Virginia Miller

Appetite: Highlights and bites from SF Chefs


Here are a few highlights in photos of another SF Chefs, San Francisco’s food, wine, spirits “classic” (aka week-long festival in tented Union Square), a whirlwind of excellent bites, drinks, wine, demos, and parties.

There are high points every year, but no party has yet been as memorable as this year’s Late Night Cocktail Adventure/Campari after party on Saturday, August 4. The Redwood Room at the Clift Hotel was as magical as it was meant to be outfitted for the South Seas by way of Milan with Afrolicious providing the addictive, live reggae-funk soundtrack of the evening we couldn’t stop dancing to. Drinks were high-caliber, including a brilliant rum and passion fruit punch by Steven Liles (Smuggler’s Cove), and rum, coconut milk, and kaffir lime beauty by Brooke Arthur (formerly of Wo Hing, now House Spirits’ Director of On Premise Outreach and Education).

All photos by Virginia Miller. Subscribe to her newsletter at

Appetite: Delicious new cuisine and cocktail reads


Fermentation and distillation, hot plats and sugar cones, sweet creams and brokeasses … These eight books were released this spring, and are among the best of what has landed on my desk this year:

by Huber Germain-Robin

Anyone who knows US craft distilling knows Hubert Germain-Robin, one of the pioneers in the American craft distilling movement. He was making world class, French-style brandies (he is French, after all) since the early ’80s right here in Northern California at Germain-Robin, which he co-founded, an example to generations after him of what true, elegant brandies should be. As he states in the introduction, “When I came to California in 1981, I realized the unbelievable potential of the New World, with such diversity in grape varietals, microclimates, and less demanding restrictions than there are in France.”

He just released his first book, Traditional Distillation, and, as the inside cover states, it’s an ode to the “passion, art and poetry” behind distillation. I’ve seen a few (there’s really not many) technical distillation books that get into still types or cutting the “heads and tails” of a distillation batch. Germain-Robin’s book (the first in a series of books on brandy production) is a thoughtful essay, covering the technical but doing so in an artistic, poetic way. The book boasts an Old World, classic look, delving into the philosophy behind distillation as much as process. A romantic sensibility pervades this book and passion speaks from the pages – there is even poetry and classic art included, doing justice to the reason people like myself (one who rarely had a drink in younger years), fell in love with the artisan craft and history behind distillation. It’s a short, succinct book, but a unique one. Hubert captures the beauty of the craft, giving concrete advice for would-be distillers everywhere, ensuring that his incredible knowledge and legacy is shared with many more.


Just released June 12, The Art of Fermentation (with forward by none other than Michael Pollan) is sure to be the gold standard on fermentation. Katz published Wild Fermentation in 2003, at the time dubbed the “fermenting bible” by Newsweek. As the press release states for his new, elegantly understated book, he now has an additional decade of experimentation behind this one. The first book of its kind, it contains recipes, yes, but ultimately is a 400+ page textbook on all things fermentation, its history and processes, and DIY steps in a range of categories from meads, wines and ciders to meat, fish and eggs. There’s plenty of study material for food and drink folk alike, whether an extensive section on sour tonic beverages (from kombucha to kvass) or details on fermenting beans, seeds and nuts. Katz’ book makes me want to start fermenting my own potato beer immediately.

TAKE AWAY by Jean-Francois Mallet

Take Away is a lovely photo book. Released in the US in April (first released in France in 2009), this beauty of a book is a virtual escape around the world, immersing the reader in street foodscapes and dishes from Shanghai to the Ukraine. Be warned: perusing this book is difficult on an empty stomach. And for those of us who thrive on travel and exploring every nook and cranny of a city or region, Mallet’s approachable, street savvy photography also induces travel lust.

CINDY’S SUPPER CLUB: Meals from Around the World to Share with Family and Friends by Cindy Pawlcyn

Cindy Pawlcyn is one of California’s trailblazing chefs, aiding Napa in becoming a dining destination when opening Mustard’s Grill nearly 30 years ago along with subsequent restaurants, like Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. She’s written a few cookbooks, but I particularly enjoy her newest, out this May: Cindy’s Supper Club. A book based on favorite international recipes prepared in her supper clubs with friends, the recipes span the globe from Russia and Hungary to Lebanon, Peru, Korea. Cindy’s intros to each selected country and recipe feel comfortable, like a chef chatting about their travels and technique as you sit with them in their kitchen. Though recipes tend toward the heartwarming, soulful kind, many list more than ten ingredients and aren’t exactly simple. But for cooks ready to try something new yet not fussy, adventure lies within these pages, whether Flemish meatloaf in spicy tomato gravy or white gazpacho (made of white bread, milk, almonds, garlic, olive oil, sherry vinegar) with peeled white grapes.

PLATS DU JOUR: the girl and the fig’s Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country by Sondra Bernstein

Just see if you don’t long to move to Sonoma after spending time with Plats du Jour, a large, photographic book capturing Sonoma’s vibrancy. With a range of recipes from Sondra Bernstein’s beloved girl and the fig duo and Italian restaurant, Estate, the book journeys well beyond recipes. Sectioned by seasons, there’s highlights on wine, cheese, and produce, pairing possibilities, origins of foods, cocktail hour menus, and seasonal menus to recreate at home. Interspersed throughout are drink recipes, such as the perennially popular lavender mojito from girl and the fig!home/mainPage. Photos and stories of trailblazing Sonoma farmers keep the reader rooted to a sense of place. Though the variety of info might initially seem disparate, it weaves into an inspiring whole urging one to seek out ingredients from their own farmers markets and entertain or cook inspired by the invigorating spirit behind Bernstein’s book and the artisans of Sonoma.

by Kris Hoogerhyde, Anne Walker, and Dabney Gough

Bi-Rite’s ice cream essentially needs no introduction. For those in San Francisco, it’s already an institution. For foodies nationally, the beloved market’s ice cream has been written up in most national food magazines, among the best ice creameries in the country. Thankfully this spring, founders Anne Walker and Kris Hoogerhyde, along with writer Dabney Gough, have released a book, Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones, sharing many of Bi-Rite’s lauded recipes (yes, their legendary salted caramel ice cream, which spawned dozens of imitations around the nation, is included), and many more besides, including sweets far beyond ice cream, from cookies to pie. The book is grouped in ingredient-themed sections like chocolate, coffee, vanilla, citrus or nuts. I take to the herbs and spices section with recipes like basil or peach leaf ice cream, picante galia melon pops, and my favorite Bi-Rite flavor of recent years, Ricanelas (cinnamon and Snickerdoodles). Having already tried a couple of the recipes, they are easy to follow, and, of course, delicious.


Sunset has cornered DIY gardening and cooking for decades in their magazine and cookbooks, with recipes and step-by-step gardening instructions. Their latest book, Edible Garden Cookbook, just out this spring, is another winner with accessible recipes, growing-harvesting-storage-cooking tips and varietal lists on a wealth of vegetables (from peas to cucumbers), herbs (mint to thyme), and fruits (melons to stone fruit). Creative recipe twists enliven everyday dishes like an icebox salad layered in a casserole dish or kabocha squash filled with Arabic lamb stew.

(Review by Andi Berlin)

Chasing the elusive paycheck is a tiresome routine, but at least it’ll taste good with the new BrokeAss Gourmet cookbook from San Franciscan Gabi Moskowitz (not to be confused with Broke-Ass Stuart.) The former kindergarten teacher-turned-caterer-turned-Internet-celebrity founded the website BrokeAss Gourmet after seeing friends laid off from tech jobs and eating junk. Taking a conversational, gal-pal tone, Gabi guides us through the essentials of running an eclectic kitchen – from stocking a full pantry to boosting cheap proteins with flavorful sauces. Recipes like vegetable lasagna with wonton wrappers demonstrate her craftiness. The book is high on kitsch: rather than photographs, illustrations of animals stand beside cheeky anecdotes (“Because bacon really does make everything better.”) Moskowitz paints a vivid Bay Area landscape, adapting several recipes from ethnic joints and buzzy spots like Bakesale Betty. And if she relies too heavily on sriracha sauce, forgive her. When you’ve got to shove off to work early morning after morning, it’s often the call of the rooster that gets you going.

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APPETITE The world has become hooked on New Nordic cuisine in recent years, thanks to Copenhagen’s Noma, often referred to as the world’s best restaurant for three years straight, sparking a global interest in all things Scandinavian and a new generation of chefs.

Before this renaissance I dined at New York City’s Aquavit, back in the days when Marcus Samuelsson was still its chef. I reveled in Samuelsson’s clean dishes and shots of the restaurant’s eponymous liquor infused with horseradish or dill. As a fan of pickled herring, cured fish, and the like, I’ve long been drawn to Germanic and Eastern European cuisines. Perhaps my love for Scandinavian food was a forgone conclusion. I dream of taking a trip to the region to eat lutefisk (air-dried whitefish), and breathe in crisp air during long hours of summer daylight.

But then Pläj (pronounced “play”) opened in SF in June, tucked behind the Inn at the Opera and within sight of City Hall. I dined there during its opening week, and have returned multiple times since. Granted, what you’re about to read is an early take. The newborn restaurant needs time to come into its own.

Yes, Pläj is a hotel dining room, and off-putting smooth jazz and clubby Euro tunes often intrude, altering the mood of a meal. But bright orange accents and fireside seating warm up the blessedly peaceful space, and service is warmly welcoming, staff attentive and gracious.

Pläj isn’t so much New Nordic or Scandinavian-style minimalist. It’s more reminiscent of Aquavit: traditional dishes interpreted with a fresh regional spin, Scandinavia by way of Northern California. Chef-owner Roberth Sundell hails from Stockholm but has been in the Bay Area long enough to be well-acquainted with local ingredients, putting them to good use in Nordic-influenced dishes.

Working my way through every dish on the initial menu, I was happiest in the Fjord-seafood section that highlighted the best parts of Scandinavian cooking. A creative “taste of herring” trio ($12) brought fish served à la ginger-smoked soy, saffron tomato, and with coriander, chile, and lime on rye crackers. Rustic bread arrived at the table, artfully served in a paper bag.

Krondill (crown dill) poached lobster is the seafood of choice for Sundell’s skagen, which is typically toast topped with a mixture that often includes poached shrimp, mayo, caviar. Beautifully reinterpreted here, lobster swam in a foam akin to bisque that was also made of lobster, with horseradish, avocado, and a hint of chili, all of it accented by white fish caviar.

Norwegian salmon belly gravlax ($9) proved to be buttery, thin slices of cured salmon over lemon crème fraîche, spicy grain mustard, and dill purée. Only the Alaskan halibut ($21) felt closer to typical: the fish came seared in herbs and partnered with shaved asparagus in a chanterelle emulsion. In a similar, though more traditional vein of meat and veg entree was the tender, porter-braised ox cheek ($22) topped with a mountain of fried onions. Other than the vibrant red, whipped beetroot the ox rested atop, the dish was well-executed, if not particularly memorable. Next time I’d go for traditional, comforting Swedish meatballs ($15), which were juicy in their pan gravy and bed of mashed potatoes, served with lingonberries and pickled cucumber that added a much-desired contrast of sweet and vinegar.

On the Hagen (“pasture”) or vegetarian section of the menu, burrata ($12) was pleasant, but its presentation was similar to countless burrata plates everywhere — heirloom tomato and greens. At least it wasn’t beets, which are obvious, overdone burrata companions. Barely-there aquavit in the vinaigrette could have set it apart if it was kicked up a few intensity levels. I found a subtle smearing of beetroot under a salad ($14) piled with Jerusalem artichoke, watercress, hazelnuts, and thinly-shaved layers of Västerbotten cheese and black summer truffles more interesting. Equally intriguing were the potato dumpling kumla ($12), dense and doughy dumplings in brown butter sauce that were savory with onion ragout and, once again, lingonberries.

Desserts ($8) are certainly pleasing — particularly the rhubarb crumble pie — but none left a major impression. Cocktails ($11) thankfully utilize Scandinavian spirits like vodka and genever (Dutch gin, often aged in wood so as akin to whiskey as gin.) Spirit-cocktail aficionados may crave more depth in a menu that leans toward sweet, subtle, and light cocktails. The Midsommar is promising: Pernod absinthe that delivers herbaceous notes to a Flor de Cana light rum, lime, and dill simple syrup. It was garden-fresh, a fine companion to seafood.

An all-Scandinavian beer list is spot-on, with pours like HaandBryggeriet Norwegian harvest ale ($14) or cheaper, refreshing Einstock Icelandic white and pale ales ($6 each.)

Pläj is a welcome newcomer to the SF dining scene — one I hope thrives as it dares to bring what we lack. What a delight it would be to form a “best of” list of Scandinavian eateries here, as we can with so many cuisines.


333 Fulton, SF

(415) 294-8925

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Appetite: Under the stars in Guerneville


Amid towering redwoods, summer heat, and parties along the Russian River is the small town of Guerneville, one of Sonoma’s most unique towns, with its vibrant gay community, laid back river culture, and haunting redwood state park. On a recent idyllic summer weekend, barbecues and live, twanging bands added color to the bustling main street.

Foodies have a destination cafe-restaurant in Guerneville’s Big Bottom Market, which was opened last summer by co-owners Michael Volpatt and Crista Luedtke (the latter owns neighboring boon hotel + spa and boon eat + drink restaurant). Big Bottom draws crowds for breakfasts, lunch, and for anytime cups of my favorite Sonoma County coffee, Flying Goat‘s special blend for the cafe. The cafe’s breakfast biscuits ($3-9) are stuffed with a changing array of goodies like bananas, peanut butter, strawberries and white chocolate, or ham, Swiss, and dill pickle (loved the mustard in the latter but lamentably had to hunt for the ham.) Offerings change daily, but the day’s special is easily ascertained — each biscuit is adorned with a bit of its filling.

Big Bottom Cafe’s superlatively-stuffed biscuits. Guardian photo by Virginia Miller

My recent weekend in Guerneville coincided with the launch of Big Bottom’s dinner service (Thursdays-Saturdays only, 5-9pm). Executive chef Tricia Brown cooked at one of my all-time favorite restaurants, Gramercy Tavern in NYC, moving from Brooklyn to Sonoma for a lifestyle change. With that pedigree, it’s no surprise that she’s cooking an elevated style of cafe food. In the rustic, touch-of-farmhouse shop lined with wood floors and wine and gourmet food items for purchase, dinner means comfort food, like a Moroccan chicken tagine ($18), or apricot-studded couscous laden with Castelvetrano olives and toasted almonds, or green-chile-cheddar turkey meatloaf ($17) over chipotle mashed sweet potatoes.

Unexpectedly, sandwiches ruled: pinot pulled pork covered in spicy BBQ sauce ($16) and garlic aioli smeared on a toasted brioche, both with sides of bourbon-bacon baked beans and cilantro-lime coleslaw ($4 individually or 3 for $11.) There was also a sandwich special of wild salmon that was softly pink, almost medium-rare, topped with slaw on buttery brioche. Both were made with care, blessedly robust in flavors and texture. Chilled cucumber soup spiked with mint and yogurt ($6) was a refreshing summer starter. Only a large pile of dry crostini felt out of place on a mezze platter ($9) of roasted red pepper hummus, lentil walnut pate, cucumber red onion yogurt salad, and olives.

Small, local winemakers are featured on the wine menu, including a few of my go-tos like Thomas George Estates and Unti. It also features different winemakers like Sonoma’s Paul Mathew Vineyards, whose vintages are made by winemaker Mat Gustafson. I sampled all three of Gustafon’s featured wines, like a mineral 2010 Weeks Vineyard Chardonnay that held slight citrus notes from its stainless steel aging, rounded out by a hint of oak. I found the 2011 Knight’s Valley Valdigue most interesting (and the most affordable at $7 glass/$33 bottle.) It’s a chilled wine more akin to a Lambrusco or other chilled red with dry, strawberry notes, earthy yet bright.

