From mid-April to mid-May, here are the standout cocktails and new menus I’ve been tasting around the Bay Area.
1. Alembic’s SF Confidential
A newcomer on the menu at the excellent-for-a-decade Alembic is bar manager Larry Piaskowy’s new SF Confidential ($13), on the chalkboard. What makes it special is the harmony and balance of the ingredients and its easy drinkability. Brand new Fernet Francisco (a softer, subtle Fernet made locally) marries well with Bombay Sapphire gin, honey, a touch of orange juice and orange and cardamom bitters for nuanced spice and invigorating freshness.
2. Aatxe’s Lady of the Mountain
Aatxe (pronounced “aah-CHAY”) opened April 17th on the dramatically transformed ground floor of the Swedish American Hall and Cafe du Nord (the latter, one of SF’s legendary live-music venues, is set to reopen in a month or so, with new decor and menus). Ne Timeas Restaurant Group (Flour + Water, Central Kitchen, etc.) and the Bon Vivants (Trick Dog) are behind this Basque/Spanish restaurant with chef Ryan Pollnow at the helm (my Zagat First Look article on the food and drink here).
They nail the relaxed pace of Spanish tapas with an excellent drink menu (crucial to tapas) across the board. Wine Directors Sam Bogue and Geno Tomko created a dynamic wine list focused solely on small Spanish producers plus a range of sherry and dry Basque ciders to boot. Being the Bon Vivants, you know the cocktails are winners.
Aperitivos ($10) and cocktails ($12 or a $43 carafe for four) do not disappoint, showcasing sherry but also sporting a fantastic flavor-profile graph of gins (under the headings of Floral, Herbal, Soft & Fruity, Classic and Big Guys) from Aatxe’s extensive collection with a range of tonics to pair with, in keeping with Spain’s most popular drink, the G&T, all run by bar manager Tommy Quimby. My initial favorite is one of the aperitivos: Lady of the Mountain ($10), a drink that is clean yet character-rich with SF’s own Junipero Gin from Anchor Distilling and the nutty notes of Alvear Fino en Rama sherry, brightened by a housemade preserved lemon cordial.
3. Lolo’s 2 Birds 1 Stone
Last fall, I broke a Zagat First Look of Mexican gem, Loló‘s, first fully fleshed-out cocktail menu — named after Mexican playing cards — from talented bartenders David Gallardo and Leon Vasquez. The menu was marked by vibrant flavors and colors, in keeping with Lolo’s whimsical, one-of-a-kind decor. Vasquez and Gallardo have just launched their second cocktail menu, this time also working with staff bartender Luis Ramos to create 15 new cocktails ($11 each) as fascinating as that last round — all listed on a Mexican lottery sheet. Here is my Zagat article on the new menu.
I tasted through all newcomers and though it’s hard to choose a favorite from the broad range of flavors and styles, 2 Birds 1 Stone might be the most fascinating, with a base of San Juan Del Rio Mezcal and Wahaka Mezcal, fresh carrot juice, habanero bitters, parsley and celery bitters making it a green, vegetal — almost healthy — tasting drink, while a kaffir lime salt rim ups the savory ante.
4. Lolo’s Ramos Gin Shrubb
But I especially love Luis Ramos’ play off both his name and the name of a classic Ramos Gin Fizz with his Ramos Gin Shrubb. The tart, bitter herbaceousness of Tanqueray Gin, Campari and lime sing when brightened by a house watermelon basil shrub. Make way for summer.
5. Octavia’s Vermouth Menu
Intimate Frances has been a favorite of restaurant-goers and the national press since it opened in 2009. Now chef Melissa Perello and crew have opened a long-anticipated second restaurant, Octavia, in a space that housed a long line of restaurant greats from the Meetinghouse, to the original Quince and most recently Baker & Banker. My Zagat First Look feature here.
Beverage director and sommelier great, Paul Einbund (formerly of Coi), created a wine list that journeys from California to France, grouped in cheeky categories like “White Wine: Crisp Clean Mouth-Cleansing Delight!” or “Red Wine: Big Smooth & Anything But Whimpy.” I’m particularly delighted by a winning list of vermouths with helpful tasting notes offered straight, on the rocks with bitters and a sliver of orange or with tonic, bitters and orange. Try Matthiasson‘s (from Napa) vibrant orange wine, gorgeous on the rocks or Imbue’s complex Petal & Thorn from Oregon.