NOVELA, SoMa (662 Mission St. between New Montgomery and Annie Streets, 415-896-6500)
Watch out: Lead Bartenders Christina Cabrera and Suzanne Miller’s new menu for 2013’s literary drinking lounge newcomer, Novela, signifies a cocktail duo to watch. While Alex Smith continues on as General Manager and talented Dillon Lockwood (formerly of Ice Cream Bar) oversees the unique punch on draft menu (glass $10, flight of any 3 $14, pitcher $45), Miller and Cabrera have taken over the cocktail menu… and it’s packed with beauties.
Grouped by refreshing and juicy or stiff and spirituous cocktails ($11-13), their thoughtful menu covers a wide range, offering a little something for all, continuing in the literature character themes. Most importantly, drinks exhibit refined balance, a harmony of flavors and the base spirit that sets apart expert menus from countless wannabes.
I’m immediately charmed by Mary Poppins, a refreshing, on-the-rocks cocktail exuding fall cheer. The drink mixes apple brandy (“aged apple spirit”), Maurin Quina (wild cherries, quinine, bitter almonds in fortified white wine, blended with cherry brandy, lemon and cherry juices), ginger liqueur, clove bitters, and lemon, then spritzed with soda and garnished with a rosy sliver of red apple skin.
Romeo and Juliet cocktails exhibit two varied, equally striking angles. Juliet Capulet is a Macchu Pisco-based drink, featuring the lush bitter and sweet of Kina L’Avion, chamomile tea, prickly pear, lemon and Old Fashioned bitters. Served up, it’s nuanced, complex and aromatic. Contrast the Romeo Montague: equally balanced, here rye whiskey is backed by pleasing root beer-spice notes from Root liqueur, blended with coriander syrup, Angostura bitters and allspice.
In Alexander Supertramp, aromatic, herbaceous Dolin Genepi liqueur and No. 209 Gin undergird thyme slow-steeped in simple syrup with fresh cranberries added, counter-balanced by lime.
A touch of the fantastically musty Smith & Cross rum adds character to the Ichabod Crane, a Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum-based cocktail illuminated with winter spice from pür Spiced Blood Orange liqueur, touched by tonic water and lemon.
Another rum angle? Dorian Gray (as a literature buff, how I dig these drink names!) is aged rum, Cointreau, lime and Amer Bigallet liqueur served tall, topped with house Early Grey cream soda and frothy with egg white. It goes down easy, like a favorite cream soda of childhood all grown up.
From the latest punch on draft menu, a collection of punches pumped from barrels below the bar feature a range of spirits. Standouts from Lockw0od’s punches include Black, a mix of black rums, apple brandy, vanilla, molasses, lemon and for sultry smokiness… lapsang souchong tea.
Want smoky, bright and spicy? The tequila punch mixes tequila with mezcal, prickly pear, jalapeno and lime. I love the new Milk Punch, employing classic technique to end up with a smooth blend of aged rum, Cognac, milk, allspice and lemon.
Though there are still plenty of mobbed hours at Novela (beware Friday and Saturday nights or of after work crowds), a quiet hour here is a true joy in the log and book-lined, color-coordinated, chic, expansive space.
Just over half a year old, Cabrera and Miller’s new menu signifies a growing depth for the bar, and reasons for anticipation of its future.