Certainly when in Guerneville, one can enjoy the retreat-like (though dated) Applewood Inn, but Big Bottom Market hits at a lower price point, though its obviously more casual. For a sleepy small town in the redwoods, nestled between vineyards and ocean, the Market’s casual-gourmet approach feels appropriate.

End the night at Rio Nido Roadhouse dancing under the stars out back to live music (blues, classic rock, etc.) Were it not for the redwoods and that clean, crisp Sonoma air, the crusty older cowboys, families, and dive bar setting would be enough to convince you you’re in a small Texas town, embracing the warm summer night.

Big Bottom Market

16228 Main St., Guerneville

(707) 604-7295

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Korean commotion


APPETITE The nation’s on a kimchi kick. Truth be told, California has long been home to some of the country’s densest Asian populations, so here in the Bay Korean cuisine is at a crossroads — is it a staple? Exotic novelty? With the help of a few new openings, the answer may be shifting. Despite a smattering of Korean BBQ joints in SF and a concentrated Korean population in Oakland, it hasn’t been until the last few years that I’ve witnessed local Korean eateries offering much beyond barbecue.

But now, thanks to the forward-thinking fusion of Namu Gaji and home-cooked joys of To Hyang, Nan, Manna, and Aato, the Bay is getting a crack at more diverse Korean offerings. In Oakland, good times can be had at the “porno bar,” a.k.a. Dan Sung Sa (2775 Telegraph, Oakl. (510) 663-5927), so-called due to the Korean film posters lining its walls, though there’s actually nothing explicit to be seen. Its fried chicken, Korean beers, and comfortably dive-y atmosphere evoke an under-the-radar speakeasy vibe, reminiscent of long-timer Toyose (3814 Noriega, SF. (415) 731-0232), tucked away in a similarly relaxed spot in an Outer Sunset garage.

Here’s two stand-outs in a wave of openings that exemplify the gourmet fun of casual Korean snacking, both an ideal locales for cheap beers with good friends.


The Kim family has taken over what was once the Old Chelsea Fish and Chips space in the Tenderloin. Aria Korean American Snack Bar is a closet-sized eatery — still appropriately dingy for its bustling block, but the Kims have infused it with fresh life, greeting visitors with a smile and a record player stocked with Tom Jones and Sinatra LPs. Mom and Pop Kim run the place, though their son and his girlfriend have come up from LA to help them get going.

The family has a hit on its hands with the Korean fried chicken (nine pieces for $6.99-7.99, 16 pieces for $12.99-13.99). It feels like everyone is doing KFC these days, but these boneless, overgrown nuggets are special: crispy-tender and fried in cottonseed oil, with zero trans fat. Dip them into earthy-sweet spicy sauce and an addiction will be born. Mama’s acidic sweet-and-sour radishes are just the right accompaniment to clean the palate and perk up the taste buds.

There’s also an array of fried snacks from mixed veggies (carrots, sweet potato, zucchini, onion) to seaweed rolls packed with potato and glass noodles (eight pieces for $5.99). Hot and spicy rice cakes ($5.99) are another of mom’s recipes. They arrive blessedly chewy, sitting in — what else? — a spicy red sauce. The Kim family good cheer and authentic fried bites make this the kind of snack bar every neighborhood should be so lucky to have.

932 Larkin, SF. (415) 292-6914


Tucked away in a sunny courtyard off desolate West Oakland streets sits FuseBOX, a truly exciting haven for Asian fusion. Those looking to categorize its food could satisfy themselves by calling it Korean food served Japanese izakaya style, but the FuseBOX mashup goes above and beyond this simplification.

In the three months it’s been open, this cash-only respite created by Sunhui and Ellen Sebastian Chang offers daily robata specials ($1–$3). Granted, these are merely bites, but there’s real joy in sampling this range of grilled vegetables and meat.

From the spare, industrial interior sparsely dotted with tables to rice purified with binchotan, or Japanese white charcoal ($2), it’s clear this no typical Asian eatery. There is — of course! — KFC ($5), although here it is lightly fried, yielding spicy chicken more akin to buffalo wings than the aforementioned boneless chicken at Aria. Bento box-like “BAP sets” ($6-10) offer meat or veggies alongside rice and banchan or panchan (mini-dishes that often accompany Korean meals that could account for the name of these plates on the menu), which rotate daily. Spinach roots and French breakfast radish crowns are brined in mustard and nori, and sesame leaves are pickled in soy, white zucchini or green mango in vinegar. Kimchi comes in multiple forms, including versions made with bok choy and kale.

Robata specials are grilled on wood skewers. There’s okra and snap peas and tender chicken “oyster” cuts. The best bite of all? Bacon mochi ($2.50). The mochi is sticky, subtly savory, and gummy, satisfying on its own merit — until you reach the bacon and accompanying mustard seeds. I’d eat this fantastic bite for breakfast, dessert — basically any way at all. For bigger appetites, there’s sandwiches ($8) like a Tokyo po’ boy laden with fried chicken, red cabbage slaw, house mayo, and pickles.

To drink there’s a bracing, cool roasted corn tea ($1), chilled and nearly creamy with fresh corn flavor. Other drink options include Tang (yes, Tang!), house barrel-aged soju, and glasses from the neighbors, like Alameda’s Rock Wall Wines and beer on tap from Oakland’s Linden Street Brewery. FuseBOX is only open Wednesday through Friday, 11:30am—2:30pm, but promises that its dinner menu will soon be operational. As its hours expand, I’ve no doubt it will become even more crowded than its three-day-a-week lunches already are. There’s no place like it.

2311A Magnolia, Oakl. (510) 444-3100,

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FOOD AND DRINK It was another humid, sweltering year at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. The world’s biggest cocktail event drew thousands of attendees July 25-29 for a week of nonstop tastings, seminars, and parties in the great queen of the South.

Any reason to be in Nola is a good one and with the city overrun with some of the world’s best bartenders, brand ambassadors, writers, and distillers, it was as usual, one long party. Here’s a few highlights — read the rest online at


Though Tales’ Spirited Awards continue to be dominated by winners from Europe and New York , particularly London, this year San Francisco made a dent that still only hinted at our long-established cocktail culture. At Thursday night’s Bar Room Brawl, bars from six US cities fielded teams that served up special drink menus as brass bands blew. The winner of this showdown, and by extension, the tile of best cocktail bar in America? Our own Beretta. Ryan Fitzgerald, Jennifer Colliau, Enrique Sanchez, and a hard-working crew of SF bartenders ecstatically accepted a giant trophy.

Scott Baird, Josh Harris, Alex Straus of the Bon Vivants deservedly won the John Lermeyer award for good behavior at the Spirited Awards. It was a joy watching them be acknowledged for their humanitarian work. In addition to painting over 30 New Orleans charter school classrooms with a team of volunteers, the group threw its third annual Pig and Punch school fundraiser on Saturday in Washington Square Park. With delicious barbecue (whole hog, y’all), Don Julio and George Dickel punches, and a crowd of over 800 people, it raised over $21000, a shining example of how to have fun and give back at the same time.

With two of the four nominees for Spirited Awards’ best restaurant bar award being from SF (the other was the wonderful Bar Agricole), it was a delight to see the ever-talented Erik Adkins win for the Slanted Door. He’s done equally impressive work behind Heaven’s Dog. I wish more US bars would win awards at Tales — and that the list of those honored would be a little more up to date. Often, places are nominated that were great or established years ago. Though I adore the town and have been to all the bars that were nominated from London, I can’t help but notice that the US isn’t represented at its Cocktail Week. Why shouldn’t we reserve a platform to more specifically acknowledge the fantastic bars right here in the States?


Thank you to Suntory for what was my top highlight of Tales: an intimate, invite-only tasting room in a warehouse district loft. Down a candlelit hall stood a white room punctuated by glowing bar, decorative kimono on loan from a Paris museum, and mini-tables lined with vials of single barrel whiskies from the Suntory line for us to mix and pour over hand-cut ice.

Michael Mina corporate chefs Lincoln Carson and Gary Lamorte flew out to cook four exceptional bites. I’m still dreaming of the 76-degree sous vide egg strained through a siphon, so creamy served over vanilla brioche and bacon. Cool banana mochi on top of golden raisin puree elicited a long sigh of delight. The space’s zen-like peace and the camaraderie I found there with my fellow whiskey aficionados were spectacular, and the afternoon was made a landmark event by a bar stocked with Hakushu 25-year, Yamazaki 1984, Hibiki 30-year, and other extremely rare, unavailable in the US Japanese whiskies. While I would be hard pressed to chose a favorite, Yamazaki ’84 lingered on my palate long after I returned to the blinding heat outside.


Meeting with distillers and previewing unreleased spirits are key reasons I go to Tales, even if there wasn’t an overwhelming amount of new offerings in 2012. This year, I spent time with WhistlePig master distiller Dave Pickerell, who was also a Maker’s Mark master distiller for 14 years. Pickerell told me I was the very first to try his upcoming October Whistlepig release, TripleOne. This is a 111 proof rye versus the standard 100, aged 11 years in place of the typical 10. The bracing TripleOne doesn’t boast quite as long a finish as Whistlepig’s flagship rye, but it’s even more complex, surprisingly akin to applejack or Calvados at first sip, opening up into spicy rye body with citrus and chocolate notes. American whiskey fans, watch for this one.


You say amaros, but I say amari (short grammar lesson about the plural for amaro). The bottom line is amaro (Italian for “bitter”), the wide range of herbal liqueurs commonly sipped as after-dinner digestifs in Italy, has been hot for the past few years and only continues to get hotter. Though there are still countless amari not yet imported from Europe, big names like Fernet and Cynar have ushered bitter liqueurs into the mainstream. Amari popped up all over Tales, most notably in the fortified and aromatized wines tasting room highlighting port, sherry, etc. Not to mention some of the US’ best vermouths like SF’s Sutton Cellars and Imbue in Portland. The highlight of the tasting was Neil Kopplin pouring Imbue’s debut of brand new Petal & Thorn, a gorgeously bitter gentian liqueur using homegrown beets for color, alongside cinnamon and menthol.

On the Italian front, The Spirit of Italy threw a two-morning brunch hosted by Francesco Lafranconi and featuring seven producers: Amaro Lucano, Luxardo, Moccia, Nardini, Pallini, Toschi and Varnelli. Lafranconi’s cocktails stole the show, there was an addictive Amaro Lucano-bourbon milk punch and Zabov NOLA coffee. Zabov is essentially zabaglione (the Italian dessert of whipped egg yolks, sugar, sweet wine) in a bottle. It was a little sweet on its own but fascinating in texture and in the coffee cocktail. On the other end of the spectrum, Varnelli’s expensive ($52), uber-bitter Amaro Sibilla is a complex delight, unfolding with chestnuts, coffee, honey, and intense bitter notes. This one is not for the novice amaro drinker.


Kudos to Dave Schmier for Indie Spirits That Rock, a version of his Indy Spirits Expo here in San Francisco. Crowds thronged around small, independent spirits — methinks they need a bigger tasting room next year. I even discovered a few new spirits I had not tasted before, including West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler Spirits‘ (I’d had their Old Scout bourbon before) fascinating Barrel-Aged Gin, aromatic with orange marmalade, bitter subtleties, pine, cinnamon, and their Very Old Scout bourbon, earthy with oak, nuts, toast and butter. Few Spirits (from Evanston, IL) also offered an intriguing rye and bourbon, the former spicy, sweet, bracing, the latter smooth but not lacking in character. I look forward to revisiting each of these.


Besides Suntory’s sacred den of Japanese whiskey, the other haven from Tales madness and New Orleans’ Summer heat was Francis Ford Coppola’s French Quarter home. By invite only, we were merely given an address, entering a candlelit walkway into a classic New Orleans courtyard and hundred years’ old home with exposed brick walls, fireplaces, grand piano and jazz duo serenading us as we sipped Krug and Inglenook wines. I stopped in more than once, grateful for a peaceful gathering on comfy couches where I ran into friends from New York to Ireland.


Thanks to Portland’s House Spirits for the brilliant idea of a coffee bar — with booze, of course —  every morning at an art gallery across the street from the Tales’ home base of the Hotel Monteleone. Iced Stumptown Coffee perked us up on those slugglishly hot, post-party mornings. And if one must add House Spirits’ coffee liqueur or aquavit to the coffee, so be it.

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2012 TALES of the COCKTAIL Spirited Award Winners

Winners in bold

The John Lermeyer Award for Good Behavior

The Bon Vivants 

American Bartender of the Year

Eric Alperin

Charles Joly

Jeffrey Morganthaler

Joaquin Simo


Best American Brand Ambassador

Erick Castro

Elayne Duke

Jamie Gordon

Jim Ryan


Best American Cocktail Bar

Anvil Bar & Refuge – Houston, Texas

Clover Club – Brooklyn, New York

Columbia Room – Washington, District of Columbia

The Varnish – Los Angeles, California


Best Bar Mentor

Bridget Albert

Wayne Collins

Francesco Lafranconi

Steve Olson


Best High Volume Cocktail Bar

Beretta – San Francisco, California

Clover Club – Brooklyn, New York

Eastern Standard – Boston, Massachusetts

La Descarga – Los Angeles, California


Best Cocktail Writing, Non-Book


Time Out NY


Best Cocktail Writing

Gary Regan

Robert Simonson

David Wondrich

Naren Young


Best International Brand Ambassador

Jacob Briars

Ian Burrell

Claire Smith

Angus Winchester


Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book

The American Cocktail by the Editors of Imbibe

Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-all

Gaz Regan’s Annual Manual for Bartenders 2011

PDT Cocktail Book


Best New Product

Chairman’s Reserve Spiced Rum

Cognac Pierre Ferrand 1840 Formula

Lillet Rose

Perlini System


Best Restaurant Bar

Bar Agricole – San Francisco, California

Rivera – Los Angeles, California

Saxon + Parole – New York, New York

Slanted Door – San Francisco, California


International Bartender of the Year

Zdenek Kastanek

Alex Kratena

Sam Ross

Dushan Zaric


World’s Best Cocktail Bar

69 Colebrooke Row – London, United Kingdom

Black Pearl – Melbourne, Australia

The Connaught Bar – London, United Kingdom

The Varnish – Los Angeles, California


World’s Best Cocktail Menu

Black Pearl – Melbourne, Australia

Callooh Callay – London, United Kingdom

Clover Club – Brooklyn, New York

Mayahuel – Manhattan, New York


World’s Best Drinks Selection

Artesian Bar at The Langham – London, United Kingdom

Death & Co. – Manhattan, New York

Eau de Vie – Sydney, Australia

Salvatore Calabrese at The Playboy – London, United Kingdom


World’s Best Hotel Bar

Artesian Bar at The Langham – London, United Kingdom

Clive’s Classic Lounge – Victoria, British Columbia

Clyde Common – Portland, Oregon

The Zetter Townhouse – London, United Kingdom


World’s Best New Cocktail Bar

Aviary – Chicago, Illinois

Candelaria – Paris, France

Canon – Seattle, Washington

The Zetter Townhouse – London, United Kingdom


Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award

Gaz Regan 


Appetite: Southern taste adventures in Louisville, KY


Kentucky: land of bourbon, the Derby and Mint Juleps. I’m ever delighted to return to the South, although I’m connected to some areas more than others (ah, New Orleans, my love). I recently spent a week in Louisville, on the judging panel for ADI’s (American Distilling Institute) annual awards. It was an honor to judge with key spirits and cocktail industry folk, spending days tasting (blind, of course) through the latest in a broad range of small US craft spirits – winners here.

