From mid-February to mid-March, here are the standout cocktails and new menus I’ve been tasting around the Bay Area.
1. Chino’s BK or KS
Where to start with the incomparable Danny Louie’s 5 new drinks at Chino? He’s rolling out these new cocktails ($11-$12) over the next two weeks, his first big menu change since Chino opened. In a winning move, Louie has named each cocktail after his bartending team, going by their initials. Plus: there are new boozy Jell-O shots on the menu mixing sloe gin with fizzy powder (more here). All 5 are worthwhile and cover a wide spectrum of the palate with intriguing ingredients from dashi to white miso.
But forced to narrow down, I’d name two: the BK (named after bartender Brett Katsuyama) is like a classic gimlet but showing off shiso, that aromatic Japanese herb in the mint family. Louie has infused gin with fresh shiso, then mixed it with matcha green tea and lime. Perfection. A visual beauty, KS (named after bartender Kirsty Short) goes down easy, like a breezy island vacation for the sophisticated palate. Denizen white rum, coconut, banana and OJ are combined with Louie’s fresh Vitamix-ed parsley purée and Amontillado sherry. Though lush and tropical, the drink is far from sweet, with a striking, dry finish, thanks to the sherry. It’s the ideal beach-y drink for those who hate the concept.
2. Benjamin Cooper‘s Hummingbirds, Salt & Smoke or Uptown Fizz
Again, tough to choose only one drink from the talented and gracious dynamic duo of Brian Felley and Mo Hodges. In December, 398, an inviting new Union Square restaurant opened (and Brian and Mo created their drink menu as well) and as of March 5, Benjamin Cooper opened upstairs, hidden from the bustle outside through a discreet door on Mason St. The low ceiling space is inviting, candlelit and set to tunes from Patsy Cline to classic rock. Daily changing oysters ($2.50) are on offer, as are rotating cocktails ($12 each) so expect ingredients and drinks to change.
After trying the entire initial menu (my Zagat feature article on that here), it’s a tough call between the floral-smoky Hummingbirds, an all-too-easy-to-down cocktail featuring Capurro Pisco with a splash of aged mezcal, honey, lime and house guava syrup with a spritz of atomized orange flower/blood orange water. Or there’s the light, refreshing-yet-complex Uptown Fizz, mixing Broker’s Gin, Herbsaint (anise liquor), soda, lime and egg white with a rice wine vinegar-based fennel and cucumber shrub, garnished with ribbons of compressed fennel and pickled cucumber.
On the spirituous side, I’m digging the Salt & Smoke cocktail where Ardbeg‘s peatiness shines, balanced by dry Fino sherry, Benedictine, bitters and a house salted orange-chili oil in unctuous, large drops on the drink’s surface that pop with heat as you sip.
3. RX Bar’s Bartell
Trocadero Club, an intimate schnaps bar (a concept which I’ve long hoped for but with limited access to/exportation — and the high cost of — the best schnaps in Austria, is not fully possible), turned into Rx, an amaro-focused bar, at the end of 2014. Rx is heavy on the herbaceous and bitter Italian liqueurs many of us love so. Grouped in welcome categories like Mood Stabilizers and Stress Relievers, the cocktails ($10) often (but don’t only) feature amaro and are pleasantly bracing or refreshing by turns. I particularly like the Bartell, a combination of rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Cynar Amaro for a lush bitterness and St. George NoLa Coffee Liqueur imparting complex, earthy elegance.
At 1760, Christopher Longoria continues to turn out cocktails that best show off seasonal produce and the bounty of Northern California. A more recent cocktail offering of note is the vegetal refreshment of Celery & Chartreuse ($13), green with celery and complex with herbs of Green Chartreuse. The spirit base is genever, with nuance from Maldon sea salt, dry/white vermouth, lime and egg white.
Proprietor/chef Michael Mauschbaugh’s new French-Californian concept Sous Beurre Kitchen is one of the truly notable new neighborhood restaurants with an admirable and forward-thinking fair-wage program (after recently experiencing Japan, a tipless society with the best service — bar none — in the world, I wish even a fraction of that was possible in our far less respectful society).
Though it’s all about the international wine list from GM/wine director Oscar Davila (formerly at La Mar Cebicheria) — there is no hard liquor license here — Brandon Presbury, who you might remember behind the drinks at Bartlett Hall and Lazy Bear, created a short-but-sweet, low-proof cocktail list (mostly $11) with gratifying and simple drinks, like a Rose Spritz of Lillet Rose, sparking wine and soda. But it’s the deceptively named Cilantro Mojito ($11) that brings something unusual to the list, combining Tempus Fugit‘s bittersweet Kina L’Aero d’Or with fresh guava juice, lime and cilantro. It may sound disparate, but it’s an intriguing combination, refreshing and all-too-easy to drink.
At Mourad Lahlou’s elegant new downtown restaurant, Mourad, cocktails ($13) are straightforward but elegant, created by Christ Aivaliotis and Troy Bayless of Wizard Oil Co. and the new Hawker Fare and Holy Mountain. Though straightforward, the drinks are well crafted and pleasing, whether On the Spot (rye whiskey, Nocino – aka walnut liqueur, Manzanilla sherry and Triple Sec orange liqueur) for the rich, nutty, bracing side of things, or — my favorite — a lovely Capa Gibson, a twist on a classic Gibson cocktail, mixing Sipsmith Gin, French (dry/white) vermouth and Breckenridge bitters with the savory pop of a pickled onion garnish.
7. Amoura’s California Soul
At brand new, worth-a-drive to South San Francisco Amoura, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fare recalls the likes of Ottolenghi in London with its bright, fresh, modern approach. Better yet, it’s got the biggest selection of arak I’ve seen in the world (not counting the Middle East) with 45 bottles and counting of the traditional, Middle Eastern anise-based liquor. More on standout dishes and additional cocktails here.
This is thanks to GM and beverage director, Malcolm Brownson, whose drinks I enjoyed at The Commissary in SF. In addition to the arak and a menu of California beers and wines from countries like Lebanon, Croatia and Greece, Brownson’s cocktails reflect a spectrum of flavor — and are a killer $8-9 each. I tried a number of cocktails and found the happiest pairing with Amoura’s food in California Soul ($8), a soft, floral and herb-laden with Bombay Sapphire gin, Greenbar Grand Poppy organic liqueur, lemon, egg white and parsley.
8. Tony’s Pizza Napoletana’s Le Adorable
Elmer Mejicanos oversees all of pizza master Tony Gemignani’s restaurants (Tony’s Pizza Napoletana to Capo’s). Recently at Tony’s Pizza over the incomparable Jersey Tomato Pie and Sausage & Stout pizza, I ordered the delightful Le Adorable ($11), a bright mix of blanco (unaged) tequila, Green Chartreuse, celery seeds and basil foam. Working just well during the day as it does at night, the cocktail is green, vegetal, frothy, fun and refreshing.