Winter Cocktails at AQ Restaurant and Bar

It really can't be said that San Francisco doesn't have seasons.

Sure, the city's east cost counterparts boast the full blusters of winter and dramatic fall displays of color and leaves. And even Midwest cities, like Chicago and Minneapolis, may claim seasons intense enough to freeze your tears and melt your skin and all of the earned bragging rights in leathered character.

But thin-skinned and soft-hearted San Franciscans may be, it cannot be said that the City on the Bay does not have seasons. You really only have to look to what San Francisco devotes so much of its pomp and circumstance: the food. In city that puts events like farmers markets at centerstage, eating with the seasons is an important part of San Francisco living. Home cooks and professional chefs kow-tow to fresh catches and seasonal harvests.

AQ Restaurant is the perfect example of this. The restaurant, which just opened in November to a flurry of accolades (including a nomination for the James Beard Award's best new restaurant), changes every aspect of its service with the seasons. The interior transforms from the warm colors of fall to stark winter white. The staff rotates its garb from flannels to pressed whites. And, of course, the food and drinks shift to reflect the particular season's bounty.

AQ

If the concept sounds quaint, it is. But it avoids becoming gimmicky simply because, well, the cocktails are good.

What's cool is that many of AQ's cocktails give a strong nod to the classics. In fact, a whole section of the drink menu is devoted to "seasonal classics," common drinks that are tweaked here and there to make it the restaurant's own.

AQ also features some of its own drinks, too. They're not cocktails you'll necessarily find in the gentlemen's companion—but they were definitely delicious enough to make up a modern cocktail book!

AQ

We went to AQ during its winter menu. I was particularly pleased with my Manhattan, which featured orange-peel-infused bourbon, sweet vermouth, winter bitters, and angostura bitters. It was a really lovely spicy take on the old classic. It managed to taste enough like the original but took on its own distinct mood—kind of like visiting the same place at different times of day.

AQ

Next I ordered a New Amsterdam Variant #2: raisin-infused bols genever gin, maple syrup, old fashioned bitters, topped with apple cider. It was a sweet drink that ran thick with the maple syrup. The taste of raisins and cider tasted familiar and made me feel warm on a cold winter's night. Completely appropriate drink for fall (apple season!), as well.

The drink somehow become reminiscent of raisins and of hot cider. It was the perfect spice to warm my insides on a cold winter's night.

AQ

Josh asked the bartender for a recommendation on a scotch drink, and she whipped up a super tasty Bobby Burns—a deep and smoky drink that usually includes scotch, vermouth, and Bendictine.

Our companion Kasey, on the other hand, ordered a Bison Rose, and it came in this really cool cup! (Standby for low-quality pictures in a dark, dark bar.)

AQ

Overall, we were most impressed by the drinks featured on the menu (opposed to ones whipped up off-menu), and the bar takes a really fresh take on well-loved cocktails. Drinks were really well-balanced and very accessible for food-minded folks looking for deep flavors in their cocktails. These are California cocktails at their best!

[For the interested, here are dark, dramatic photos of the AQ winter cocktail menu, which has since been swapped out for the spring menu.]

AQ

IMG_7548

AQ Restaurant & Bar

1085 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94103 415) 341-9000
http://aq-sf.com

Crossposted on The Joy of Drinking.

More Details on Charles Phan's and Erik Adkin's New Project

Learning about Charles Phan's and Erik Adkin's new Embarcadero restaurant had the curious effect of making Josh and me very excited and very thirsty. And so we found ourselves, only moments later, dashing down to The Slanted Door, one of Mr. Phan's and Mr. Adkin's tried, true, and institutionalized restaurants in the Ferry Building. After all, we wanted to end the three-day weekend on a celebratory note.

And as it happened, Mr. Adkins was there that night behind the bar! He shared with us a little more about the new spot, which is set to open just a little ways down from The Slanted Door at Pier 3.

The new restaurant will take on a New Orleans flare in fare and in cocktails. The drinks, specifically, will draw inspiration from the the book Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em, an artifact from the '30s and one of the few pieces documenting drinks from that place. For Erik, that means being able to do a lot of what he enjoys—stirred drinks and the like.

It's a very neat direction to go. New Orleans drinks are celebrated for some very significant contributions to the cocktail menu—the Sazerac and the Ramos Gin Fizz, just to name a few. But I don't know of very many bars that have chosen to thematically embrace New Orleans. And with the growing number of New York-style, Charles Baker, tiki, and tequila spots, it seems that Phan and Adkins might carve out a very unique spot.

The new place won't be solely about the cocktails and actually the cocktail menu won't be "seasonal," as I had previously thought. Instead, we are encouraged by with what we know about Mr. Phan's other spots—both great food and great drink. There's not much not to complain about that.

And so we wait with more anticipation! 2012 will, indeed, be a very good year.

Crossposted on The Joy of Drinking.

Heaven's Dog: Valentine's Day Cocktail Adventures

It was a kind of spur-of-the-moment decision on Valentine's. Though we had planned a classy, classy home Valentine’s dinner, Josh and I decided to capitalize on a celebratory mood and dash out for a quick happy hour. After all, one of our favorite bars, Heaven’s Dog, was not so very far away—and Valentine’s Day comes only but once a year! With hurried justification, we threw on our jackets and headed right over.

Josh and I have been going to the SOMA spot ever since it opened in 2009. Opened by Charles Phan of Slanted Door fame, the restaurant features some kind of Chinese American fare—fancy xiaolongbao, onion pancakes, spicy dumplings, and other “high-end” stir-frys. But what keeps us coming back are the cocktails. Originally managed by the incredible Erik Adkins—who is not only super talented but also the nicest guy in the world—the cocktails always took on his warmth and attention to detail, refined classics with high-quality ingredients. We recently learned that Trevor, former bar manager of Rickhouse, has since moved over to Heaven’s Dog, which is great since Rickhouse is another city favorite.