In my off time, I roamed Louisville, from downtown to Bardstown Road. Louisville is a small city, not exactly visually beautiful or dense like other US cities, but its distinctly Kentuckian treasures do unfold. The historic Brown Hotel was my home base, its player piano welcoming me with strains of Gershwin and old world elegance in the beautiful lobby.

I’m an American whiskey girl at heart (although I love all spirits), being in bourbon and rye’s epicenter is invigorating, even if I can find the region’s most rare, small batch spirits in my own city. A unique preview came in an early peek at Distilled Spirits Epicenter, shortly before it opened, essentially a distillery “for rent,” where would-be distillers have their visions crafted, try out test batches, or take classes to learn more about distilling. It was founded by David Defoe of Flavorman, a scientific flavor lab that creates sodas, juices and beverage products for numerous companies. My favorite feature is the upstairs apartment which they offer to guests using their facilities as they create a product: it’s an open, brick-walled apartment upstairs in the Flavorman building.

Here are highlights from my travels in food, cocktails, whiskey and unexpectedly the most incredible beer collection I’ve ever seen.

If you can find Sergio’s World of Beers (no, it’s not the dive bar next door), you will walk into an unmarked space and could wait 10 minutes for someone to even come out. I was immediately impressed by the selection of beers lining the dingy front room packed with boxes and glasses. Beer aficionados will freak out over the options available on tap. Numerous rotating beers range from Italian sours to a bourbon barrel rarity made by a guy down the street.

Sergio Ribenboim himself is an avid beer collector (read Imbibe magazine’s article about him last year). With one of the most exhaustive collections in the world, he leads tours of breweries around the globe. After the joys of the front room are uncovered, one realizes they haven’t seen anything. Stocking the halls and back rooms (not to mention Sergio’s home) are over 1000 beers for purchase from every region of the globe, including first editions of cult favorites and rarities, such as a Belgian beer, Smisje Calva Reserva, aged in Calvados barrels.

The humble shop is a beer lovers paradise, every unassuming foot of it. The Renaissance Man – the avid beer fan in my home – and I planned to stop in for 30 minutes but ended up staying over 3 hours. We chatted with Sergio and obsessed beer lovers who dropped in from all over the country, those who, like us, will make Sergio’s a must-stop whenever we’re in Kentucky.

To date, Harvest is my favorite Louisville restaurant. It’s the usual farm-to-table concept, long the standard where I live and more common in recent years around the country. The walls are covered with large black and white photos of Kentucky farmers who supply Harvest’s ingredients.

Here the concept invigorates local classics like the Hot Brown (see Brown Hotel’s English Grill below) in a Hot Brown pizza ($14), a brilliant twist on a local classic. Or burgoo ($16), a Southern stew laden with rabbit, pork and chicken, fresh with snow pea sprouts. Its one flaw was being far too salty so that the heartwarming bowl started to feel “one note” after a few bites.

After a starter of a pretzel bun dipped in addictive amber ale beer cheese sauce ($7) and solid cocktails utilizing house bitters, syrups and tinctures, not to mention engaging service and a manager walking the floor ensuring all of us were satisfied, I found Harvest a “whole package” kind of dining destination. No wonder they were nominated for a James Beard award this year for Best New Restaurant.

The Hot Brown ($22) is one of Kentucky’s signature dishes, created in 1926 at the Brown Hotel’s English Grill by chef Fred Schmidt. When bored with traditional ham and eggs, he opted for roasted turkey breast over toast points topped with bacon and tomatoes, then slathered it all in Mornay sauce (butter, milk, Parmesan, egg, cream). If that weren’t enough, it’s baked golden brown in Parmesan cheese. Brilliant. Eaten in its home base, the old world elegance of the English Grill, it’s every bit as decadent, gooey, rich, meaty and fabulous as it sounds.

Hands-down, the best bar of my visit to Louisville was Meat – and Jared was the best bartender. We lingered for hours, till 3am, watching thunderstorms pass, filling paper bags with their revolving turntable of free snacks, a genius addition of unending servings, including Trader Joe’s favorites from mustard pretzels to peanut butter stuffed pretzels.

Jared joked and flirted with customers from the oval bar at the center of a brick-walled space tucked away upstairs in the back of a building that once housed a butchery in the trendy Butchertown neighborhood. Butcher tools and meats hang in the entrance, while the dim, glowing room is a romantic space filled with couches and comfy nooks.

The menu states, “We love the Prohibition-era cocktail movement. We love Louisville.” Instead of exactly copying big city bars, their mission is to “serve authentic and inventive beverages with a distinctly Louisvillian sense of place.” They list recipes from favorite bartenders around the world alongside house creations (all $10), while Jared whips up some off-menu beauties, including an effervescent mix of Del Maguey mezcal with Moet Imperial champagne.

One of the most delightfully unique menu offerings is a Viking 75. The Nordic twist on a French 75 uses Taffel aquavit, Cynar, house sour mix, demarara syrup and lingonberry jam with Bott Geyl Cremant d’Alsace. Upscale tacky plays well in The Queen’s Tea: Pimm’s, Hendrick’s gin, Campari, Dewar’s Scotch, Chartreuse, lemon, and, yes, 7-Up.

Puerto Rican Wingman was another favorite: Ron Zacapa Solera and Bacardi rums blend with orange curacao and lime into a bright whole where house falernum adds nutty texture, coffee bitters an earthy kick, Abita root beer a punchy finish. Another winner? Hit the smoky side with The Smoke Monster: Ardbeg 10yr Scotch, Vya sweet vermouth, Grand Marnier, orange juice, grenadine, celery seed bitters.

Whatever you order, don’t miss Meat.

Hillbilly Tea is a funky, hipster version of Appalachia circa turn-of-the-century. In a gorgeous restored building, two levels of brick walls, rustic wood floors, ’70s rocking chairs, 1800s sewing machines, picnic tables and quilts set a comfortable tone for rounds of tea served on slices of a tree trunk. We sipped aromatic, herbal, mint-inflected Snap green tea ($3.75) and Sweet Smokey Mountain chai boiled with milk and sugar ($4.75) – a little sweet for me (we’re in the South, after all, where “sweet tea” means sweet). I found Twig ($3.75) most soothing: a nutty, toasted green tea.

Brunch is a fun affair, whether a skillet pancake ($8) lathered in Smokey Mountain chai butter and sorghum syrup, or white bean and sage fritters ($5). I particularly enjoyed pork and pone ($8), a mound of BBQ pulled pork on corn pone with garlic mayo, red cabbage chow chow, and choice of side – I opted for healthy braised greens. They serve a tasty biscuit ($3), even better with local honey and a dreamy house-cured bacon ($5). In the locally sourced foods vein with young, hip servers, Hillbilly Tea delivers substance alongside style.


Spacious, extensive Doc Crow’s is a historic, 1880′s downtown Louisville space, particularly charming in the cozy, middle booth section or open back room with wood floors and fireplaces. The menu is a fun range of some of my Southern favorites, heavy on BBQ and oysters, also offering Po Boys, fried green tomatoes, mac n’ cheese, fried catfish and gumbo. Not all of it is the best version possible, but cornmeal fried catfish with hush puppies ($9), for example is generously portioned and satisfying, as are slow-smoked, baby back ribs ($12 1/2 rib, $22 full rib).

Key Lime Pie ($6) is not as tart as my favorite renditions (still remembering Uncle Bubba’s outside Charleston), while seasoned pork rinds ($4) taste great with a boozy lemonade but aren’t comparable to SF’s own cult classic – the best chicharrones I’ve ever had from the South to Mexico – 4505 Meats‘ chicharrones. Overall, Doc Crow’s is a fine downtown choice for value, with large portions, heartwarming food, and a welcoming, all-day space.

The building alone draws one into Garage on Market: a restored gas station with two cars melded together on the front drive, and a picnic table area with astro turf-covered seating under strung white lights. Serving brick oven-cooked pizzas, like the Monte Cristo ($14 – smoked chicken, gouda, egg, sorghum, preserves) or on the sweet side, Nutella Pie ($12 – nutella, banana, cinnamon sugar, butter, syrup), the Garage offers a playful, casual menu and regional country hams.

Brunch is the likes of beignets, poached eggs and ham, with drinks like a Red Hot Bitter ($7): local Red Hot Roasters espresso, chocolate milk, Kahlua, Bailey’s, and chocolate bitters. The cocktail menu in general appeals to cocktail fans while keeping that same approachable, unfussy tone.


When it comes to Louisville, the restaurant and bar that almost always comes up is Proof on Main. Inside the 21c Hotel one is immediately impressed by its modern art museum. The dining room makes a statement with dramatic artwork and upholstered seats. But despite how long I’ve heard raves, disappointment set in immediately at the bar with a diffident, seemingly bored bartender who stood off to the side of the bar mixing drinks, only talking to servers vs. interacting with customers – and this was at the mellow hour of 5:30pm with a half empty bar.

The bartender acted as if he was doing us a favor serving an ok round of cocktails from a menu that in the end felt typical. For those of us who travel the world in search of the best food and drink, cocktails should stand on their own, yes, but service sets apart a menu that reads well from a destination-worthy bar. Ordering whiskey pours was the best way to go (we opted for Woodford Reserve’s rye duo), but in terms of the hundreds of top notch bars I’ve visited around the world, I wouldn’t return to Proof.

Once we moved to the dining room, service was friendly and gratifying, redeeming the experience. The food menu is a stimulating mix of modern creativity with Southern ingredients, but at high prices (starters are $8-21, entrees $18-34) I was disappointed in more than one dish, starting with a dry charred octopus ($15) with bagna cauda and lime.

Striped mullet ($27) sounded like a fishy/meaty melange of mussels, fennel, country ham, rutabaga, almonds, and smoked grapefruit but ultimately felt disjointed. The beloved Proof bison burger ($17), which more than half the restaurant seemed to order, piled high with Tillamook cheddar, smoked bacon, Jezebel sauce (a wonderful Southern mix of pineapple preserves, apple jelly, horseradish, mustard, black pepper), was cooked more medium than my medium rare request. I couldn’t help but recall the countless delectable gourmet burgers (whether bison or beef) I’ve had for under $15.

A standout dish was Bison marrow bones ($12), fatty and delectable, smartly paired with apple butter and frisee on toast. For cost to value/taste ratio, I’d recommend visiting the hotel’s museum, then heading on to Harvest or another locale for dinner and drinks.


A local chocolatier, Cellar Door Chocolates, produces crave-worthy sea salt peanut butter dark chocolate cups available at shops like The Wine Market on Bardstown Road. Buying a four-pack to sample, I promptly finished each one.


Rye had just opened in February when I was in Louisville on a hip stretch of Market Street. Young bartenders in a sleek space were looking up recipes in Jim Meehan’s PDT Cocktail Book, slowly crafting drinks requested by guests or on menu. At the time, they seemed not quote yet ready for “prime time”, but served decent standards like a Mezcal Mule or Dark & Stormy (with Ron Zacapa 23 rum), or tongue-in-cheek drinks like The Shit ($9): Plymouth gin, chile-lime syrup, Prosecco.

One of my drinking companions, a well-known distiller, requested a Whiskey Sour with egg white and Whistlepig 10 year Rye (which they pour at $19 a glass) – it was easily the best drink I had here, bright and refreshing. Just mentioned in Food & Wine, this bar should get progressively better as the staff gain a more seamless knowledge of the menu and what they want to offer to customers.

The Seelbach is a piece of Louisville history dating back nearly 100 years. A dated respite of a bar inside a hotel, it offers an impressive range of bourbons and ryes, including a couple you won’t find outside of Kentucky, like a special Seelbach bottling from 1983 of Rathskeller Rye: a true treat, vibrant and boozy at cask strength. 

With over 120 whiskies, Jockey Silks is a hotel bar offering a quiet, dated bar (think lots of wood and red, circa 1970’s) in which to sip a range of bourbons, from “deluxe” pours at $10, premium at $9, or most glasses at $8. It’s affordable and relaxing, a classic Louisville bourbon respite.

The Wine Market is a small but well-curated selection of wines from Alsace to Bordeaux with friendly staff in a funky, cool building with appealing wording (“weird, independent, proud”) covering the exterior wall. It seems to be Bardstown Road’s finest wine shop. Stronger on the spirits and beer front with a badass drive-through window is Old Town Wine and Spirits – they offer an affordable, wide-ranging selection.

I felt right back at home with third wave coffee, excellently roasted beans and proper foam on my cappuccino at Quills Coffee (with two Louisville locations), which appears to be Louisville’s best artisan coffee.

As has long been commonplace on the West Coast and only gained traction in recent years in NY and places East, this hipster coffee haven is full of artists and students on laptops, with chemex and locally roasted beans hailing from Africa to South America.

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APPETITE Opened on July 13 way back in 2005, Maverick is a longtimer by modern day restaurant standards. I’d posit that it’s better than ever with new executive chef Emmanual Eng, brought on last year by owners Scott Youkilis and Michael Pierce (who is also the general manager and wine director). In contrast to its more casual, younger sister Hog and Rocks, Maverick’s food has grown more sophisticated and focused over the years.

The menu delights and has evolved slightly at each visit, with whispers of Southern influence (and beyond) married to forward-thinking culinary vision. Traditional Southern ingredients and dishes are a springboard for cutting-edge “New Southern” cuisine, the likes of which I’ve seen in cities such as Charleston and Atlanta in recent years or at San Francisco newcomers like Dixie and St. Vincent.

Maverick hasn’t slowed down with age and, especially with talented young Chef Eng on board, to continue challenging itself. An artist and Portland native, Eng boldly walked into SF’s Indigo in 2000, offering to work for free to learn the ropes. He eventually became line cook at Aqua, Quince, and Foreign Cinema, then sous chef at Boulevard and Sons and Daughters. His experience at some of our top restaurants shows in his bold-yet-refined cooking.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: the signature fried chicken ($24) is as fantastic as ever. Juicy inside, crispy outside, and not at all greasy, the batter is touched with cinnamon, cayenne, and white pepper. It was recently served with blackened patty-pan squash, succotash, pickled watermelon rind, and cornbread croutons — with ham hock and mustard gravy tying it all together, eliciting sighs of delight. It’s hard not to want to return to this one over and over again — and many diners do.

But you’d be remiss not to branch out. There’s nothing Southern about a squash blossom stuffed with brandade ($10), rosso bruno tomatoes, Calabrian chilis, and basil, but it’s delicious. Italian spirit is also present in burrata cheese, made nearby on 16th Street ($12), but rather than being leaving it as another burrata starter, Eng layers flavors with ashed rind from corn husks, baby leeks, arugula pisto, pickled fiddlehead ferns and zucchini. Just before the foie gras ban — which I am not happy about — a duck butcher plate ($16) impressed with foie, tasso-cured duck breast (there’s your Southern touch: fantastic tasso ham), strawberry mostarda, white peach, lime, and duck rillette croquette. Summery as it was rich, it’s the mostarda I craved more of.

Another inspired Southern reinterpretation is porcini mushroom and Anson Mills grits ($12.50). It’s not remotely a traditional grits dish, in fact, there’s only a smattering of creamy grits amid tender porcinis, pearl onion, snap peas and a smoked soft-poached egg running over ingredients when punctured. For a vegetarian dish, it’s almost meaty and soulful. Massachusetts Dayboat sea scallops ($13) are seared just right, but accents of compressed watermelon, pineapple mint, Padron peppers, dotted with lipstick pimento sauce and ancho chile-pumpkin seed pesto making it memorable. Lobster bread pudding draped in smoked cod ($26) is a brilliant twist on traditional New Brunswick stew — in this case, a creamy mussel chowder touched with jerky-like strips of linguica, clams, corn, and sea beans (seaweed). Dessert is no afterthought. In fact, a chocolate Samoa truffle ($9) feels like vacation, a chocolate mound spiked with chocolate bark in a pool of caramelized coconut accented by crumbled shortbread.

