From mid-December to mid-January, here are the 10 standout cocktails and new menus Ive been tasting around the Bay Area.
1 & 2. Bear Vs. Bull’s (at Alamo Drafthouse) Surf Club Mangareva & Great Silence
Isaac Shumway (who formerly made the revamped Tosca Café worth visiting for his drinks) has worked his magic at brand new Alamo Drafthouse bar, Bear Vs. Bull, serving cocktails I’ve long dreamed of drinking at the movies but never really thought would be an option (unless I bring them myself).
The theater itself is bad-ass, state-of-the-art in terms of sound and screen but nodding to classic movie houses in look and feel with comfy seating, showing quirky second-run films alongside first-run movies. But locals can hit the bar any time 2pm-2am daily by entering the theater and entering the doorway between the fighting bull and bear. The bar exhibits a cool 70s-meets-old-movie-house vibe, with retro black bar chairs and dim, red lighting casting a seductive glow.
Besides 28 beers on tap and thoughtful wines, all from California, the cocktails ($12 for the main menu, $15 for the frozen and blended section) offer one treat after another. Its hard to resist the decadent frozen and blended section, especially when spirits like El Dorado 12 year rum are decadently used in the Banana Cow, blended with banana milk, grenadine, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and fresh lime. There are also cocktails on draft, including the Far Eastern Nitro Gimlet, a classic gimlet of Martin Millers Westbourne Strength Gin and housemade lime cordial, that sings on draft and goes down all too easy.
There are numerous highlights on the menu, like the Surf Club Mangareva, which looks and drinks like a tropical cocktail but actually features St. George Apple brandy (a special house barrel) as the base, mixed with honey, coconut-washed Cointreau and lime over cracked ice. Great Silence is another joy, smoky with mezcal and subtly bitter with Campari, tart with lime and balanced by orgeat and grapefruit peel.
3 & 4. Maven’s The Bond Girl and Oaxacan Shake
Bar manager Kate Bolton kept Maven going strong as a cocktail destination (with great food, too) in the Lower Haight since it opened in 2012. But new bar manager Tim Hagney worked with Bolton at Maven the last two years and comes from some of Boston’s best bars prior to that. Taking over late fall, the transition has been seamless as he features elegant drinks that continue Maven’s tradition of pairing well with food.
Tasting through a few of his cocktails, there are numerous standouts, though I particularly loved the complexity of The Bond Girl ($12), featuring Ransom Old Tom Gin and aquavit (Scandinavian caraway-based clear spirit), with the intrigue of cooked tarragon and Riesling syrup and a spritz of Islay Scotch. The cocktail plays clean and light, with the Riesling giving it a wine-like elegance, yet it is bracing with a whisper of that peaty Scotch.
It’s tough resisting the Oaxacan Shake ($12) for dessert (or any time), however. Smoky mezcal and earthy, Taza Oaxacan stone ground chocolate, balanced by milk, chipotle chiles and carbonated soda, tastes like a return to my favorite region in Mexico: Oaxaca.
5. Harvest Tables (St. Helena – Napa) French Margarita
Up in Napa, Harvest Table lead bartender Joel Pfeifle is working wonders on the low proof front (stay tuned for more on his cocktails once the liquor license kicks in more on the restaurant’s food here). I was glad to hear the French Margarita ($14) has already been so popular, that its going to stay as is: sans tequila. It’s an expertly-balanced combination of Noilly Prat dry vermouth, Imbue Petal & Thorn vermouth from Oregon, lime and Clement Cane Sirop (from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, hence the French in the drink name), with a not too heavy-handed rim of dehydrated serrano chile-dusted black Hawaiian sea salt. The margarita, though complex and sophisticated, is a delight to drink, almost seductive and easy. Though Ill never lose love for tequila, thanks to the thought behind this recipe, this excellent drink sure doesnt need it.
6 & 7. The Mina Test Kitchen: Little Italy Tommy Devito & Vinny Gambini
Mina Test Kitchen is an enchanting new concept on a quiet block between the Marina and Cow Hollow where every season, the restaurant changes theme and menu, not unlike Next in Chicago.
The current Little Italy theme (the second since opening in August 2015), pulls from chef Adam Sobels Sicilian roots, and calls to my Sicilian heritage and Jersey upbringing, with red and white checkered tablecloths, a delightful soundtrack playing Louis Prima and Ella Fitzgerald, and heartwarming-yet-elegant pastas and courses (a steal at $49 per person, excluding tax, gratuity and beverages).
GM Rafael Vazquez has crafted cocktail goodness without a liquor license in the three $9 cocktails currently on offer I look forward to seeing what he will craft for the next menu. For Little Italy, each cocktail is named after Joe Pesci characters in his movies, from Nicky Santoro to tart, frothy Tommy Devito: Villa Locatelli Pinot Grigio, Tempus Fugit Barolo Chinato sweet vermouth, Dolin dry vermouth, lime, mint, egg white with lime zest grated on top.
I was pleasantly surprised by all three cocktails, but especially Vinny Gambini, giving Cocchi Americano aperitif a splash of Prosecco, served tall, seamlessly melding with blood orange sorbet, tomato and basil for a garden-fresh drink that is more complex than I expected, still refreshing and not at all like the sparkling wine/Prosecco-forward drink I expected.
8. La Urbana’s Vampiro
A recent dinner return to La Urbana was unexpectedly better than ever on the food front (more on that next issue), while the cocktails remain worthwhile accompaniments to the food.
The Vampiro cocktail has been on the menu awhile, combining Don Julio blanco tequila with ginger syrup and fresh lemon juice, then tableside, a vial of “hugo de vampiro,” a traditional Mexican juice made with beets, celery, orange and carrots, is poured over the tall drink, weaving through it dramatically like vivid blood.
The drink is vegetal, even invigoratingly healthy-tasting and thirst-quenching, as lush as it looks.
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9. Volta’s Holiday in Normandy
Twice since December I’ve dine at Volta from Perbacco and barbacco restaurateurs Umberto Gibin and chef Staffan Terje. In soft opening mode the second half of December, they officially opened January 6th with a modern European brasserie ethos in a sunny, sleek space, showcasing Terjes Scandinavian heritage (Sweden specifically) and his twists on classic French dishes.
Now with cocktails ($12 each) in play, Im pleased to find them well-balanced, more interesting than they read on the menu, playing especially well with the Scandinavian dishes, as with Volta!, a bright orange mix of Linie Aquavit, carrot juice, honey syrup and lemon, or the almost Tiki-esque play of Punsch Punsch, showcasing Batavia Arrack and Kronan Punsch (a Swedish Punsch) with pineapple gum syrup. My initial menu favorite, however, is the Holiday in Normandy, with a base of Lecompte Calvados (French apple brandy) subtly combined with Spirit Works Sloe Gin, lime and Mugolio pine cone bud syrup to tart, lush, delicately herbaceaous effect.
10. NINEBARK’s Panache Indochine
NINEBARK is such an exciting addition to Napa and NorCal at large, with whole package effect in service and drink menus as well as chef Matthew Lightners visionary dishes. On the cocktail front, Panache Indochine ($12.50) shines in the beer cocktail category, deftly weaving IPA beer and gin with whole pressed lemon, ginger and kaffir lime. It comes of light and breezy, with whispers of hops, citrus and ginger and aromatics from a star anise pod garnish