We noticed that Trevor had made a new cocktail menu. Looks yum!

New Cocktail Menu at Heaven's Dog

I started with a Nothing But the Brave, a stiff cocktail featuring armagnac, lemon juice, All Spice, and Ginger.

Nothing But the Brave

And Josh had the Oaxacan Firing Squad. The drink really became the star of the night, with its savory, smokey mix of Mezcal, lime, Small Hands grenadine, and angostura. Delicious! (Sorry for the dim photo—the place was so dark at first.)

Oaxacan Firing Squad - Heaven's Dog

We ended our happy our by splitting a Yankee Clipper, a crisp way to end our happy hour with Beefeater gin, carpano antica, Luxardo, orange bitters, and absinthe.

Yankee Clipper

Heaven’s Dog

1148 Mission St.

San Francisco, CA 94103

415.863.6008

Cross-posted at The Joy of Drinking.

Midweek Weekend: Rickhouse

Ever have a week so tiring that halfway through you need a little weekend? 

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. It was one of those weeks. So Josh and I headed down to one of our favorite bars in the city: Rickhouse. 

We love Rickhouse for three main reasons:

  1. The cocktails are great.
  2. High-quality ingredients with a passionate staff? Yes, please!
  3. The price is cheaper than most other cocktails in this class. Each cocktail used to be $8, though we discovered yesterday that the prices were bumped up to $9 or $10. 
  4. Two words: Punch bowls!

It was crowded even mid-week—typical, due to bar's location in the Financial District, which draws flocks of suits and high heels for happy hour drinks. Even aside from the business types, however, the drinks attract cocktail enthusiasts from all over. Just last year, Rickhouse won a prestigious award for best high-volume bar at Tales of the Cocktail, and most recently, one of its bartenders, Russell, was named bartender of the year by Nightclub & Bar (if you ever sit at his bar, ask for a daiquiri. It's said to be one of the hardest drinks to make, and Russell nails it!). 

I ordered a Penicillin #2 (pictured above), one of my old fall backs when I want something refreshing after work. It's a smokey mix of Scotch, lemon, pineapple gum syrup, and bitters (a California twist on the New York original—yes, the Penicillin—that uses a ginger honey syrup).

Josh ordered a Improved Gin Cocktail—a class of cocktails that is incidentally one of my favorites, as well. This "improved" breed of cocktails is a simple (and delicious!) twist on the classic Old Fashioned with the addition of Maraschino liqueur and a touch of absinthe. It's a recipe that dates back to the 1880s, the cradle of modern cocktails, when Jerry Thomas and others started adding the then-new maraschino liqueur to drinks. You can use this method with any spirit by stirring your favorite poison with simple syrup (or sugar), Maraschino liqueur, angostura bitters, and a dash of absinthe. Rickhouse, however, chose to spotlight the gin variation on the menu, using, specifically, Bols Genevere gin. This Dutch preparation of gin ages the spirit in casks, which imparts a spicier, smokier flavor—whiskey lovers, rejoice.

We also discovered last night that, in addition to the prices, the Rickhouse menu has changed. The long, lengthy litany of cocktails has been replaced by two simple double-sided cards. Along with the Improved Gin Cocktail, it includes another favorite: the Vieux Carre.

We think the menu change is probably because the old bar manager, Trevor, headed over to Heaven's Dog. I'm not sure, though, who is writing the menu at Rickhouse now.

There's nothing like a midweek respite. Now, back to the work week. And thank the Lord, tomorrow is Friday! 

Rickhouse

246 Kearny Street  

San Francisco, CA 94108

A sunny day in San Francisco 1958

San Francisco 1958 from Jeff Altman on Vimeo.

Found this old footage of San Francisco on the Atlantic. Apparently, the back story is that:

Jeff Altman, a professional film colorist in Chicago, restored the film, which was shot by his grandfather. He was a police officer in Chicago and a 16mm film enthusiast, shooting rolls of perfectly exposed film on trips around the U.S.

It's very, very cool to see the city I live in 60 years ago. Strangely, much of the city feels the same. The cable cars are still here (including the turnaround on Powell) and the skyline has the same aesthetic with landmarks like Alcatraz and Coit Tower piercing the skyline, despite some other notable absences. I also love seeing the charming fashion of the time.

I can really geek out on this urban history stuff. I was pretty obsessed with it when I lived in Chicago and London. I read tons of books, took classes, and went on all sorts of tours. I think part of it is that understanding the histories of the cities in which I live makes me feel a part of something bigger. I understand where we came from and where we're going. 

When I first got to San Francisco, I went in search of urban history books about the City. Interestingly, I didn't turn up too many—at least not as many as I could find about New York, London, and Chicago. Does anyone know why?

I have a couple of crazy theories on it:

1. San Francisco is a young city in comparison to its other American metropolis peers. San Francisco was first settled in 1776, some two centries after New York City was first settled by the Dutch. London, of course, way preceded both cities, since the British capitol was one of the first modern cities ever created. But the city of San Francisco is in many ways still younger. I think the earthquake and fire of 1906 must have wiped out much of the old archtecture. Which is why there may not be as much of a historical connection to the days of old. 

2. Maybe the most vibrant historical era is in the counter-culturalism of the 50s and 60s—and could that distill less reverance for history? There's a lot about San Francisco that has pushed the status quo. The Beat Generation, the Hippie Counterculture, Berkeley in general, and Harvey Milk. Ironically, maybe this city has had a historical disregard for the past.

Anyone else have ideas about why there many not be as much depth of urban history here? Or any book recommendations?