Pierce’s wine pairings and frank, engaging welcome are another key part of what makes Maverick special. (We share a New Jersey past, and you can still sense some of that state about him.) His love of wine has grown since his days at Sociale. The thoughful wine list is inclusive of some of California’s more interesting small labels like Wind Gap and Le P’Tit Paysan. A 2009 Cru Pinot from Monterey is perfection with the grits. The anise hyssop dotting tasso-cured duck “prosciutto” pops when paired with a floral, crisp 2011 Domaine de la Fouquette Grenache-Cinsault-Syrah-Rolle rose from Provence. Ask Pierce about his Junk Food Wine Pairing series — he’ll pair wines with the likes of Slim Jims and Doritos.

I appreciate that even sans hard liquor license, Maverick attempts creative cocktails ($9) using vermouth and sake in low alcohol aperitifs. Some work better than others, but the attentive use of local products like Sutton Cellars vermouth is something I wish more wine and beer only restaurants would do. The most consistent drink is a ginger lemon fizz, utilizing Sutton’s dry vermouth, bright with ginger, Meyer lemon, and dreamy honey foam.

At Maverick, attentive staff, intimate dining room, and unique explorations of a well-known regional cuisine exhibit what makes Southern cooking so beloved in the first place: heart.


3316 17th St., SF


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Double visions


APPETITE A strong concentration of cutting-edge American chefs are right here in the Bay Area. Widely acknowledged in food publications and among global diners, Bay Area creativity has been ascendant in recent years. Collaborative dinners between local chefs and with chefs from countries beyond our borders uniquely showcase the forward-thinking cooking coming out of our region. I’ve been privileged to attend recent one-of-a-kind dinners (like the one this week between culinary “it” town Copenhagen chef Christian Puglisi of Michelin-starred Relae and Bar Tartine’s visionary chef Nick Balla).

During a weekend in May, one of Australia’s star chefs, Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne (, joined the incredible David Kinch at Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos ( Both chefs are known foragers, utilizing local bounty in their restaurants in bursts of pure inspiration — Manresa sources its produce from nearby Love Apple Farms (, which holds classes on urban goat-raising, cidermaking, edible perennials, and more. The hours-long dinner was not just a visual feast of color combinations, it was a dream of freshness in unexpected forms, heartwarming in taste.

Shewry started with walnuts in their shells, unadorned and tender, while Kinch offered carrots, clams, and savory, textural granola dotting vegetable marrow bouillon. Shewry’s fresh crab and artichoke leaves arrived softly layered, dotted with citrus cream. Unlike any crab dish I’ve had before, it nearly dissolved on the tongue, a striking as the sea yet elegantly subtle. A stunner. As was his beauty of diced sweet potato, purslane, and egg doused in a creamy pool of Cabot clothbound Vermont cheddar. Kinch’s gorgeous dessert was a silken, custard-like mound of white chocolate surrounded by crispy quinoa, goat’s milk ice cream, and a strip of rhubarb resembling an elevated fruit roll-up.

Manresa is a destination any time, with garden-fresh cocktails, impeccable service, and excellent wine list. The partnership this particular weekend showcased two world class chefs side-by-side, melding their visions.

As part of SF Chefs’ ( current Dinner Party Project, which teams up local chefs in themed dinners leading up to the big food and drink classic swiftly approaching August 2-5, inventive chefs Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn ( and Jason Fox of Commonwealth ( partnered at Dominique’s restaurant, for a special dinner on July 8. Both chefs connect over a similar ethos apparent in their delicate yet bold, often playful, cooking styles. Alternating courses, they produced bright, summer-spirited dishes.

An amuse bouche certainly did amuse: little white chocolate shells dubbed “Campari explosions” actually exploded with vivid, joyously bitter Campari reduction, paired alongside a Campari and blood orange cocktail aperitif. Both chefs rocked the tomato in unexpected ways. Fox played with green tomato in the form of a jelly disc gracefully dotted with silky uni, shiso mint leaves, and refreshing cucumber granita. Crenn saluted the glories of red and yellow tomatoes in varying forms and textures — peeled, sorbet, etc. — in a vibrant bowl accented by goat cheese, edible flowers from her home garden, and a strip of lardo, that beauty of pig fat salume, for rich contrast.

Unpredictable touches jumped out, like Fox’s frozen “white snow” over corn pudding topped with grilled sweetbreads and tempura-fried okra (paired beautifully with a 2006 Pierre Morey Bourgogne Chardonnay), or another Fox hit: bone marrow puree animating hearts of palm, skinned red potato and poached ruby fish, happily paired with a cup of duck consommé tea. The meaty tea seamlessly interacted with the vegetables and bone marrow, highlighting a masculine mischievousness in Fox’s stylish cooking. Besides her truly imaginative take on tomatoes, my other favorite Crenn dish arrived dramatically on a scooped stone slab graced with a chocolate branch and an edible, glistening silk nest filled with dehydrated vanilla pods over sweet corn and porcini mushrooms. Like a treasure found in an enchanted forest, the dish explored both savory and sweet whimsically, a feminine wildness tempered by refinement.

We’ll see more from both skilled chefs — and many others — during SF Chefs days’ long extravaganza, which I look forward to every year in tented Union Square. It’s a pleasure to witness our region’s best collaborate with each other and the finest globally, a reminder as to how the Bay Area is in the midst of yet another culinary renaissance, one of many the past few decades.

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Appetite: Bar talent and rare bourbon barrels on 16th Street


Sixteenth Street between Valencia and Guerrero in SF is packed with good food and longtime dive bars. As classic cocktail dens and mixology menus are the norm rather than the exception in this town, it’s easy to forget that some of our great ‘tenders continue to serve the quality drinks we crave without fuss. On this stretch of 16th, there are two spots in particular that have a lot going for them, including cocktail talent.

As with any bar, who is tending makes a difference and these gifted few craft their own robust creations while nailing down boozy classics. Chat them up about what they’re working on lately or ask for one of these recent pleasures, including a rare, single barrel bourbon collection.


Elixir is an SF institution, the intimate, wood-lined saloon harkening back to Barbary Coast days — a bar since 1858. Run by one of our country’s cocktail pioneers, H. Joseph Ehrmann, and talented bar manager duo Shea Shawnson and Nick DesEnfants, the cocktail menu is a mix of 1800s saloon classics, Elixir classics like H.’s Celery Cup No. 1, and rotating seasonal drinks.

Elixir is also for the whisk(e)y aficionado, with over 220 bottles behind the bar — not to mention a solid tequila selection. Now is the time go, however, for a flight ($25) or single pour ($12.50) of its four special single barrels of Four Roses bourbon, aged 8 to nearly 11 years, personally selected by H., Shea and Nick in Kentucky when visiting master distiller Jim Rutledge (selected while I was also in Kentucky judging spirits alongside H. for the American Distilling Institute awards).

The four single barrel whiskies show an impressive range and body, all at barrel strength/high proof. Part of their unique profile as a bourbon is due to the signature Four Roses style of a higher mashbill (which is essentially the grain mix used to make a whiskey or beer) of rye grain: 20%-35%. Bourbon must be corn dominant (51% or more) and no other bourbon contains as much rye as Four Roses, except for Bulleit Bourbon due to the fact that it’s distilled at Four Roses. This higher inclusion of rye grain adds the spice and character us rye devotees adore, while retaining those sweet, caramel bourbon notes.

In reference to the combination of proprietary yeast strains used to make each of these bourbons, Elixir’s barrels are labeled by yeast strain combinations: OBSK, OBSO, OESO, OBSQ. Lest all this start to sound a little geeky, just ask for the tasting sheet and see what tasting notes jump out at you (chocolate and caramel or pickle brine, wood, hay?), then choose your pour accordingly. Better yet, share the flight with someone and find your favorite the best way: side-by-side comparison. My favorites? OBSK, which was the unanimous first choice of the Elixir guys, for its orange zest and earthy chocolate notes, and the OBSQ with greater bite and salty, grassy soul. Sampling Four Roses Limited Edition 2012 Single Barrel release (aged 12 years) alongside Elixir’s one-of-a-kind four rounded out the pleasure at a bracing 111.2%, still smooth with vanilla cream and toasted almond tempered by a spice bite.

The latest cocktails at Elixir? A few so new they aren’t on the menu: Roses for a Peach uses the OBSQ single barrel bourbon, muddling fresh, juicy peaches, peach bitters and Shea’s house sage syrup. Though sweet as summer, the bourbon’s higher proof imparts body, holding up to and elevating the natural peach sweetness. Bartender Levanah Ananda created this cocktail beauty along with Sunny Side, an ebullient mix of Aviation Gin with the sage syrup, pineapple, lemon and an absinthe rinse – a large slice of lemon floats in the glass like a sunny side up egg yolk (hence the name).

I’m in love with the wet stone/slate quality of Nick and Shea’s Que Sea Rapido (make it quick!) Del Maguey Vida imparts the smoky stone notes, while just the right touch of Domaine De Canton ginger liqueur and lime rounds it out, with ancho chile powder giving it earthiness rather than heat.

Elixir is a small, often crowded bar so for those such as myself who like it mellow, preferred time is afternoon or early evening hours for a seat at the bar and time with these bartenders who keep it real… as they casually craft winning cocktails.

Dalva and The Hideout

Dalva is the main bar, a worn-but-comfortable Mission classic, thankfully untrendy, divey and to be relied upon for a beer under a screen showing classic films and lesser seen Bruce Lee movies. I typically head straight to The Hideout, a cozy, dim back bar with superior craft spirits selection. Here one or two bartenders, including the occasional guest bartender like Josh Harris of the Bon Vivants, craft classics and classically-influenced cocktails… accompanied by loud, kitschy-cool tunes (see my review from early 2011). Arriving early one night before the Hideout opens at 7pm, I’m taken care of by bartender David Curiel who tends both in Dalva and The Hideout (currently he’s at the latter Wednesday and Friday nights). Even with big name brands lining Dalva’s bar, I’m not suffering for a craft drink.

Curiel operates with a classics ethos of just a few ingredients – including vermouth and bitters – allowing boozy attitude to shine, tempered with mature restraint. A prime example is a creation he was considering naming Michael Landon (after the TV actor, who I grew up with both on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie): rye whiskey, Italian aperitif Cocchi Americano, musky Oloroso sherry and orange bitters. This imbibement hits first with rye spice and Oloroso nuttiness, balanced by Cocchi’s bright bitterness. Another Curiel drink, Smoking Gun, goes the peaty route with Ardbeg 10yr Scotch, and if at Dalva’s bar, it’s vivid with two Italian aperitifs, Campari and Cynar, plus Angostura bitters. In The Hideout it’s local great Gran Classico and Italian amaro Ramazotti instead of Campari and Cynar. Ask what Curiel or any of the Hideout bartenders are working on or excited by lately – or give them your mood (bitter, smoky, citrus, herbaceous, etc…) and let them satisfy.

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Appetite: Sipping caramel, tasting pastry breadth at Craftsman and Wolves


Media hype has been fierce for pastry chef and owner William Werner’s new Craftsman and Wolves, a unique Mission bakery-cafe-patisserie for creative baked goods and sweets, changing sandwiches and salads, Sightglass Coffee, Naivetea, crave-inducing Valrhona drinking chocolate and (you’re hearing right) dreamy, sippable caramel made with salted butter and mini-croissant crostini to dunk.

At a media preview on 6/13 a few days before the cafe opened, I sampled in an ideal way through nearly the entirety of offerings (though they will continue to change), a helpful way of grasping the menu’s breadth and vision. In keeping with Werner’s past, it’s an impeccable selection that thankfully does not duplicate what you find in many topnotch cafes and pastisseries around the city. In fact, it does its own thing entirely: foods made with a fine-dining aesthetic and forward-thinking creativity, but served casually to-go or in the inviting, skylit, brick-walled space.

Besides my early taste-through, I’ve been back for a couple visits during initial opening days. Here is a photo journey with stand-outs noted.

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Five for summer


APPETITE Time to dive into summer — at least nominally. These five playful dishes recently made an impression, and brought a little sunshine to the table.



Brunch at one of the city’s best bars, 15 Romolo, is a pleasure, and blessedly unmobbed. Arrive at opening (11:30am), and you’re likely to secure a table instantly. Greeted with complimentary waffle shots — yes, rounds of waffle bites resting in a mini-pool of maple syrup and boozy rum — you’re then guaranteed impeccable mid-day cocktails ($9–$10), like zippy, frothy absinthe showcase (not for the anise or licorice averse) Famous Fizz, made with St. George absinthe, shaken with strawberry-thyme shrub, cream, egg white, finished with seltzer. Or try a Breakfast of Champions # 2, rich with Manzanilla sherry, Nocino walnut liqueur, maple syrup, coffee tincture and house banana cordial — warmly gratifying, not cloying. Exciting drinks are a given here, but the menu’s no slouch. This has been true at night and it’s likewise true at brunch. The one that makes me salivate is the breakfast biscuit sando ($9). In keeping with other brunch dishes, portions are generous: a moist, green chile biscuit filled with crispy fried chicken, the perfect kind of bacon (not too crispy, fatty), fried egg, house pickles, and a vivid arugula walnut pesto. Hash browns accompany, and after adding on a hefty, savory house rye sausage patty ($3), I practically rolled out post-meal, blissfully fattened.

15 Romolo Pl., SF. (415) 398-1359,



Though one can experience both highs and lows at downtown Oakland’s upscale Southern sanctuary Pican (like uneven desserts or cocktails — oh, would that that sweet Mint Julep be less syrupy and served in a proper Julep cup), staff are eager to please and the American whiskey list is extensive. New executive chef Sophina Uong (Waterbar, 900 Grayson) continues introducing vibrant dishes to the menus. Even as I begin digging into new menu items like playful blue crab profiteroles, my heart belongs to classic smoked brisket meatloaf ($21). It’s genius, really: shaved slices of Creekstone natural beef brisket are baked into a meaty-yet-light loaf, served with BBQ tomato jam, on roasted sweet corn salad with Cajun cheddar aioli. Mom’s home cooking, upscale Southern treatment, California creative-fresh spin — a veritable mash-up of cuisines.

2295 Broadway, Oakl. (510) 834-1000,



Merely a couple weeks old, downtown Palo Alto’s Rangoon Ruby boasts chefs Win Aye and Win Tin, formerly of Burma Superstar, serving fresh, vivid Burmese dishes. The chic, clean space boasts a nice spirits collection (all three St. George gins can be found here, along with Camus Cognac) and tiki-focused cocktail menu, including lava and scorpion bowls for two or four. While still working out opening and service kinks, owner and Burma native John Lee presents a gracious, hard-working aesthetic grown from his own experience working in the restaurant at San Francisco’s Fairmont. Beloved Burmese salads ($10-13), from tea leaf to ginger, are done right here — brightly generous and served in its superior version: strips of mango atop greens, that fantastic hint of savory imparted by fried onions and garlic, accented with cucumber and dried shrimp. Also try nan gyi nok ($12), a heartwarming mound of rice noodles doused in coconut milk chicken and yellow bean powder, accented with a squeeze of lemon and a hard-boiled egg.

445 Emerson, Palo Alto. (650) 323-6543



Showdogs corners dogs in a space that continues to improve Market Street’s less culinary-inclined blocks, adding on old school sign and sidewalk seating enclosed by hedges since they opened. I have a number of go-to sausages (plus a rocked-out corn dog), but it’s the pickled hot link ($6.95) that remains truly different. A hot link, plump and pickled in apple-cider vinegar for a couple weeks: it’s tangy, slightly blackened as it’s grilled to order, topped with Crater Lake blue cheese sauce and arugula leaves.

