Dining with Sammy Hagar at El Paseo’s Wine Collectors’ Dinner


What’s better than bringing a bottle of wine to dinner? Bringing about 30 of them, then passing them around so everyone can try a bit of each.

Such is the idea behind the monthly Wine Collectors’ Dinner at Mill Valley, California’s El Paseo, a fine dining establishment perhaps best known for its celebrity ownership, local luminary and legendary rocker Sammy Hagar.

Hagar’s brainchild is organized around themes in the wine world. Each month guests are instructed to bring wines of a particular variety. In March it was pre-2003 Howell Mountain reds. In February, Right Bank Bordeaux. This month, Sonoma Coast and Central Coast pinot noir.

Hagar’s wine collection is legendary, and he always brings exotic offerings to the party. This month was no exception, as he poured a splash of 1980 Chalone for me, which utterly surprised with its amazing longevity and plenty of fruit. Later, he uncorked a magnum of 2012 Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard, which was fun to compare against the 2012 Williams Selyem Peay Vineyard that I brought, both from the Sonoma Coast. Of course, all the guests had wine to share, too — the rule is one bottle per person — which meant ample opportunity to try both classics and obscurities, like a gorgeous pinot from Occidental and an opulent new wine called The Prestige, made by a negociant who was in attendance.

Of course, this is a dinner, and the $125 entry fee gets you a four course meal that I’d describe as rustic French in style. A Wellington-style scallop was a unique highlight, but the tender, roasted veal chop that came after was probably the standout of the night.

Sadly, my picture-taking skills failed me and I forgot to snap a selfie while Hagar and I talked not just wine but also his upcoming spirits projects, which include a spiced rum to round out the Sammy’s Beach Bar line and a hybrid mezcal-tequila he’s calling Mezquila. Both are arriving this fall, so stay tuned… or visit El Paseo during one of the upcoming Wine Collectors’ Dinners and ask him about them yourself.


Bar Review: Whitechapel, San Francisco


Of all the gin joints in San Francisco, well, you probably walked into this one, the only temple to this classic white spirit in town — in fact, the only one I’ve ever been to at anywhere.

Whitechapel opened in October 2015, part of the resurgence of classy, artisanal, and/or themed cocktail bars sweeping the nation, and particularly the Bay Area.

Whitechapel was dreamed up by Alex Smith, formerly of ThirstyBear, who after years of shopping the idea got Smuggler’s Cove proprietor Martin Cate to come aboard as a partner. The new establishment is a few blocks away from Smuggler’s, located in SF’s otherwise dead-at-night Civic Center district. (The good news: There’s plenty of parking available here.)

Inside, Whitechapel has been painstakingly designed to resemble a “steampunk Victorian era tube station,” though one imagines they were not drinking fancy gin cocktails in the London Underground in the late 1800s. Someone spent a lot of money here to make a really new place look really old.

But the cocktails here, oh my! Yes, they are all built around gin of some form (either straight, barrel-aged, or genever, or a combination of the three), and the dense cocktail menu stretches back to the 1800s. Some absolute classics (from Pink Gin — gin and bitters, served room temperature) are represented, but most drinkers head to the more updated concoctions which are presented at the front of the book and on “cheat sheet” one-pagers handed to every guest.

It’s one of these recipes that has quickly risen to become one of my favorite cocktails ever — it’s also a Whitechapel top-seller — the Narc Angel, a mix of Ford’s gin, orange curacao, maraschino, ginger, mint, and lemon. It’s great like that, but the genius is that it is served with a pipette filled with Campari. You squeeze as little or as much into the drink as you like, and as you drink. It starts off with gorgeous sweet-and-herbal notes in balance, then layers in that bitter edge as you guzzle it down — which is embarrassingly easy to do.

I also tasted the Lamplighter’s Story, a powerful blend of Plymouth Gin, hibiscus, grapefruit marmalade, serrano chili, and bitter orange soda, but felt the floral element was oddly overpowering. The frothy Holmes’ Bonfire is a frothy almond- and licorice-flavored concoction that looks (and tastes) a bit mad scientistish. And there’s the Penny Dreadful, a spirit-heavy drink made with various gins and vermouths, plus bitters and “smoked Islay peat.” The overall effect is a lot like a Manhattan — only made with gin instead of whiskey.

