Tuesday, February 28, 2012

San Francisco: The Sips

Alistair was put to good use on my trip to San Francisco, keeping ahold of my memories when I was unable. For the most part, my logs are fairly complete, though I do think a few slipped through the cracks, as it were. Allow me to preface the following details by just saying that for a lush like me, San Francisco is a great place to visit!
Bar Agricole
After having a couple gin tonics on the plane, I arrived in relatively good spirits, but I was eager to have a proper drink. Thankfully, my friend had anticipated as much and took me to Bar Agricole after dinner. Despite the large crowds around the corner on that Thursday night, Bar Agricole itself was fairly quiet and empty, and we easily found a couple seats at the bar in front of Craig Lane. I couldn't resist the opportunity to start the night with a cocktail featuring agricole rhum, which seemed to me altogether too apropos. What better way than a Ti' Punch with cane syrup and Neisson élevé sous bois. Being accustomed to the Clio ti' punches with sugarcane juice, this version was decidedly drier and certainly put the rhum in the spotlight.

I stayed in the realm of classic and straight spirits for the rest of the evening, getting a Zazarac next. Far more complex than the more commonly known Sazerac, this cocktail combines Russell's Reserve rye, La Favorite Vieux rhum, Dolin sweet vermouth, and a melange of dashed "bitters," which included absinthe, maraschino, hibiscus bitters, and aromatic bitters. I certainly enjoyed the relatively quiet atmosphere at Bar Agricole, and it gave me the chance to really chat with the men behind the bar. Over the course of my conversation with Craig, the topic of brandies came up, specifically the brandy industry in California. Sipping on a brandy sling made logical sense as we continued to discuss the topic.

Craig was then kind enough to let us sample a few brandies:
  • Marian Farmhouse Espirito - biodynamic from the San Joaquin Valley
    • Honey, vanilla, baking spices, caraway, thinner
  • Osocalis Rare Alambic - pinot noir grape base from the Santa Cruz area
    • More delicately spiced, pears, caramel, richer
  • Cognac Dudognon - Grande Champagne Premier Cru
    • Grape must, apples, roasted peanuts, pralines, tangerines? so soft
  • Château de Pellehaut - 10 year Armagnac-Ténarèze
    • Very grape-y, cinnamon toast, a rougher texture
His hospitality is really what made the experience a delightful one, and I immediately felt at home. Craig even offered to arrange a pickup of some of the Marian Farmhouse brandy, which was not available retail. If I were to move out to the Bay Area, I can see this being one of my regular bars.

The next evening we decided to explore a few of the bars in the Tenderloin, just down the hill from my friend's apartment on Nob Hill. First up was Mr. Lew's Win-Win Bar after finding Rye too busy. It was a Friday night, so it shouldn't surprise me that every bar was pretty full, but at least at Mr. Lew's you could see the bartender. I started the night with a Tom Tom Club with gin, Campari, grapefruit, and soda. The combination of Campari and grapefruit is a natural one, and the cocktail served its purpose as a cooling spritzer. Next, I got a Last Word variant that simple substituted mezcal in place of gin. The idea was a good one, but the ratios could have been better balanced in this case.
Bourbon & Branch
We continued our barhop by going up the street to the Bourbon & Branch. Unfortunately, we didn't plan ahead and were unable to get into the main bar, so had to settle for the library room. Fighting through the crowd to get to a bar clearly in the weeds, I got a simple Bobby Burns with scotch, sweet vermouth, and Bénédictine. I would like to think that the drink quality is better overall on a less busy night, but I have been to plenty of high volume bars before where quality does not suffer (Eastern Standard when it is five deep at the bar comes to mind). As it would take far too long to get another drink, we moved on to Cantina. To my surprise, the bartender seemed baffled by a number of fairly simple questions. The number of spirits on the shelf indicated variety, but little of this was put to use. I got a Pisco Punch off the menu that was mediocre at best, and I had the general impression that the barman was not that interested in cocktails. Suffice it to say, with the plethora of good bars in San Francisco, I can't see myself going back.