1020 Market, SF. (415) 558-9560,



As part of an affordable seven-course Kaiseki dinner ($39.95) at Nombe, chawan mushi or Japanese savory egg custard has been prfected by chef Noriyuki Sugie. Though numerous izakayas, particularly Nojo, make memorable versions, I was recently hooked on Sugie’s uni chawan mushi, lush with uni’s seaworthy, umami notes, woven into a silky, custard, topped with more fresh uni, served traditionally in a covered dish. Order a pour from Nombe’s impressive sake list — ask co-owner and sake sommelier Gil Payne to recommend a pairing for you — and settle into black booths in the quirky, comfy Mission diner space.

2491 Mission, SF. (415) 681-7150,

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Appetite: Spring weekend in Los Angeles yields intriguing tastes


I recently returned to my old SoCal stomping grounds for yet another long weekend. This time I stayed at funky, restored motel, The Farmer’s Daughter, gazing over a pool filled with giant rubber duckies, the hotel’s birds greeting me each morning in the lobby. Colorful and quirky, the hotel (with welcoming, engaging staff) is a worthwhile home base, ideally located across the street from the original LA Farmers Market. You won’t find farmers here, rather, it’s a permanent, open air mall of food purveyors.

Though not always gourmet, a few newcomers add foodie cred to the market. However, I hope to never see the demise of old school diners, pie shops and vendors selling unnaturally bright red popcorn and the like – it’s a charming slice of LA history.

On the newer side of things, Short Cake is one of the top Farmers Market destinations. I spent every morning there, happily downing shakeratos ($5 – four shots of espresso shaken with ice and simple syrup) and cappuccinos from one of my favorites, Verve Coffee of Santa Cruz. SF local TCHO chocolate shows up in Short Cake’s mochas, while Amy Pressman’s baked goods are among the best in all of LA.

She trained at Spago with friend and partner Nancy Silverton (Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza). At Short Cake she crafts ridiculously good eats like a curry raisin scones or bacon-cheddar-three chili croissant bread pudding. I rarely repeat places, but this one was worth returning to for breakfast three days in a row.

Another pleasing return this trip? A sunny, playful lunch at Roy Choi’s A-Frame, which I reviewed soon after it opened last year and still find an affordable winner.

BIERBEISL, Beverly Hills

I’m a sucker for cuisines done well, particularly the less commonly seen like Scandinavian, Eastern European or Burmese. I don’t get enough Austrian food. The new BierBeisl, just off Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (though not at all like Rodeo Drive – instead, it’s casual, spare and cozy), is one of the better Austrian restaurants around.

Starting with a cool BierBeisl carpaccio, thinly sliced pork roast is delicately doused in a Styrian Gold (Austrian pumpkin seed oil) vinaigrette – a unique, elegant starter. Assorted Austrian charcuterie ($18) and cheeses (add $10) are a brilliant example of the best to come out of the country, vivid with house spreads and rustic rye and pretzel breads.

There’s modern, fresh dishes like seared lamb loin with goat cheese polenta (the most expensive dish, a pricey $36), but I veer towards the traditional, like Vienna Schnitzel ($19-25 for pork, turkey or veal) garnished with lemon and lingonberries plus choice of side: potato salad, roasted parsley potatoes, fries, mixed green salad. House sausages from their sausage menu are a highlight, particularly a Swiss cheese-infused Käsekrainer ($10), lightly peppery and similar to a Polish sausage, while a traditional bratwurst with sauerkraut ($9) likewise satisfies.

Sausages come with a slice of rustic bread and dollops of tarragon mustard and fresh horseradish. The bratwurst is particularly zippy with the Radler Grapefruit: half Stiegl Goldbräu beer, half all-natural grapefruit soda ($6 for 10 oz.; $8 for 16.9 oz.)

Something unusual behind the bar? Reisetbauer Austrian Whisky. Yes, Austrian whisky – distilled in copper pot stills from malted barley, aged in Chardonnay and Trockenbeerenauslese oak wine casks. I appreciated the rogue, hearty spirit of this whisky, lively with chocolate, caramel, hazelnut, bread.

FORMOSA, West Hollywood

Formosa is a Hollywood classic bar/restaurant since 1925 with a storied past. There’s John Wayne’s regular booth which was extended a few feet to hold his long frame when he’d crash after a few drinks. Stars like Bette Davis or Dean Martin would take a cocktail break in between filming at the studios next door (once Pickford-Fairbanks Studio and now The Lot), connected to Formosa by underground walkways. Heavy on history and ghost stories of famed patrons whose photographs line the walls, Formosa has not been known for quality food or drink for years.

But this is not your mama’s Formosa. Though still slowly undergoing its transformation (including mischievous new menu offerings like a fried, spicy peanut butter sandwich), visiting the bar a few times in April I witnessed new bar manager Kate Grutman (previously at Sotto) refreshing the menu and bottle selection – not with fussy cocktails but with well-crafted, playful turns on the likes of a banana daiquiri, aka John Cazale ($10), the secret ingredient being a Fernet rinse, adding a minty, herbal layer. Her Bloody Mary twist is brilliant. Duck Down ($11) is Akvinta Vodka washed with duck confit, mixed with Vince’s original Formosa Bloody Mary mix, lime, Siracha hot sauce, and — wait for it — pickled gobo root (crisp, sweet, and earthy, it’s a member of the burdock root family). I tasted the washed vodka on its own: savory confit imparts a meaty, lush, joyously decadent spirit. It makes for a superior Bloody Mary.

Grutman upgrades dive bar favorites with quality ingredients, as with the Formosa Sour ($9), essentially an improved Midori Sour made from her house Midori liqueur: French honeydew, sugar, orange flower water and lychees with a hint of green food coloring to maintain the neon spirit of the junk food liqueur. Start with an aperitif of The Seven Year Itch ($10), referencing Marilyn Monroe’s potato chips and champagne scene in the film – they go one step further serving housemade chips with a cocktail of bubbles, Cynar, sugar, cherry liqueur and lemon. A perfect finish is Joan Crawford’s Chained ($9), essentially a Sherry Flip with Harvey’s Bristol Cream, Punt e Mes sweet vermouth, garnished with cinnamon. Creamy and savory, it’s dessert.

Grutman is clearly having fun with this menu – and drinking it is likewise a pleasure. Her grandfather was once a Formosa regular so she clearly maintains respect for the unique history of the place, studying old menus, celebrity clientele and films they made at the studios next door, which she’s naming cocktails after. Though there are minor updates happening throughout the building, the place retains its musty, classic Hollywood charm with dim lighting, red booths, rooftop bar, and circa 1930’s Chinese decor. You could still call it a dive but one where you don’t have to check taste at the door. I love witnessing one of the remnants of Old Hollywood reinvent itself while retaining its rich character, ready for more decades ahead.

LUKSHON by Sang Yoon, Culver City

Friends and fellow reviewers have found Lukshon uneven. In my experience, there were a couple brilliant dishes intermingled with a couple disappointments, though my overall meal was strong. I’d return.

The outdoor patio is a mellow alternative to a chic but cacophonous dining room. On a gorgeous LA night, the patio, fronted by a modern rock fireplace, becomes an urban respite.

Attentive, relaxed service made me immediately a fan of Lukshon, while a menu of single origin teas (from San Francisco’s special Red Blossom Tea Co.) and expertly-prepared cocktails confirm the restaurant’s “whole package” status. Asian twists on classic cocktails work, like a vividly tart Lukshon Sour ($11 – Michter’s Rye, lemon, tamarind, palm sugar, kumquats), a smoky Fujian Cure ($11 – Isle of Skye 8yr Scotch, lemon, galangal root, lapsang souchong black tea), or the savory, martini-spirited Formosa ($11): Ethereal gin, Lillet Blanc, atomized mizhiu tou (Taiwanese rice wine), and ginger pearl onions.

Green papaya salad ($9) was a less-than-pleasing version of the classic Thai salad, tasting oddly funky though ingredients were fresh. Chiang Mai curry noodles ($13) read as an enticing list of ingredients (coconut, chile, tumeric, lemongrass, chicken, prawn, yu choy, rice noodles), but came off a tad bland though still satisfying.

The kitchen excelled, however, with fantastic sweetbreads fried “orange chicken” style ($11) in a sweet-sour orange sauce, tender and tossed in scallion, ginger, and pickled lettuce. I’m dreaming of returning just for this dish. A side of yu choy ($7 – a Chinese vegetable), cooked in shaoxing wine and garlic with savory, aged ham is quite a pleasurable way to eat your greens. Short rib rendang ($17) is like the ultimate meatloaf, one cooked in malay spices, red chile lemongrass rempah (a spice paste), drizzled with coconut cream. Sigh.

A simple dessert of flan-like palm sugar caramel custard layered with rice krispies is a delicate finish, with a side of candy cap mushroom ice cream. Lukshon is trendy, yes, but talented chef Sang Yoon hints at the joys of California dining, where our dense Asian cultures and year-round, unparalleled produce combine with classic European cooking technique in inventive dishes.

ink.sack, West Hollywood

Top Chef star Michael Voltaggio smartly opened a sandwich shop half block from his casually hip fine dining restaurant ink., cheekily named ink.sack. Sandwiches come on the mini side at a cheap $4-7, though big enough that I’m unable to finish two. I wish all sandwich shops offered mini versions to vary tastes – and had staff as friendly as ink.sack’s.

Miso-cured albacore tuna is dubbed “spicy tuna” though I could have used more Sriracha mayo to make the sandwich actually spicy and offset a bit of dryness to the tuna. I delighted in sandwiches like The Jose Andres, aka “The Spanish Godfather”, a tribute to the man himself (of The Bazaar, one of my top LA restaurants), filled with Serrano ham, chorizo, and Manchego cheese. But my favorite is a twist on a Reuben with thinly shaved corned beef tongue, Swiss, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing.

EVELEIGH, West Hollywood

True: Eveleigh is the moneyed hipster’s hangout, from a bone marrow, charcuterie-heavy food menu to craft cocktails. But it stands out with a gorgeous setting off a trendy stretch of Sunset Boulevard and quality food and drink. You first pass through the front patio, green with trees and astro turf, into an open dining room with a center bar and ubiquitous fireplace, animal heads and book-lined, gastropub décor. The back of the restaurant is a huge patio covered in plastic with LA views. The space enchants, while my perch at the bar interfaced with busy, disengaged (but still professional, mannered) bartenders.

Though I’ve seen the like of these dishes countless times over the years, each one was well-executed and gratifying, whether bright crushed peas, mint, almonds, Arbequina olive oil and burrata cheese ($12) or a juicy, medium-rare Eveleigh burger (expensive at $19) topped with fontina cheese, pickles and tomato-chorizo relish.

Cocktails ($12) likewise are vivid, balanced and worth a stop on their own. Though, like a thousand cocktailian bars these days, they craft fine, spirituous classics, I’m most pleased with the farm fresh, seasonal side of the menu where they shine with fresh California ingredients and drinks like a Lucky Louie: rhum argicole, kumquats, star anise, ginger, fresh lime.


I “heart” currywurst, that Berlin specialty of grilled dogs doused in German curry. Add chips (fries) if you wish. Currywurst, a few steps from my Farmers Daughter hotel base, is an affordable winner in the currywurst realm (like Berlin Currywurst in Silver Lake). With housemade sausages (my tops is the Hungarian pork) topped with satisfying curry (red German curry is akin to an amped-up, curry laden ketchup), friendly staff and cheap prices make this an ideal snack or lunch.

POUR VOUS, Mid-Wilshire

My bar disappointment this visit was Pour Vous, a sexy, French-influenced den with gorgeous décor, particularly a sunken, circular section with fireside seating. I thrilled to a French-heavy spirit menu highlighting Calvados, absinthe, Armagnac, Cognac. In theory, this could be a dream bar – an underdone concept I’d be thrilled to see well-executed. Maybe it is better early on a weeknight or depending on the bartender?

But on a Friday near midnight, it’s cacophonous, mobbed and irritating. The elegant space is dominated by well-dressed, middle-aged guys with young, blonde girlfriends (sporting breast implants, of course) with a pick-up scene of well-heeled 20-40-somethings on the prowl.

Though such a scene is always irritating (that cliché LA, Vegas, Miami feel), the clash of this crowd in such a romantic setting would be slightly lessened if drinks were excellent. At $14-15 a pop for many cocktails, they should be stellar.

Though it sounded amazing, a medicinally sweet, cloying Le Samourai ($14 – Armagnac, framboise, rhubarb, “umami”) was virtually undrinkable, while a Vadouvan Lassi ($15) could have been brilliant with rhum agricole, lime, coconut, falernum, Vadouvan curry and bitters, but ended up tasting like bland, minimally spiced milk on ice, the curry and the agricole lost in the milk. Tasting my friends’ drinks didn’t get me much further, while disengaged bartenders and a costly bill confirmed just how unsatisfying the entire experience was. I left convinced this is not so much a cocktail-spirits aficionado’s destination as a meat market dressed in pretty clothes.

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Appetite: Going Big at another menu-less bar


This week in the paper, Virginia Miller reviewed menu-less wonderbar Rio Grande. Below, her review of a second custom drink haven.

Big‘s name is somewhat of an oxymoron. This cozy space from the crew behind Jones is a mere few seats and when the bar is full at around 20-25 people, be prepared to wait at the door until space clears (they will text you when it does). After multiple visits, I continue to find the bar staffed by the talented Brian Felley (previously at Fleur de Lys and Garcon), a barback and one other bartender, Mo, who is recently here from burgeoning cocktail town Denver, having worked at the Squeaky Bean. Similar to the aforementioned Library Bar, there’s a small herb and produce spread here, while both bartenders are quite  adept at assessing preferences, taking time to craft you “just the thing.”

Vintage glassware makes sipping a pleasure, the bar lined with a thoughtful selection of spirits and bitter beauties I adore like Bittermens Amère Sauvage, even one I wasn’t familiar with: Salers Gentiane Apéritif. One warm night, fresh beet juice was radiant with Hirsch corn whiskey, habanero shrub for a gentle heat-vinegar accent, lemon, half a rim of paprika, salt, and black pepper. A real stunner of a cocktail utilized their tart, lively rhubarb syrup, mixing it with Plymouth gin, Aperol, Bitter Truth Creole bitters, Vya Whisper Dry Vermouth and a hint of fresh fennel juice. Refreshing as it was, the best part of the cocktail was that its layers unfold with one sip: tart, bitter, spice, floral, etc… Each as pleasing and subtle as the last.

During another visit they concocted a bright mix of Fidencio mezcal, reposado tequila, grapefruit, lime, dry vermouth and a fascinating mirepoix (celery, onions, carrot) syrup. I’d just tried the syrup earlier in the week as Felley’s first experimental batch, the onion hitting too strong (though I’m crazy about savory, funky cocktails), while a few nights later Mo added it to the aforementioned cocktail for delicate savory notes. I value their experimentation, hunting for the right match for each ingredient.

I’d been on the elusive hunt for their sweet corn fizzes which they recently tweeted about but are only available when sweet corn is in the house. My third visit was the charm. Mo mixed the subtle sweet corn (fresh off the stalk, blended into a liquid) with essentially a Cognac fortified wine, apple, lemon, a dreamy basil milk, a touch of  Lebanese liqueur Arak Razzouk and Zirbenz pine liqueur, shaken with egg whites and topped with Peychaud’s bitters. Soft and frothy, this refreshing imbibement hits subtly with sweet corn, then whispers of pine forest and anise from the Arak. Thankfully here I know I can expect something unique, complex, rewarding but without attitude or fussiness. Naturally, it takes a few minutes to craft each drink, and be prepared for cash only and $13 per cocktail, which adds up quickly.

