NOVELA, SoMa (662 Mission St. between New Montgomery and Annie Streets, 415-896-6500)
Enter lounge-like Novela (“novel” in Spanish), a new book themed bar and lounge in SoMa, and you are swept into an elegant-yet-comfortable respite in a space designed by Jacek Ostoya (who designed nearby Harlot). Black and white colors represent ink and paper in dramatic floor tile, gold accents and lighting evoke gold leaf books, while actual books line the walls organized not in stuffy library mode but in bright color-coordination.
Pass by the card catalog host stand and note dramatic chandeliers encased in birdcages and orbs, literary-themed art of beloved literary characters like Old Major from Animal Farm or Moby Dick. Presiding over the proceedings in the back lounge is the image of Hemingway, the patron saint, if you will, of Novela.
The house punch is Hemmingways Code Hero Punch, referring to a common archetypal Hemingway character, exhibiting stoic, honor-driven qualities. This punch is bracing and bright with rye and Irish whiskies, a smoky touch of Laphroig 10 year Scotch, Pimms No. 1, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, Earl Grey tea, lemon and fresh nutmeg grated on top.
Bartending brilliance is behind a punch driven menu unlike any in the country thus far. Novelas GM is Alex Smith (formerly bar manager at Honor Kitchen & Cocktails, Gitane) who created the drink menu with Kate Bolton (currently bar manager at Maven). They’ve assembled a talented bartending team, like lead Christina Cabrera and Dillon Lockwood, both of whom have won cocktail competitions I’ve judged and who are quite gifted behind the bar.
Sure, many bars serve punch bowls or a cup of a punch special for the day, but Bolton and Smith have created a forward-thinking punch on tap program. A fancy tap system connects to barrels in the basement storing the Code Hero punch and five seasonal, rotating punches, both classics and original recipes. One can order a flight of three tasting cups of punch ($14) or by the full glass ($10). Two flights and you can taste all six featured at any given time. Not to fear: there are also pitchers ($45) to order with 6-8 friends.
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Alongside creating artful, historic drinks, Novela’s objective is to make them without fussiness, easy to drink from comfy couches lining the wall or at tables to the left of the long bar. Cocktails ($10-12) are named after literary characters like Atticus Finch, Daisy Buchanan, Jay Gatsby, Santiago. The latter, named after the beloved fisherman of The Old Man and the Sea, exhibits a salted caramel-esque quality in its blend of Fortaleza blanco tequila, soft smoke of mezcal, Araku rum coffee liqueur, herbal notes of Yellow Chartreuse, a pinch of salt, and orange bitters infused with habanero and Thai bird chilies.
Where the Daisy Buchanan (Ford’s Gin, Galliano, Meletti amaro, orgeat almond syrup, soda, lemon, egg white) is layered, soft yet memorable, the Sherlock Holmes (pisco, Laird’s apple brandy, Zucca amaro, Birch beer, lime) is bright and playful, the pronounced notes of Birch beer (akin to root beer) bringing back all kinds of childhood memories.
The menu plays all sides of this spectrum: playful, refreshing to complex-yet-approachable… and all with Smith and Bolton’s expert balance. One more case in point: the crowd-pleasing Huckleberry Finn (El Dorado 8 year rum, lemon, grapefruit marmalade, Fever Tree tonic) goes down all too easy, while the three ingredient Atticus Finch (Old Fitzgerald bourbon, Earl Grey honey, balsamic bitters) unfolds, despite its simplicity with earthy, herbal notes from the honey, brown sugar sweetness, and balsamic balance from the bitters (a mixture of Angostura bitters and balsamic vinegar).
With all things Gatsby hot (again) thanks to the film, this lustrous lounge feels like its taking a cue from the 1920s era of decadence as it does from 1800s punch recipes.
One neednt be a literary buff to appreciate well-made drinks and an attractive setting to drink them in, but those who are will find every design element and drink name blissfully geeky.