much different from a wine pairing.
“Wine and water have so many of the same aspects. For example, wine always depends on where the grapes are growing. It’s all about the terroir, as we say in the wine business. It’s exactly the same with water," Riese said.
He continued: "Most [water] comes from the same origin: it’s rainwater at one point. It dribbles down on the ground, then this water sinks down to different layers and it takes the minerals with it.” (These minerals show up in water as TDS, or Total Dissolved Solids, per liter. All mineral water has a TDS level that serves as a measuring tool for subtle differences in taste.)
Riese explains that the introduction of the water menu not only expands the horizons of taste options for customers, but also creates a more inclusive atmosphere in the restaurant. He describes an interaction with a couple who, for medical reasons, were no longer able to drink alcohol. They had missed the ceremonial selection and pairing of wines with their dinner, and the water list provided the same feeling for them. That’s when Riese knew he had made a meaningful breakthrough.
So, how does one go about choosing a water to pair with their meal?
Riese says customers often ask what he recommends, but he first likes to get a sense of what type of water they're drinking on a regular basis, whether sparkling or flat.
From there, Riese says the second question will gauge if the customer prefers something on the smoother side or wants to try something a little more complex, whether saltier or more bitter.
Unsurprisingly, reactions to the new menu provide some complexities of their own. Some media outlets and even customers have expressed doubt in the menu’s authenticity, insisting that it’s all the same.
To the critics, Riese says: “Yes, you’re right. It’s the same chemical reaction, but the taste can be very different, because it’s all about the TDS levels. Our water menu starts at the TDS level of under 10mg per liter and goes up to over 3,500 TDS per liter. Obviously, this water has a different taste.”
While a brand he helped create, Beverly Hills 90H2O, is popular at the restaurant, Riese insists that he prefers his customers to have a choice, which is why the 43-page, leather-bound booklet features waters familiar (Fiji, Perrier) and unknown (Iskelde, Vichy Catalan).
“It’s all about taste for me. Taste and options.” And most people, Riese suggests, are looking “to try something different.”