They’ve only recently expanded from being open merely Thursdays through Saturdays to adding on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (opening at 6pm). If you are a cocktail aficionado, this bar offers a special experience. If you are not, don’t visit Big to try the same old thing (there’s plenty of nearby bars for that – please leave the minimal seats to the rest of us) – rather, be open and ready to have your whim of the moment met with fresh style. Big is just the sort of bar I fall in love with: romantic, welcoming, intimate, mellow – one where I can converse comfortably with bartenders and my companions while sipping a beautiful custom drink.


761 Post, SF

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Rio Grande


APPETITE Who needs menus when the bartenders are this good? The granddaddy of the speakeasy resurgence, New York’s Milk and Honey, has been doing the menu-less thing since 2000, while places like LA’s Library Bar get their inspiration from daily changing, farmers market produce. Two fascinating new SF bars are serving custom cocktails their own way, only able to go sans menu because of strong talent behind the bar. Reviewed online on the Guardian’s Pixel Vision blog is the intimate, amusingly named Big; here is my take on the other menu-less charmer, Rio Grande.

I’ve written about Bon Vivants (cocktail designers Scott Baird and Josh Harris, operations specialist and behind-the-scenes mover Jason Henton) numerous times over the years, from early days at 15 Romolo to recent cocktail menu creation at Berkeley’s new Comal. Anticipating their long-awaited Mission bar Trick Dog, I’ve been having fun in the meantime with multiple visits to Rio Grande, a bar they just launched as part of ATO (A Temporary Offering) in the Kor Group’s Renoir Hotel, a genius pop-up project where local entrepreneurs can test concepts, from FoodLab restaurants to shops and art events.

Using the hotel’s vacant, three-room space, revolving projects invigorate the stretch of Market near Seventh Street. Rio Grande is unlike any other bar in town. Evoking a South of the Border cantina, or what the Vivants dub “Tarantino and Once Upon a Time in Mexico meet border town roadhouse,” here funky kitsch glitz marries laidback ease, as tequila, mezcal, whiskey, and canned beer flow.

Under the gaze of Wild Turkey bourbon and Espolon tequila logos emphasizing the bar’s whiskey-tequila union, the ceiling sports a Virgin of Guadalupe shrine in front of a painting of 1970s adult film actress Vanessa del Rio, a Baird crush after whom he named the Del Rio cocktail (reposado tequila, fino sherry, St. Germain elderflower, orange bitters). The Del Rio will soon be served on tap, while the current on-tap cocktail is an Old Fashioned.

The bar was initially launched as a pop-up, in keeping with ATO’s rotating offerings, but the Renoir folks like it enough to try and find a way for it to stay. If it can’t, the Vivants will move it to various locales as a gypsy bar. Here’s hoping it remains while they launch other nomadic bars — a fine concept.

Rio Grande was, impressively, built out in three weeks: Henton says there were days they’d still be wielding power saws at 5:30am, building high-top tables or implementing one of Harris’ many estate sale-flea market finds. (He stalks local sales for vintage pieces like the bar’s fascinating ceiling fans and the cowhide splayed in the entrance. Harris even gathered Mexican national newspapers from 1945-’47 to became the wallpaper behind the bar.) The bar itself boasts a pole on either end for whatever shenanigans might ensue, while a mini-stage is set for live music. Even without bands, tunes are perfection: a little hard rock, a lot of classic country — think Waylon, Hank I and II, your general outlaw cowboy musicians.)

To exist sans menu, it’s crucial that bartenders be talented, knowledgeable and versatile. Rio Grande couldn’t be more on the right path with hand-chosen barkeeps Morgan Shick and Russell Davis, assisted by Trick Dog chef Chester Watson. Shick is one half of Jupiter Olympus, a bar-restaurant consulting company that throws some crazy, imaginative parties. I’ve judged a number of cocktail contests where Shick (who’s worked at bars from Marzano to Michael Mina) was an entrant: his sense of balance and ingenuity stand out every time. Davis, besides being named Nightclub and Bar’s 2012 Bartender of the Year, recently crafted a brilliant soda fountain menu at Ice Cream Bar and can be found actually igniting flames at Rio Grande for special cocktails.

According to Harris, the Vivants wanted “to take all the pretentiousness out of the bar scene and make it fun”, which is why Tecate and Dos Equis flow just as freely as Del Maguey. During my visits, I’ve sipped a mezcal and yellow chartreuse winner and a bitter amaro beauty on crushed ice (Julep snow cone-style). Speaking of ice, it’s hand-cut here, a pleasure to watch. During one visit, Shick made a mezcal, grapefruit soda drink accented with crème de cassis (black currant liqueur), lime, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, and salt: smoky, salty and citrusy. Spiced fall notes shine in his mixture of Siete Leguas anejo tequila, made with Averna for a tinge of bitter balance, Angostura orange bitters, sweet vermouth and apple brandy. I’m in love with a finish of Old Bardstown bourbon, Nocino walnut liqueur, Balcones’ rum-like Rumble (made from Texas wildflower honey, Mission figs, turbinado sugar), plus dry vermouth and triple sec. Dry, sweet, full, it’s still bracing enough to put hair on your chest.

“Watch for some potentially interesting surprises musically,” says Harris of the tiny stage, and for Tarantino Tuesdays, when Tarantino films and soundtracks accompany your pour.


1108 Market, SF

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Appetite: A bright Spring Mountain Sour


Subtle mixing at Perfect Puree’s press event, and a sampling Charbay’s new whiskey releases

Thanks to Napa-based Perfect Puree for a recent intimate dinner celebrating Perfect Puree neighbor Charbay Distillery’s new spirits releases at Jasper’s Corner Tap.

The ever-talented Kevin Diedrich (bar manager at Jasper’s) crafted three drinks using Perfect Puree’s fresh, bright purees. In typical Diedrich fashion, subtlety and balance wove together each, from a Thymely Fashioned, vivid with Charbay White Whiskey, Perfect Puree Thyme Citrus puree (one of their new flavors), Galliano and bitters, to a beautifully frothy with egg white Spring Mountain Sour, named after the home of Charbay on Spring Mountain in St. Helena.

The Sour was a mix of the White Whiskey, Marie Brizard Creme de Cacao, Perfect Puree Chipotle Sour puree (a little goes a long way with peppery smoke), Green Chartreuse and aforementioned egg white.

Charbay R5 Whiskeys

As an avowed whiskey lover, Marko Karakasevic’s (Charbay’s distiller, alongside his father, Miles) whiskeys are among the best I’ve had anywhere. But his fantastic beauties, like Release II are out of the price range of many of us at $300+ a bottle, though I would call it one of the few worth a splurge.

Thankfully, his new whiskies are on the way, each actually distilling Bear Republic’s finished beer, aging it in oak or stainless steel. Marko has been distilling bottle-ready beers for years, like the pilsner he used for his Release I whiskey in 1999.

Charbay’s new whiskies are well under $100 , the first just-released set (small production, roughly 650 cases) made with Bear Republic’s Racer IPA: think hoppy, herbaceous, redolent of pine, papaya, and malt.

The first, R5 Clear Whiskey ($52), is aged in small stainless steel tanks for 22 months after being distilled in a double copper Charentais alembic pot still. The second is R5 Aged Whiskey ($75), aged in French oak for 22 months, continuing the hoppy, bright, fruity, lychee direction. I tasted this whiskey in its early incarnation at 6 and 12 months – at each stage it was already a winner. Both are unique entries in the American whiskey category, especially approachable in this price range.

I’m particularly excited for Charbay’s upcoming release made from Bear Republic’s stout – again, at early stages of tasting, it is already brilliant. Hopefully, these more affordable whiskies will introduce more to the uniqueness of Charbay’s whiskies. Stay tuned for release dates and where you can find R5 this Summer here

Tequila Tapatio

Tequila fans are thrilled that Tequila Tapatio, one of Mexico’s best quality-for-value tequilas (the blanco retails at $33 per bottle) distilled by delightful tequila master Carlos Camarena, is finally available in the US for the first time through Marko K Spirits, Charbay distiller Marko Karakasevic’s import company.

Tequila Tapatio is already on it’s way to numerous bars, restaurants and stores in California, New York and 7 other states, including being well stocked at Tres here in SoMa (a list of where to find it here).

Although I knew months back Marko would be the importer, it’s taken awhile for the tequila to arrive to the US. Now it’s here and it is smooth, robust, primed to be the savvy bartender’s well tequila of choice.

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That’s amore


APPETITE After moving from Southern California to New Jersey at age 14, I learned what a true city was when I discovered New York City. Whenever in that New York state of mind, I miss its boundless energy, frank people, eclectic neighborhoods, and, yes, East Coast-style Italian. I reminisce about family dinners filling up on mountains of cheese, doughy pasta, and impeccable red sauce — which, to achieve perfection, should exhibit both sweet and savory notes. In both NYC and NJ, it was often perfect. (I miss you, Cafe L’Amore).

It can be challenging getting my red sauce Italian fix here. I crave old school, heartwarming places, whether drinking a Manhattan in the brilliant time capsule of Joe’s of Westlake, dining on Gaspare’s “real deal” lasagna, Mozzeria’s oozing, baked mozzarella, or a plate of my beloved guanciale (pig jowl bacon) and garlic-heavy spaghetti alla matriciana at Ristorante Marcello. Enter Original Joe’s, a reborn San Francisco classic appealing to a blessedly broad demographic, satisfying East Coast cravings.

You couldn’t be blamed for initially assuming the sizable Original Joe’s off North Beach’s idyllic Washington Square Park is a tourist destination or primarily for older clientele. There is a more mature set dining here, a factor I welcome and at times seek out intentionally. But families, couples, residents, and tourists alike mingle in this new home for a restaurant founded here in 1937, yet closed since a 2007 fire at its Tenderloin location. Though impossible to replicate the original locale’s dive-y 1970s charm, the new space feels more old school NYC than modern-day tourist trap. Roomy red leather booths and a tuxedoed waitstaff immediately comfort.

The food surprises with an amped-up dose of quality compared to the old days on Taylor. A market price crab cocktail is expensive at $25 but the crab is clean and plentiful. A daily special of fresh burrata and Spring pea salad could have come from any current SF restaurant. Joe’s Italian chopped salad ($15.95) ends up being one of the quickest transports East. Ordering it to share, it arrives split, a half portion plenty for one. Chopped romaine is doused in Italian dressing, with garbanzo beans, olives, cherry tomatoes, silvers of salami, provolone, fennel, and the necessary pepperoncini. It’s brighter — and almost as satisfying — than heavier, loaded versions I used to fill up on back in Jersey.

As in the old Joe’s, there’s plenty of tender, juicy beef, from flat iron steak ($24) to a porterhouse (25 oz. at $44) and prime rib on Saturdays. But when in such an setting, I crave red sauce. It doesn’t get much comfier than spaghetti with meat sauce ($13.95) or meatballs ($16.95). Even if Joe’s is not the superlative version, it hits the spot, as does classic ravioli ($16.95), although I tend to prefer Jackson Fillmore’s housemade ravioli over the years. Another way to my East Coast Italian heart is parmigiana, whether chicken, veal, or eggplant. Here I’m drawn to the eggplant ($16.95), not too smoky, layered in cheese, breading, and, of course, red sauce.

I was tickled to find that $6 cocktails, including simple but revered favorites like a whiskey sour or negroni, are actually well-made — completely unexpected and at this price, one of the best drink values in town for solid classics.

Another unexpected pleasure is impeccable spumoni for dessert ($5 for a few generous scoops). Often in spumoni, unnatural cherry, chocolate and pistachio ice cream flavors are cluttered with nuts and candied fruits in what feels like a dated flavor that should be relegated to the past. Joe’s version delivers authentic, rich flavor with smattering of crumbled pistachios on top, demanding me to rethink, and once again enjoy, this classic ice cream rumored to have Neapolitan roots.

Joe’s isn’t revolutionary gourmet or cutting edge cuisine, but what it does, it does well. Its clientele reminds me of the history and sense of place San Francisco possesses that makes it one of the truly great cities in the world, now ideally situated in a neighborhood that fiercely maintains reverence for and ties to that history. Amid SF’s influx of tech-attracted newbies, Joe’s attracts that breed we often forget is here: the San Francisco native. Feeling like a family/group restaurant first and foremost, it’s a place I’d bring visiting family and Sicilian relatives with hefty portions and friendly service. But I’ve also had a cozy date night with my husband here, transported to decades past… but with fresher ingredients.


601 Union, SF.


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APPETITE There are but few whispers about Acquerello in dining circles these days. This is an oversight. Not readily visible from the street, the Nob Hill restaurant’s lobby opens onto a glowing dining room that at first glance appears to be an elegant oasis for an older clientele — a classic that has been loyal to the city since 1989. After a recent return to Acquerello, I’ll venture that it is this, but much more as well. For me, this is San Francisco’s great underrated fine dining destination, despite the fac that it has won a coveted Michelin star for six years and counting.

Even with the promise of Acquerello’s forward-thinking food and heartwarming classics in the air, it’s the service that initially stands out. Upon arrival, one is ushered to a table thoughtfully spaced apart from its neighbors, intimate yet still engaged with the Italian decor. In soft peach and beige, the dining room is subtly dated in a way that speaks of the old country, inviting and quiet enough under striking wood rafters but not so hushed as to be museum-like.

A team of waiters, three sommeliers and co-owner Giancarlo Paterlini, alternately attend to each table, the head waiter having been at the restaurant since the 1980s, along with Paterlini’s son, Gianpaolo, who is also the wine director, and chef and co-owner Suzette Gresham-Tognetti. The latter came out to greet those of us that lingered into the evening, clearly still passionate about what she does. Gresham-Tognetti works closely with young chef de cuisine Mark Pensa on all menus. (The classic tasting menu runs for $95 plus $75 for wine pairing; the seasonal tasting menu is $135 plus $95 for wine pairing; you can also choose three courses a la carte for $70, four for $82, five for $95.)

I recommend trying both the classic and seasonal menus, even if the a la carte menu gives you a chance to pick and choose among favorites. Ideally, a dining couple could order both for a glimpse of Acquerello’s entire timeline, past and present.

Maybe the dishes on the classic menu have been around for awhile, but they are far from stale. In fact, the “greatest hits” lineup still offers some of the restaurant’s best dishes. It will be a gourmand’s loss when one of Acquerello’s most popular plates, the ridged pasta in foie gras and Marsala wine sauce scented with black truffles, goes away in a few weeks. The most ecstasy-inducing dish on any menu is this dreamy take on foie gras, served as a sauce over al dente pasta. Another classic is juicy chicken breast decadently stuffed with black truffles over a leek custard and an artful mini-potato gratin, topped with shaved cremini mushrooms.

In contrast, the “chef’s surprises” menu is filled with delicate hints of things to come, like a warm arancini of asparagus and parmesan cream and some profiteroles filled with lush herbed cream. The regular menu holds treasures like pear and foie gras “ravioli” — the chefs slice dry-farmed, organic comice pears into a thin, pasta-like skin, filling it with truffled foie torchon. Saikou, a New Zealand farm-raised salmon, is bright and clean from high, cold elevations. It is poached for a few seconds in a layer of horseradish, and crusted it with chevril, pine nuts, and parsley; an herb pesto of sorts. Each dish explodes with flavor yet corners refinement, maintaining a Cal-Italian ethos that won’t play safe.