We took a break from cocktails the next day with our day trip up to Healdsburg and the Russian River Valley for some wine tasting. After lunch, we walked a couple blocks down to the tasting room for Williamson Wines. An old friend from summer camp suggested it to me as she grew up in Sebastopol and was friends with family. Since our day trip coincided with a Wine Road event, the tasting room was pretty busy.
  • Fizz - sparkling wine
    Would match nicely with chevre
  • Joy - Sauvignon Blanc 2010
  • Amourette - Chardonnay 2009
    Pineapple and custard
  • Rapture - Pinot Noir 2010
    Cherry, cracked pepper, dusty
  • Sultry - Cabernet Franc 2008
    Black currant, touch of cedar, velvet, good structure
  • Inspire - Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
    Overripe cherries, cheerios (?), tighter structure 
  • Tango - Malbec 2007
    Really quite soft compared to Argentine malbecs
  • Enchant - Trinity 2009
    Fantastic nose, candied figs, lemon bars
  • Elate - Grange cuvée 2009
    Strawberry, barbecue sauce, caramel
  • Amour - Reserve Merlot 2004
    Sweeter and very silky
Papapietro Perry
The next stop was one recommended by an acquaintance in Boston who is in the wine industry: Papapietro Perry. Again, the Wine Road folks were swarming all over the place, but we managed to squeeze into a spot at the bar. This was a small, sort of garagiste winemaking operation. The owners were hobbyists originally, and they continue to buy grapes from various sources without owning the vineyards themselves.
  • Pinot Noir, Russian River, 2008
    Oranges, really juicy, something savory, tomatoes?
  • Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, 2008
    Plums, touch of black pepper, currants, raspberries, satiny
  • Pinot Noir, Elsbree Vineyard, Russian River, 2008
    Strawberry candies, sweeter, really juicy cherries
  • Pinot Noir, Elsbree, 2007
    Grapefruit, orange zest, a hint of caramel
  • Zinfandel, Pauline's, Dry Creek, 2008
    Peaches, passionfruit, tangerines, creamsicle, so much candy
  • Pinot Noir, Russian River, 777 clones, 2008
    Oak smoke, pimenton, preserved lemons, cherries
  • Zinfandel, Elsbree, 2008
    Big fruit, grilled peaches, cooked fruits
Our last destination before heading back to San Francisco was Geyser Peak, because a friend works there. However, by the time we got there, he had left for the day as it was close to closing time, but we managed to sneak in a few tastes.
  • Gewurztraminer, Mendocino, 2010
    Roses, lychee, lemon
  • Block Sauvignon Blanc, River Ranches, 2010
    Green bell pepper, a touch of lime
  • Walking Tree Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
    (with 8% shiraz; aged in 10% French oak and 90% American oak)
    Ginger snaps on nose; blackberries, velvety
  • Ascentia Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
    Cherry, tobacco, leather, soy sauce, very structured
  • Bin 9 Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
    Nose is amazing, red bean paste, dark fruits, a bit of cucumber, structure could be aged more
  • Shiraz Port 2006
    Nose of dried dates and aged shoyu; dates, figs, a touch tannic for port
  • Late Harvest Riesling 2008
    Honey, lemon, melon, nectarines, lychees
Trouble Waters at 15 Romolo
Later that evening, we decided to check out a couple bars in North Beach after dinner. We went first to 15 Romolo, the entrance to which was up an alley around the corner from a couple strip clubs. A friend used to frequent the place, but he hadn't been in awhile. Again, Saturday nights are typically among the times I avoid when going out given the hoi polloi, but my short time there necessitated braving the crowds. Unfortunately, it seemed like there was some kind of event at the bar, a huge crowd of very drunk individuals. We somehow managed to nick a couple seat at the corner of the bar, which allowed us to order a couple rounds of drinks. The Troubled Waters with Oxley gin, Campari, lemon juice, Angostura, and a vanilla+cardamom syrup was refreshing enough, continuing my apparent habit of starting the post prandial tippling with a Campari and citrus combination. It did not seem to me that the Oxley gin was really necessary in this drink, and something with a bit more backbone could have been better. Second was a Buffalo Nickel with bourbon, Root liqueur, ginger syrup, coffee tincture, and bitters. My impression of the drink was dominated by the sassafras from the Root, with very little recollection of any influence from the coffee tincture. By this point, however, a group of sloppy gentlemen had positioned themselves next to us and after a couple spilling incidents, we decided to take our leave. Also, the bartenders seemed to be physically scrambling to and fro down the length of the bar. My overall impression was that this bar could be nice on a quieter night, but at least, at the time we chose to visit, the quality to execute was simply getting overrun.
Comstock Saloon
Next, we moved down the street a couple blocks to Comstock Saloon. While the rest of my group found a booth, there was a single seat at the bar that I quickly took for myself. Compared to the relatively revelrous atmosphere at the previous establishment, the saloon was lively in a more restrained sense. The décor certainly took a vintage bent with many charming touches, such as the antique ceiling fans. I asked for a drink featuring genever and received a cocktail containing the requested genever along with Carpano Antica, cherry Heering, and absinthe. The drink remained nameless, but as I sipped on it, the idea that flitted about my mind was "Blood of Breda." The Heering and vermouth combination makes me think of the blood portion of the classic Blood and Sand, while both the Heering and the genever has Dutch roots. For one reason or another, Velázquez's masterpiece, The Surrender of Breda, entered my mind, which depicted the surrender of the city of Breda to General Spinola who commanded the Spanish besiegers. The city was one that changed hands many times over the course of the Eighty Years War, and the Spinola siege was also depicted by Arturo Pérez-Reverte in El sol de Breda as one book in the Alatriste series. The added fact that Spinola was an Italian from Genoa, the southerly neighbor of Savoy, from where Carpano is derived, made the name rather relevant in my mind. A brief detour into history aside, my second drink contained rye, Cynar, Punt e Mes, and "tinctures." Again unnamed, it was a nice and bitter digestivo to end the evening.
