Chef powerhouse Charles Phan’s New Orleans-influenced Southern food and bourbon bar duo opened mid-March with similar menus focused on New Orleans-style bar snacks and menus run by the ever-talented Erik Adkins, who oversees cocktail bars at every Phan restaurant.
Both are already destination bars in terms of quality and setting and Hard Water is fast becoming one of the great American whiskey collections in the world.
HARD WATER, Embarcadero (Pier 3, Ste. 3-102, 415-392-3021)
Hard Water is a sleek beauty of a bar designed by Olle Lundberg. The high-ceiling room is centered by dramatic marble-top horseshoe bar, no tables and seating along the walls. Though right on the water, the view isn’t waterside but of the passing bustle of the Embarcadero.
Boiled peanuts, cornmeal-crusted alligator ($12), and a delightful fried veggie snack of crispy milk-braised celery hearts ($12) typify bar food available, alongside entrees like braised rabbit and buttermilk dumplings in sage ($21) or okra etouffee ($17) over popcorn rice.
The shining star here, however, is the American whiskies strikingly lined against a glowing white wall. Adkins and crew journeyed to Kentucky to choose their own house barrels of 9 and 10 year old Willett Bourbon (a highlight of my Kentucky distillery visits this March). House whiskey, Weller 7 year, is used in ubiquitous classics like an Old Fashioned. The rarities on offer will thrill an American whiskey aficionado, like 2002 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, flights of the entire Van Winkle line, and even a few bottles of the put of production, very rare A.J. Hirsch 16 year and 20 year bourbons.
The bar is in excellent hands managed by Joel Baker who has been crafting fine cocktails since the early days of Bourbon & Branch, while the menu keeps it clean and simple with no more than 6-8 cocktails, mainly focused on classics with an occasional twist, like a version of a Whiskey Smash Adkins was experimenting with called a Trailer Smash with smoked maple syrup.
SOUTH at SFJAZZ, Hayes Valley (201 Franklin St. at Fell, 415-539-3905)
For an avid jazz fan such as myself, it’s been a thrill to see the country’s first fully dedicated jazz hall akin to a classical symphony hall open in San Francisco this spring. Already attending a few concerts, I’m delighted to find SFJazz’s house café, South at SFJazz, a welcome, glass-walled space that feels like a community hangout for jazz fans with SF-quality food and drink.
Similarities exist between South and Hard Water’s menu, but the casual South at SFJazz menu also offers charcuterie platters with crostini, Creole mustard and celery root rèmoulade ($14), a simple field greens and pickled sweet red onion salad ($10) elevated by peanut vinaigrette, cheese grits ($6), or mini Muffaletta sandwiches ($6).
As at Hard Water, the bar is already another destination drinking spot with bar talent like Erik Ellestad and Ken Furusawa. The cocktail menu ($10) is again compiled by Erik Adkins, with Nola nods in name and style in drinks like The Battle of New Orleans (Buffalo Trace Bourbon, gum syrup, dashes of absinthe, Peychaud’s and orange bitters) or the Tchoupitoulas Street Guzzle (El Dorado 3 year rum, lime, ginger, Peychaud’s bitters).
Horse Thief Cocktail (Hayman’s Old Tom gin, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, absinthe) makes a lovely, clean aperitif with a bitter herbaceousness, while a classic Brandy Milk Punch is my kind of dessert: Germain Robin brandy, Barbancourt 8 year rum, Straus organic milk, and fresh nutmeg grated on top. During opening days, Adkins told me he hopes to add fun drinks like a boozy NY egg cream (brilliant idea) using bourbon or rum, Stumptown Coffee Liqueur, orgeat, cream and soda.
The wine list is no slouch with offerings like a local Sonoma wine I’ve been seeing pop up on a lot of menus lately: Vaughn Duffy Pinot Noir Rose, a dry, mineral, balanced partner to starters like crispy, meaty boudin balls ($9), cornmeal fried oysters ($9) or comforting black-eyed pea succotash ($7).
Staff are sensitive to timing so South is ideal for a pre-show bite and drink.