On the seasonal menu, the chefs work together closely on inventive takes that rival the better fine dining meals I’ve had. An amuse of raw yellowtail is alive with seabeans and arugula blossoms, while red abalone pairs with cabbage “seaweed” in porcini broth. Snake River Kobe beef is tender and pink, cooked sous vide under shaved hazelnuts. The cheese course is a warm, oozing round of gorgonzola D.O.P. (denominazione di origine protella, or protected designation of origin) beautifully co-mingled with potato, onion, mustard seeds, and nasturtium. Probably the most delightful, unique dish is “baked potato” gnocchi, a playful take on a baked potato made with a base of doughy gnocchi topped with chive crème fraiche, pancetta, and paper thin, fried slivers of potato skin.

Palate cleansers include a shot of carrot-apple-ginger juice with vanilla foam and a refreshing starter of orange juice, vermouth, and bitters. On the seasonal menu, a vivid dessert from pastry chef Theron Marrs marries cucumber sorbet with tart lime curd, sweet strawberry consommé, and herbaceous mint granita. As at Gary Danko, the cheese cart is one of Acquerello’s shining glories. The cart traverses the restaurant covered to contain the smell of its stinkiest offerings. Diners have their work cut out of them to select from among its unusual, largely Italian cheeses. An impression was made with earthy Blu di Valchiusella from Piemonte wrapped in walnut leaves and an impeccable Beppino Occelli in Barolo wine leaves.

Boasting input from no less than three sommeliers, Acquerello’s extensive wine list is novel-thick, dense with Italian wines. There’s an impressive range of varietals and vintages stored in its wine cellars. Suggested pairings meld seamlessly with each dish, whether it be a classic, lovely Nebbiolo d’Alba (2008 La Val Dei Preti), an unusual Langhe Rosso Burgundian-style Italian Pinot, or D’antiche Terre Taurasi Riserva, which transforms when sipped with fabulously rich veal and truffled mortadella tortellini Bolognesi.

For a special occasion, I’d place Acquerello among the best fine dining experiences in San Francisco — even up against hot newcomers and pricey minimalist restaurants. This is a place with a sense of history and a vision for the future.


1722 Sacramento, SF

(415) 567-5432

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Who to drink


SUMMER DRINKS Incas at Heaven’s Dog with a side of Stax? A Cherry Bounce at Comstock Saloon with some Booker T and the M.G.’s? How about just a nice, perfectly made sazerac? Whether through years of bartending or expertise in classic cocktails and spot-on service, the five respected mixers below have long encapsulated what has made San Francisco a leader in the cocktail renaissance of the past decade-plus. To get a (summer) taste of their different styles and recommendations, we asked them to fill out a questionnaire delving into their personalities and cocktail prowess. The responses showed that the past is more present than ever as a delicious, tipsy inspiration in finer Bay bars.



Savoy Stomp, Heaven’s Dog

Erik Ellestad first landed on the cocktail map in 2006 with his blog, Savoy Stomp ( — during his off hours as a tech engineer he began working his way through the classic Savoy Cocktail Book, one recipe at a time. This led to monthly gathering and demonstration Savoy Cocktail Book Nights at revered Upper Haight cocktail hotspot the Alembic since 2008, and bartending at chic SoMa Chinese restaurant Heaven’s Dog since its opening in January 2009. He’s an expert on classic recipes; his technically-minded side informs his precision and sense of balance.

SFBG Where did you grow up, and how did that influence your bartending style and taste?

Erik Ellestad I’m from a small town near Madison, WI. Other than developing my taste for beer, cheese, and Old Fashioned cocktails, I don’t think growing up in Wisconsin particularly affected my bartending. However, the 10 years I spent as a line and prep cook while living in Madison definitely affected both the way I approach cocktails and how I prioritize tasks while bartending.

SFBG What’s your area of expertise or obsession?

EE Pre-Prohibition American beverages. Almost all my real favorite cocktails go back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, or before.

SFBG What do you drink most during off hours?

EE To be honest, now that I’ve nearly finished the Savoy Cocktail Book Project, I’ve been taking a bit of a break from drinking cocktails. You’ll most often find me drinking esoteric beers or interesting wines.

SFBG What cocktail is exciting you lately?

EE I try to learn a new cocktail or perfect an old one every week just so I can have an answer to the inevitable cocktail nerd question, “What have you been working on lately?” This week I was inspired by Leopold’s Navy Strength Gin to perfect the Inca cocktail:

3/4 oz Leopold’s Navy Strength Gin

3/4 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth

3/4 oz Carpano Antica Italian Vermouth

3/4 oz Manzanilla Sherry

1 tsp Small Hand Foods Orgeat

1 dash Orange Bitters

Add ice and stir until well chilled. Strain into a small cocktail glass and garnish with an orange twist.

SFBG Favorite off-hours food or drink hangouts? 

EE I live in Bernal Heights, so the places I get to most often are in the neighborhood: Gialina for pizza, Papalote for burritos, Front Porch for soulful American food, and Ichi Sushi, for, well, awesome sushi. If my wife and I are splurging, we’ll go out to Bar Tartine, Bar Jules, or Commonwealth. Other than the bars I work in, Rock Bar, Royal Cuckoo, Glen Park Station, St. Mary’s Pub, and Wild Side West are the bars I’m most likely to be found in.

SFBG Your bartending playlist? 

EE The core of my playlist at Heaven’s Dog is the box set of Stax-Volt Soul singles from 1959 through 1968.




Jeff Lyon has been tending for about 16 years, the last five being at Range in the Mission, where he’s currently the restaurant’s bar manager. Besides a keen love and knowledge of whiskey and tequila, he’s well-versed in music and sets an utterly comfortable tone at his bar with his dry, sly sense of humor.

SFBG Where did you grow up, and how did that influence your bartending style and taste? 

Jeff Lyon I was born in Long Beach, CA, but bumped around CA until I was 20, then moved to Minneapolis to become a rock star with my brother. In order to fund our impending international success (ahem), we waited tables, but I noticed bartenders had way more fun than waiters. So I watched what they did and asked a lot of questions. Eventually I lied and told my boss I knew what I was doing, and they let me behind the bar. Minneapolis influenced my bartending style in that I picked up a strong work ethic. It wasn’t about “mixology” — it was about being nice, working clean and fast, having fun.

SFBG What’s your area of expertise or obsession?

JL I’m a whiskey guy and Bourbon is my favorite, but right now I’m really excited about the wine-based world of vermouth, sherry, and Madeira. I wouldn’t call it an area of expertise, but I find the variety and subtlety of this stuff endlessly fascinating. Who needs crazy tinctures, bitters, and infusions when you can simply pour a Barolo Chinato over a big chunk of ice? Done!

SFBG What do you drink most during off hours?

JL I drink more beer and wine than anything else.

SFBG What cocktail is exciting you lately?

JL I’m proud of a cocktail I do called Dante that’s inspired by the sazerac’s “whiskey, sugar, bitters and a rinse” structure. I stir up Angel’s Envy bourbon, Perucchi Blanc vermouth, and Rothman and Winters Pear Orchard liqueur to provide sweetness, and Peychaud’s to balance it out. Standing in for the absinthe is a generous rinse of St. George Spirits pear eau de vie.

SFBG Current favorite off-hours hangouts for food or drink?

JL More often than not, I go to dive bars. I do my share of cocktail R&D right in my neighborhood — Wo Hing and Locanda are rockin’ it. Beretta is always great. Outside the neighborhood I love the usual suspects: 15 Romolo, Alembic, Bar Agricole, Comstock. The great thing is that there are so many bars raising the standards, even dive-y bars are making better drinks.

SFBG Your bartending playlist?

JL If I could have a night full of Bill Withers, Django Reinhardt, and Thelonious Monk, balanced with Nirvana, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, I could smile through just about anything.



Hotsy Totsy, Dogwood

A true veteran of cocktailia, Aurora Siegel has been tending bar for the better part of 17 years. Having worked as a GM and beyond, she deeply understands service and the full restaurant-bar experience. Years at North Beach classic Rose Pistola honed her skills in numerous aspects of management and bar service, and she’s quite the cook herself (she makes a mean kimchi). You’ll currently find her rocking the East Bay at Albany’s Hotsy Totsy and Oakland’s Dogwood.

SFBG Where did you grow up, and how did that influence your bartending style and taste?

Aurora Siegel I grew up in Hawaii where hospitality is key and a cold refreshing drink while caressed by a light breeze makes all feel right with the world. That background influenced my style on many levels, hospitality being the most important. I believe if you don’t truly like serving people you shouldn’t because it always shows. I happen to love it. The drinks I tend to create are often light and refreshing: four dimensional, not eight; balanced but not too complicated; drinks you can make in under a minute — with a smile, of course. So you can sit back and say all is right with the world, even without the tropical breeze!

SFBG What’s your area of expertise or obsession?

AS My obsession is balance. Balance of sight, smell and of course taste. I’m often making ingredients to help me meld balance with speed such as my own home-brewed ginger beer, tonic base, and falernum.

SFBG What do you drink most during off hours? 

AS Pisco sours: I just love ’em! Or a good sazerac, negroni, or Old Fashioned. I like trying new drinks but a well-made classic will almost always win out in the end.

SFBG What cocktail is exciting you lately?

AS Robert Hess’ Trident [with sherry, Cynar, aquavit, peach bitters]! I think it’s one of those drinks that will go down in history.

SFBG Current favorite off-hours hangouts for food or drink?

AS Three of my favorite spots are Comstock for the whole package: good late night bites, great drinks, and real bartenders! Madrone on Divisadero: nice staff, good drinks, and unique music. Or Tony Nik’s in North Beach, where the staff are true pros and drinks are good, too.

SFBG Your bartending playlist?

AS Anything from the ’80s just gets my hips shaking, but I must say we have one of the most diverse and fun playlist at the Totsy. I’m almost always feeling the groove there!



Comstock Saloon

A bartender for the past 16 years, Jonny Raglin is an English lit major with a sense of style that includes several evolutions of mustache. He started tending in SF over a decade ago at Stars, then B44, then the early days at Absinthe with Jeff Hollinger, with whom he eventually opened Comstock Saloon in 2010, a haven for classic cocktails in a historic Barbary Coast space with live jazz (and the occasional Gold Rush tune) and honky tonk and classic country vinyl Sundays.

SFBG Where did you grow up, and how did that influence your bartending style and taste?

Jonny Raglin I’m from Oklahoma. It certainly does influence my style of bartending. I’m cavalier, self-taught, hard-working, hard-headed, whiskey-slinging, whiskey-drinking, a lover not a fighter — except when fighting — and the fastest hand in the West!

SFBG What’s your area of expertise or obsession?

JR My obsession is the 9/10ths of bartending that has nothing to do with “mixology.” That is what I try every day to improve upon. Not to say I’ve given up on the drink itself, but I am certainly concerned with what Leary called “set and setting,” i.e. a perfect cocktail can only be had in perfect company.

SFBG What do you drink most during off hours?

JR Margaritas with my wife. I typically order dry martinis at any given bar since its REALLY hard to fuck up cold gin.

SFBG What cocktail is exciting you lately?

JR I’m really digging making cocktails from who I consider to be the two queens of the cocktail in New York: Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders. I feel like they have a firm grasp of not only the classic cocktail but also the modern palate. I find myself in the Savoy Cocktail Book for inspiration as I have for the past five years or so. And people sure like the Cherry Bounce at Comstock which is a recipe I came up with (made from the juice of house-made brandied cherries).

SFBG Favorite off-hours food or drink hangouts?

JR To me the best place to eat and drink in SF is Cotogna. God bless the Tusks [Michael and Lindsay] for their little trattoria a block from us at Comstock!

SFBG Your bartending playlist?

JR When Booker T. and the M.G.’s comes on, I’m the fastest bartender on the planet. On Friday lunch at Comstock, we play Buddy Holly radio on Pandora. It’s a bit of a sock hop with bow ties and suspenders, giving away lunch, selling booze… and fun!



Smugglers Cove

Tending bar since 1997, Steven Liles dons a Hawaiian shirt and mixes it up tiki-style to exotica tunes at the Cove, after having spent years crafting cocktails at fine dining spots like Boulevard and Fifth Floor. Besides his stylin’ wardrobe and hats, Liles has his own 1930s home bar, an extensive music collection (start asking him about ’60s soul), and is well-versed on classic recipes and spirits distillation.

SFBG Where did you grow up, and how did that influence your bartending style and taste?

Steven Liles I was born in Compton, California, but mainly grew up in Lancaster, in the Mojave Desert. So my style is dry, like my humor. Growing up in California with all of its diversity has developed a sense that I should explore the different facets of my career as much as possible. I am defined by the desire to expand the definition of myself.

SFBG What’s your area of expertise or obsession?

SL I’ve never been the type to focus on one particular thing as a bartender. I prefer a more rounded approach. Working at a rum-centric bar is fun and fascinating, but I also pay attention to other spirits and styles of tending bar. I love pisco, gin, Calvados, and so many other amazing spirits with amazing stories.

SFBG What do you drink most during off hours?

SL It varies. My go-to cocktails are the martini and negroni. I love a glass of champagne — or a bottle. With so many great cocktail bars, I always try out new ideas that bartenders are creating. It’s a lot of fun.

SFBG What cocktail is exciting you lately?

SL With 75 drinks on the menu at The Cove, I can’t help but be excited: it is a great challenge. I love making new drinks but that’s not really a big focus of mine. I have a regular, Paul Cramer, that I make original creations for all the time. I don’t bother writing anything down. I find that fun, to just go off he cuff, in a care-free way.

SFBG Favorite off-hours food or drink hangouts?

SL I love Maven, Comstock Saloon, AQ, Heaven’s Dog, Jasper’s, Wo Hing, Bar Agricole. There are so many more.

SFBG Your bartending playlist?

SL Sam Cooke’s “Good Times” is a great bar song to me: “We are going to stay here ’til we soothe our souls, if it takes all night long.” That’s perfect.

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Appetite: Whiskies of the World tastes and gin tales


A better than ever year aboard the SF Belle at Whiskies of the World last month meant some fine, global pours of whisk(e)y from Scotland to Australia. Here were some highlights:

On the fun and interesting tip, Lark Distillery distills single malt whisky in Tasmania, an Australian island – and it’s surprisingly solid. Distilled in copper pot stills, it’s smooth with a modicum of peat, aged five years, yet with a bit of complexity. I appreciated returning to 10-year-old old Masterson’s Straight Rye Whiskey. Aged in charred white oak barrels, this Canadian rye evokes whispers of pepper, vanilla, spice, and a soft sweetness.

Count me smitten with Glenmorangie’s new Artein ($79.50), an elegant whisky of stone fruit, mint, even chocolate and lemon zest, matured in Super Tuscan wine casks. It’s sexy, evening wear without being sweet or dessert-y. Speaking of Glenmorangie, Chef Tyler Stone brought a memorable touch to the evening making boozy, liquid nitrogen bowl after bowl of Glenmorangie’s Nectar D’Or whisky served in a mini-glass with egg white lime foam on top. Brilliant.

Funny enough, my favorite taste of the night, the one I couldn’t get out of my mind (and wanted to linger on my taste buds) was not even a whisk(e)y. It’s a a rare brandy (only 220 bottles out there) of Germain-Robin Small Blend No. 1, blended from a 1990 Austin Ranch Pinot (south of Ukiah), ’94 custom Clos du Val Pinot, ’83 Hildreth Ranch Colombard, and small amount of ’87 Colombard brandy. If you can get your hands on it, it’s a stunner.


Every time I turn around there’s a new gin. Though not on par with some of the best American gins already out there (Junipero, Death’s Door, St. George’s gins, 209, etc…), these new gins offer yet another gin route for those wanting sweeter gins or to try something new from small producers who care. Here’s two new American gins, and a rare Dutch gin that sells for more than almost any gin in the world.