The following night, I spent half the night hanging out with a friend at the dive bar where he works. After sipping a scotch-style single malt from St. George spirits in nearby Alameda, we decided to attempt a Mr. Bali Hai with the ingredients on hand. The results were.. ahem, interesting. For more serious drinking, I adjourned to Alembic, a bar I had first heard about through Erik Ellestad's Savoy Stomp as playing host to Savoy nights. Recalling that a friend had told me some time ago that her "new" favorite drink was the Vice Grip, I had to try one before I forgot. Made with Araku coffee liqueur, brachetto d'acqui, and a porter foam, it would have made a great dessert drink on which to end the night, rather than begin it. Deciding I wanted something stiffer to follow, I next ordered a Vow of Silence containing rye, Bénédictine, crème de griotte (cherry brandy), and bitters. The name of the cocktail I assume refers to the Order of St. Benedict after which the liqueur was named, even though it isn't actually produced by monks. However, the name did get me thinking about a liqueur actually produced by monks, Chartreuse, leading me to request bartender's choice featuring this spirit. To my slight disappointment, the drink I got in return was another Last Word, popular as they seem to be. By this point, the bar was finally emptying out, which allowed me to sit briefly at the bar and strike up a conversation with Danny Louie. For my last cocktail of the night, he made me an añejo old-fashioned with Partida añejo tequila. Although a straightforward drink, the bartender's technical skill shone through, and it ended up being a rather contemplative way to end the evening.
Smuggler's Cove
On Monday evening, we thought it finally possible to get a seat at Smuggler's Cove, having driven by on a couple occasions earlier that weekend and seeing a line out the door. Intuition proved correct, and we quickly found seats in front of Steven Liles. Tiki master Randy Wong had been unequivocal in reminding me that I had to check this place out while in town, so I certainly had high expectation. I started with a Dead Reckoning, which I thought I had seen before in Beachbum Berry's Remixed as a creation of bar owner Martin Cate. There was no mistaking the drink for tiki, but a few subtle layers of complexity made it stand out. I continued with a couple more classic tiki drinks: the Hell in the Pacific and the Jet Pilot. The Jet Pilot being one of Steven's recommendations, I further pushed him to make me something of his own designed. He replied with a Bulkhead featuring a house blend of El Dorado rum, apricot liqueur, oloroso sherry, falernum, and orange bitters. Lacking any juice, it was moving into the realm of late evening drinks, and as I have weak knees for anything containing sherry these days, this drink hit the spot. I wanted to end the evening on one of the excellent sipping rums among the collection for which the bar has a reputation. Steven picked the Plantation Guadaloupe 1998 Reserve for me, which is produced by Pierre Ferrand, the cognac house. I noted the presence of passionfruit, a bit of lychee, other juicy fruits, and a noticeable hogo. Smuggler's Cove lived up to expectations, and it certainly made me wish that Boston had a dedicated Tiki/rum bar.
Jet Pilot in foreground at Smuggler's Cove
On my way to the airport, we decided to stop by Heaven's Dog, as I had been informed via Twitter that Erik Ellestad would be tending bar that night. I must admit a unabashed admiration for Erik, and his blog detailing his attempt to recreate every drink in the weighty Savoy Cocktail Book was one of the first resources I had discovered when I first entered the world of cocktails. Therefore, much credit must go to him for reeling me in and laying the foundations of what is current one of my chief passions. When we arrived, there was a bit of an after-work crowd, but we had no problems finding seats in front of Erik. Putting ourselves more or less entirely in his hands, the first drink I received was a King Cole, a Savoy cocktail, appropriately. It is essentially an old-fashioned with fernet instead of bitters. Next, Erik made a Brooklyn variant that he had tinkered with to replace amer picon with Cardamaro. At this point, Trevor Easter, another bartender arrived behind the bar. He contributed his own twist of the Brooklyn by making a Wall Street, which involved Old Bardstown bourbon, Punt e Mes, Nocino della Cristina, Luxardo maraschino, mole bitters, and allspice. What was especially interesting to me was the use of nocino for a decidedly more nutty element compared to the usual Brooklyn's more citrus/bitter bent. At this point, continuing with the nocino thought, I also introduced Erik and Trevor to the In Vida Veritas that Misty Kalkofen of Cambridge's Brick and Mortar made me a couple weeks prior. For my last drink in San Francisco, Trevor took a rather experimental tack, making a cognac-based Sazerac, but one topped with a whipped cream flavored with absinthe instead of the traditional rinse. Despite being a little rushed to make my flight, it was certainly time well spent!
Sazerac with absinthe whipped cream at Heaven's Dog
Thanks to all my friends who showed me around the city, as well as all the gracious bartenders who were so accommodating and put up with my banter. I cannot wait to make the trip west again soon, provided my wallet and liver have sufficiently recovered, of course. Cin cin!

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