From mid-September to mid-October, here are the 10 standout cocktails and new menus Ive been tasting around the Bay Area and it’s quite a season for stellar cocktails. I had a tough time calling out the best overall this month but specifically from a few of these menus where there were a number of stars.
Mourad’s Curry & Milk
Ever-talented chef Mourad Lahlou has been “bringing it” with his exceptional California-meets-Moroccan high end cuisine since Mourad opened in March. And recently hiring Anthony Parks recently as bar manager was a smart move. Now the cocktails ($13 each) are likewise a destination in their own right at the long, wrap-around bar.
To choose a favorite from a menu full of standouts is a challenge, but if forced, I’ll first call out the creamy-yet-light joys of Curry & Milk. Think a classic Ramos Gin Fizz re-imagined in Thailand by way of the Middle East. Parks mixes gin, lime, salted pistachio syrup, basil and Mourad’s Azizas curry tincture in a base of housemade Thai coconut lychee milk steeped with ginger and lime zest with tart-lush results. Genius. And freaking delicious.
Bon Marche’s Discreet Charm and Love at Sea
Already transported to Paris whenever I’m at the chic new Bon Marche (see dish #7 of my top dishes here), the talented Eric Quilty (previously at Smokestack) has crafted a cocktail menu ($12 each) that is a draw in and of itself, in addition to the excellent French brasserie dishes, raw bar, wine list and soon to release beers, brewed on premises. Blessedly, many of the cocktails are aperitif in spirit, which means lighter alcohol, elegant, easy to drink.
Again, choosing a favorite from the initial menu took some consideration. I go with two: Love at Sea combines the dry, herbal layers of Sutton Cellars Vermouth with lush carrot and walnut-infused Campari tempered by Benedictine and a whisper of Pernod Absinthe. Alternately, Discreet Charm pulled me in with flavor profiles I adore the funk of aged rhum agricole and the fizzy refreshment of sparkling pear cider. The drink happily tastes of both, with a touch of sesame-infused honey and lemon.
Oddjob’s Mexican Street Dog and Funny Game
Oddjob’s Joey Picchi (who also mans the menu-less, hidden back room bar, SRO) has done it again with his just-launched fall cocktail menu, covering a broad range of flavors and style. After tasting through the whole menu, the ones that most stick me are Funny Game ($14) yes, again, a vodka cocktail, which Picchi can work magic with despite the basic (often non-flavor) flavor profile (as attributed to him in my recent Liquor.com vodka article). With Ketel One vodka as the base, tart cherry juice is the star in this rosy-red drink, given nuance from burnt rosebud, lavender honey, marjoram and lemon.
Alternately, Mexican Street Dog ($14) is meant to mimic a smoky ashtray and though that might sound disgusting, it is far from it. Mezcal, the fortified aperitif wine Bonal Gentiane Quina, rattle chili (aka cascabel chilies from Mexico) and lemon meet grit in a charcoal-adobe chili salt rim covering the side of the glass. Despite the boldness of the drink, magic comes from just the right amount of rose geranium infused in the mezcal. Not enough to make it grandma’s house floral but enough to add intrigue, like walking through a rose garden in Mexico.
Coco Frio’s Namesake Cocktail
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In a typically humble space in the Mission, chef Manny Torres Gimenez of the delightful Guam gem Prubechu and steak destination The Palace, just opened Coco Frio, a nod to his home country of Venezuela specifically its Caribbean coast and Isla (island) Margarita. What surprises in a space that evokes old school Mission District are bar manager Bradley Plymale’s tropical escape cocktails.
This is the first of Chef Mannys restaurants to have a full liquor license and Plymale turns out a balanced house sangria alongside Hipster Coladas ($10 Cacique rum, crème de cacao, coconut crème, house pineapple juice and mango puree) and the ubiquitous drink of Argentina, Fernet and Coke ($10). But it’s hard to resist the signature Coco Frio ($15), a drink for two served in a fresh coconut. It’s bracing with rum and coconut rum intermingling with coconut water and lime as a tribute to a traditional island drink from Manny’s native Venezuela. It goes down all too easy and fresh, transporting island breezes straight through the low-key Mission space.
Burritt Room + Tavern’s Strawberry Molasses Bottled Cocktail
Bar manager Josh Trabulsi just launched a bottled cocktail section on October 6th in his always-strong cocktail menu at Burritt Room + Tavern. Dubbed “Cocktails for Two” ($35), it’s generously-sized bottle (which could work for 3 people) showcasing chef-driven ingredients in partnership with the kitchen.
I love the smoky-peaty BBQ Corn (Port Charlotte Peated Scotch, Barolo Chinato, grilled heirloom corn) but am struck by the exceptional use of strawberry (often too much/sweet for me in a cocktail) in Strawberry Molasses, the secret being house strawberry rosé vermouth made with bartender Rhys Alvarado. It’s subtle with summery strawberry and a dry vermouth profile just what is needed to balance out Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum and Leopold Brother’s bitter-sweet Aperitivo. It’s poured into a wine glass and goes down elegant paired with food or as a pre-dinner aperitif.
Oro’s Barbary & Hearst
Oro just opened mid-September in Mint Plaza. As expected from Jason Fox of Commonwealth who I’ve long considered one of our top San Francisco chefs the food is vibrant and exciting right out of the gate. So are the cocktails from bar manager Randy Mariani, who you may recall behind the bar at Laszlo. There a number of highlights on the initial menu and the signature across his menu already is balance and subtlety, which is always the most important mark of a great cocktail.
Barbary & Hearst ($14) exemplifies this with its bourbon base, ginger, Angostura bitters and a balanced house strawberry-Meyer lemon shrub. There is that bracing vinegar confirmation that it is a shrub but it’s understated, offering structure with the allure of strawberry and Meyer lemon urging me to ask, “What is that?!” when I took my first sip. It’s complex and lovely with enough acidity to work with food.
Cafe Du Nord’s Armory & Arsenal and Martini Du Nord
After a few visits, I’ve tried all the cocktails ($12 each) on the Bon Vivants/Morgan Schick’s menu at the newly revamped Cafe Du Nord, having highlighted the Stern Grove cocktail in Zagat and here in The Perfect Spot.
With the whole menu in context, my two favorites end up being the most understated “on paper.” Armory & Arsenal is a lively mix of Perry’s Tot Gin and lemon recalls a Gin Sour but it’s pine nut rather than an expected nut-based syrup like orgeat that makes the drink sing, adding appealing, nutty layers.
Alternately, the Martini du Nord is Ford’s Gin with oyster shell-infused Noilly Prat dry vermouth and an onion garnish (the same as a Gibson cocktail). It’s savory and clean but also briny and bright, already feeling like the Du Nord signature drink and, yes, it’s beautiful with raw oysters (or try their delicious broiled oysters Kirkpatrick laced with bacon, hot sauce and Parmesan cheese).