Greenhook Ginsmiths ($31.99) – As one myself, I value stories of career-changers – Steven DeAngelo left a finance career to launch his own gin, just out in February. Dubbed “ginsmith”, his master distiller is Ed Tiedge who uses very low temperatures, nearly 40 degrees below typical gin distillation temps (approx. 132ºF ) for intense and solidified flavors. It’s non-traditional, with heavy floral, chamomile, coriander, elderflower, orange blossom and ginger notes – a little too sweet for me, but bold and  bright. They’re releasing the first of its kind, a Beach Plum Gin Liqueur soon, a variation of an English sloe gin with plums sourced locally from a beachfront Hamptons’ farm.

Small’s American Dry Gin plays a little more like a London Dry with American roots, made from an 1850’s recipe. Created by the Local Wine & Spirits crew in Oregon who produced Ransom Old Tom Gin and Whipper Snapper Oregon Whiskey, this “American Dry” uses US-grown grains, a mid-19th century recipe and pot-distilled methods. It’s juniper-heavy, a little sweet as well but also sharply herbaceous, with elegant, Colonial-spirited label and convenient screwcap.

NOLET’S Silver Gin is unique gin with botanicals including Turkish rose, peach, raspberry… they recently hosted a private dinner with Carl H.J. Nolet, Jr., who owns the distillery with his father, Carolus and brother, Bob. We dined at one of San Francisco’s best new restaurants in SF, AQ, complete with cocktails from AQ’s stellar bartending crew, like the Contemporarian, mixing NOLET, chamomile peach tea, citric acid and simple syrup.

In a nod to The Aviary in Chicago, they set up a boiler emitting chamomile into the air, rounding out our experience with intense aromas.

A floral Heirloom Rose cocktail (NOLET, simple syrup, lime, rose water) elevated the interplay of botanicals with food alongside Mark Liberman’s gorgeous white tuna cured in beets, hibiscus, and juniper. Best of all, we finished with Carolus Nolet, Sr.’s (a 10th generation distiller who launched Ketel One in the 1980’s) NOLET’S Reserve Dry Gin. Typically selling for over $600 a bottle (K&L has it for $550), this extremely allocated, small production gin is a complex, spicy, verbena-laden imbibement that lingered with me long after dinner was through.

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Namu Gaji


APPETITE Although Asian outpost Namu Gaji is brand new, the presence of Namu restaurant itself and owners the Lee brothers — Dennis, David and Daniel — has been felt in San Francisco for years. Since 2006, the Lees have been weaving Korean, Japanese, and other Asian cuisines with California spirit in the original, now shuttered Richmond restaurant and eventually Namu’s Ferry Building farmers market stand on Tuesdays and Saturdays. In early April, the brothers opened their Mission incarnation, Namu Gaji.

Its kitchen is in direct view of the small dining room, as Dennis Lee and Chef de Cuisine Michael Kim (Craft Los Angeles, SPQR) cook at a grill fired with bincho-tan, a low smoke, Japanese charcoal. The Lee brothers’ aunt, direct from Korea, will oversee a house fermenting program, bringing with her bacteria strains from the family’s Korean village. The chefs do the usual sourcing from local farms but, in an unusual slant, have commissioned farmer Kristyn Leach to grow exclusively for them on a one-acre plot at Baia Nicchia Farm in Sunol, where she’s raising rare Korean chiles and herbs — quite a treat.

I already miss the chic, spare Richmond dining room compared to the cramped Mission space, despite its striking communal table and tree branch sculpture weaving dramatically from the ceiling. Granted, the Dolores Park location is prime real estate, particularly when it comes to daytime takeout, perfect for picnicking in the park, possibly my favorite way to enjoy Namu Gaji. But the Mission is saturated with hip dining destinations in a way the Richmond, one of our great underrated neighborhoods, is not. This was an understandably strategic move, but the new space gets progressively warmer and noisier as an evening evolves. For those who don’t enjoy yelling through dinner, I’d suggest dining early, although do note the actual dinner menu doesn’t start until 6pm.

In multiple early visits, truly unique dishes flow from the kitchen. The menu is grouped in categories like raw, broth, salad, crispy, grill, and comfort, with a handful of key choices under each heading. The “raw” section is pricey ($18), but raw King salmon, topped with pickled red onion, a dollop of whipped yuzu cream, and shiso (Japanese herb from the mint family) is generously portioned, bright sashimi. Uni sure is fantastic fried — what isn’t? — as tempura ($14) alongside fried shiso leaf, lemon zest, and market veggies, which on a recent visit were fava beans and a yellow onion. Grilled octopus ($14) is a tad bland compared to other grilled octopus dishes around town, though pleasingly plated with English peas, spring onion, fried garlic, and that fabulously pungent Korean chili paste, gochujang.

It gets exciting with an off-menu special of buckwheat gnocchi, pan seared in black garlic gastrique, with English peas and pea shoots (can you tell peas are in season?) This non-traditional gnocchi is earthy, lively, playful. “Fish parts” ($18) arrive on a wood slab, generously portioned and artfully arranged, more hearty than fussy. The fish parts change, but one night I dined on impeccable wild salmon belly and spine, with caramelized, crispy-sweet skin. Its partner requires a more adventurous palate: ahi tuna roe, cured and grilled. A dining companion bluntly called this large hunk of meat what it was: a giant egg sac. If you didn’t know, however, you’d think the pink, meaty fish a more savory, funky cut of salmon. Either way, I was delighted to be served something I’d never had before.

One evening after a 90-minute dinner, I waited nearly 30 minutes after all dishes had been served (and eaten) for a dessert which my sweet, adept server kept informing us was about to arrive. Though next time I’ll skip dessert under those conditions, I was pleased with shaved ice ($8), or shave ice as it’s known in Hawaii, which you can order doused in Four Barrel coffee and cocoa crumbles. My top choice is in coconut cream with coconut crumble and strawberries. The ice is creamy soft, feathery… and quickly devoured.

The brothers’ Korean heritage shines best in their street food-style dishes, available at the Ferry Building Farmers Market as well as during the day at Namu Gaji, ideal taken across the street to Dolores Park. Their beloved nori “tacos” ($3) and okonomiyaki ($10 lunch, $16 dinner) still delight, while BBQ belly and Korean BBQ-style marinated chicken thigh ($10) are packed into pan de mie bun layered with Swiss cheese, soy glazed onions, pickled daikon, aioli, Dijon mustard — a buttery, fatty pleasure of a sandwich. Gamja fries ($10), essentially organic fried potatoes piled with short ribs, kimchee relish, gochujang, kewpie mayo, and green onions, are the fast food of your dreams. KFC ($12) is a quarter of a Marin Sun Farms chicken tossed in sweet and tangy sauce with dashi gravy. Each of these heartwarmers not only satiate but illuminate best why the Lee brothers have become an SF staple.


499 Dolores, SF

(415) 431-6268

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APPETITE Fish makes me happy. Raw, grilled, seared, any which way. One new restaurant and one established favorite are glorifying the fish, and seafood in general, in many formats.


Local's Corner just opened in March on a mellow corner of the Mission's east side. The sunny space is mostly white, evoking a cozy-chic New England seafood restaurant serving exquisite California fare. Dinner service was just launched mid-April, a delicate array of tastes of the mostly seafaring kind, though the menu simultaneously lists a "land" section.

Prior to opening, I was excited for this new seafood restaurant offering the likes of sardines and smaller, more sustainable fish, and they do deliver. The immediate downside is how quickly dishes add up. Small plates hover in the low teens while no dish tops more than the mid-20s, but as you finish each plate, hunger is not exactly satiated. There is little in terms of heartier fare, which is fine — you don't come here for "hearty." But $100 later (for two with a glass of wine), I left a couple dishes away from satisfied.

Crisp and bright as the equally crisp, bright space, a nice range of rosés and white wines pair ideally with fish offerings and rotating oysters ($2.50-3.50 each). A small plate of uni ($14) is alluringly punctuated by English peas, preserved Meyer lemon, and mint leaves, while Dungeness crab ($13) arrives glistening with snap peas, Cara Cara oranges, and spring onion. Cured halibut ($13) dances with radishes, grapefruit, and dill. Each is delicate, slight, tickling the taste buds.

Two flavorsome bites are cured anchovies and guanciale (Italian bacon made from pig's jowl or cheek) on toasts ($10), or a dollop of smoked trout rillettes and crème fraîche ($12), also with toasts. Both delight, but are so small-portioned, one is just hooked when they're gone. For $22, an entree of black cod on top of leeks, carrots, and watercress is likewise minimal and subdued. I was more satisfied with a "land" offering of beef tartare in a small pot, topped with quail egg ($15). Bread is (again) the filler, while the raw beef is glisteningly fresh.

Brunch is such a pleasant experience in the sunny space, it is tough having few seafood choices (just one currently) and a prix fixe only: now $18 for toast, two courses, and coffee or juice. Weekday lunch offers more seafood, which is primarily what one comes here for, though still few options compared to dinner.

Local's Corner is still in its infancy, exhibiting promising meticulousness and fresh tastes. I realize upping portions of the likes of uni and abalone is a costly thing while maintaining delicacy is crucial with such ingredients. It seems a worthy mission: satisfying appetite alongside artistry.

2500 Bryant, SF. (415) 800-7945,


One place that has long cornered artistry and appetite in my estimation is Bar Crudo, one of my top SF restaurants since its early days in the tiny Bush Street space, where Bouche is located now. Though the cavernous but narrow Divisadero space lacks the quirky charm and warm glow of the original location, service remains such that even as the place is packed nightly and waits are common, staff comes by offering wine, keeping me informed of the wait time.

The crudo, essentially Italian-style sashimi, are small and delicate (a sampler is $13 for 4 pieces, $25 for eight) but so uniquely delightful, they're worth every dollar. A visit here would not be complete without a bite of raw arctic char, lively with horseradish crème fraîche, wasabi tobiko and dill, or creamy butterfish crudo topped with apples, pear vinaigrette, and beet saffron caviar.

One easily fills up here, supplementing ethereal crudo with whole-roasted fish. Recently, I enjoyed a branzino ($26) with two friends. With the large fish, two smaller shared plates and a crudo sampler, we left full. The fish is generously sized, buttery, flaky. We devoured the cheeks, the head, every part, resting in butter beans, Swiss chard, oyster mushrooms, poblano peppers, and orange oil.

A flavor explosion comes in large head-on Louisiana prawns ($14) swimming in a spicy red brood, vivid and savory with shishito peppers and fresno chilies. I nearly drank it up. To fill up, there's always Bar Crudo's classic seafood chowder ($7/$14), a creamy, rich bowl of fish, mussels, squid, shrimp, potatoes, and applewood smoked bacon that elicits a moan of pleasure at first spoonful.

Coupled with a strong wine list (by glass or bottle) and equally strong craft and Belgian beer list, Bar Crudo remains not only one of San Francisco's seafood treasures. *

655 Divisadero, SF. (415) 409-0679,

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New cocktails now


APPETITE Wet your whistle: Here are a handful of spots in Berkeley, Sausalito, Union Square, and Hayes Valley with new drinks to put on your warm weather radar — and accompanying bites to go with.



Downtown Berkeley has never overwhelmed with excellent dining options, much as I’ve combed restaurants within the BART vicinity over the years. Gather ( is my top recommend in the area, but Oaxacan newcomer Comal promises to be a favorite. It’s owned by the former manager of the band Phish with executive chef Matt Gandin, formerly chef de cuisine at Delfina, running the kitchen. The hook for drink lovers is a cocktail menu created by the Bon Vivants (, Josh Harris and Scott Baird. I went on opening night, May 5, and no surprise from that expert bartending crew: each drink tried was a winner, featuring South of the Border spirits from tequila to mezcal.

Jack Satan ($9) is not remotely evil. Despite a tinge of heat from the “infierno tincture,” the whole effect is tart loveliness with Tres Agaves Reposado, hibiscus syrup, lime, and salt. Another immediate standout is a Black Daiquiri ($10) mixing Pampero Aniversario Rum, Averna, lime, sugar, and Chiapan coffee tincture. Tart, bitter, sweet and robust, coffee notes do not dominate but add a hint of earth and body. Mexican classics like the Paloma get the Vivants treatment — the Palomaesque ($9) which substitutes Don Amado Rustico Mezcal for tequila, ups the bitterness ante with Cocchi Americano alongside grapefruit, and rounds it all out with lime, honey, salt, soda.

Oaxacan food, one of my great cravings (mole!), is the other great draw here in the open, modern space and appealing back patio. Of initial dishes tried, duck mole coloradito (a red mole sauce) enchiladas ($14) already had me jonesing for a return. Duck mole and a little Jack Satan? Sins worth committing.

2020 Shattuck Ave., Berk. (510) 926-6300,



TV chef and cookbook author Joanne Weir showcases her love of tequila — and recipes from her Tequila — at Copita, Sausalito’s spanking new Mexican restaurant with sidewalk seating, open air setting, and rotisserie chicken, all a stone’s throw from the shimmering Bay. Still working out opening kinks since opening a couple weeks ago, two visits have allowed me to work my way through the entire cocktail menu and enjoyable flights (try the $20 Highlands Reposado flight: Siete Leguas, Ocho, Excellia reposados) with shots of house sangrita: tomato, pineapple, cucumber, orange, celery, ancho chile, lime.

There are cocktails like Joanne’s favorite — one I love to make at home — the Prado: Corazon blanco tequila, Luxardo maraschino liquor, lime, egg white. Fun is the spicy and smoky “Raspado”: Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal, tamarind, with a chile-salt rim hit spicy, smoky and sweet simultaneously. Add anejo to your Oaxacan chocolate milkshake ($6), and don’t miss the restaurant’s most heartwarming bite thus far: Mexico City-style quesadillas ($8), fried and filled with Yukon gold potatoes, a savory, excellent house chorizo and queso fresco with crema on top.

739 Bridgeway, Sausalito. (415) 331-7400,



Grand Cafe hasn’t been the obvious place for a quality cocktail, but with new bar manager Kristin Almy on board, there’s a stronger focus on cocktails at the Hotel Monaco bar than ever before. In keeping with the restaurant, French influence resounds with cocktail names like Bardot and St. Tropez. Most drinks dwell on the softer side: fizzy, layered, delicate, though a light Napoleon’s Dynamite ($9) is a fine intro for those who don’t think they’re whiskey drinkers: Bulleit Rye, Dubbonet Rouge, lemon, and grapefruit bitters go down all too easy.

Merci ($8) is an elegant, dry aperitif ideal for afternoon or pre-dinner sipping and light on alcohol: Noilly Prat dry vermouth, sparkling wine (prosecco), and Almy’s house blackberry liqueur. A lovely Three Musicians ($9) is subtly soft, infusing tequila with piquillo peppers, mixing cucumber and lime, topping the drink with Lillet foam. Though ideally I’d like a stronger kick of heat and boldness, I see the dilemma at the Monaco: appealing to tourists and locals alike. This menu challenges the inexperienced palate with an approachable, playful whisper. Add on a round of braised ground octopus flatbread ($14) and it’s a happy hour.

501 Geary, (415) 292-0101,



With recently updated cocktail menu from former bar manager Jeff Hollinger, who went on to open Comstock Saloon ( in 2010, classic stalwart Absinthe offers new drinks. If you like it sweet, but a little tart and smoky to keep things interesting, try the Sol Y Fuego, as I recently did. Bartending charmer Raoul mixed a kumquat shrub with nutty-spiced Velvet Falernum, lemon, bitters and a base of Don Amado mezcal. Savor it with fat garlic pretzel sticks dipped in fondue-like Vermont cheddar mornay. Don’t forget to finish with Absinthe’s house specialty: a flaming, cinnamon-laced Spanish coffee. Worth the spectacle alone.

398 Hayes, (415) 551-1590,

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