Whitechapel also serves food, with tastes running heavily to the origins of gin, the Netherlands and Britain — with a nod to Bangladesh, whose people now dominate the Whitechapel neighborhood in London. The poffertjes (buckwheat doughnut holes) are a sweet companion to a stout drink, but it’s the $120, 36-ounce tomahawk steak that really turns heads. Built to share, of course, Smith says they are regularly purchased and that the record is sales of eight or nine of the monsters on a single night.

Think gin is just for tonic and martinis? Think again by visiting Whitechapel.


Bar Review: Pagan Idol, San Francisco


For years, San Franciscans have had one primary spot for tiki drinks: Smuggler’s Cove. Now a new temple to rum and tropical fruit juices has opened: Pagan Idol.

Pagan Idol is part of the Future Bars group, which owns Rickhouse, Bourbon & Branch, and other high-end bars. Pagan Idol fits right in, taking the tiki theme to its hilt.

Step inside and you enter a shipwreck-themed front room, complete with LCD underwater scenes playing out in the “portholes.” Step up a small staircase and you’re onto the “forbidden island,” complete with spooky totems, a starlit sky, and a flowing, LED volcano.

The focus is of course on drinks, and Pagan Idol has all the classics and then some — many spun with a slight twist. Maybe Grog is a twist on Navy Grog, mixing up three rums, lime, spices, and a rock candy stick into a dangerously drinkable cocktail with a racy edge. The Witch Doctor is served in a classic tiki mug — rum, lime, passion fruit, spices, egg white, and “ancient curse.” Heavy on the spice, the egg white turns it into a sort of pirate slushie.

Banana Life is a fun drink that focuses on, yes, bananas, and is even garnished with plantain chips. As an alternative to a dull banana daiquiri, it’s a nice little concoction. Of course, you can’t go wrong with Pagan Idol’s Mai Tai — nicely heavy on the almond orgeat, with strong orange notes thanks to a good slug of triple sec.

Naturally, Pagan Idol has plenty of “bowl” drinks for groups, and you’ll find many, many people partaking of giant troughs of rum and juice, complete with floating flowers or set on fire. Never have I seen so many grown men walking around with oversized straws… and such big smiles on their faces.


Bar Review: Bar Mia, San Francisco


There are whiskey bars. There are rum bars. There are even vodka bars. Bar Mia is the first amaro-focused bar that I can recall ever visiting.

Housed in San Francisco’s Mission District, Bar Mia only just opened, the libation side of Nostra Spaghetteria, the Italian-focused eatery which it shares space with. Under the direction of barmeister Adam Mardigras (his real name!) — that’s him with his back turned in the photo — Bar Mia has taken an Italian classic, amaro, and built a line of cocktails around them. If you’re not into the bittersweet stuff (what’s wrong with you?), there’s a number of delightful, non-amaro cocktails on the list too. (I highly recommend the Cable Car Sour, with bourbon, Benedictine, green Chartreuse, falernum, and kumquat juice.)

Mardigras recently took us on a trip through the amaro cocktails on the list, on the first Friday Bar Mia was open. His goal: Offer a little something for everyone, but spin cocktails in a slightly different direction.

Case in point: the Cold & Foggy, a distinctly San Francisco cocktail that spins the Dark & Stormy by mixing ginger beer, lemon juice, and IPA beer with an Averna float. The hoppy notes in the beer work a lot better with the ginger and bittersweet amaro than you’d think — but it’s the candied ginger garnish that really caps off a neat drink.

If you like your cocktails much more amaro focused, try the Fernet me Not, which blends Jameson, Fernet Angelico, Averna, ginger liqueur, egg white, and orange bitters to create a foamy, Fernet-driven, slightly gingery concoction that looks positively beach-like. Another solid beverage with a heavier amaro weighting is the Monkeys in Manhattan, a spin on the Manhattan that uses Monkey Shoulder scotch, nonino, and Fernet Branca to create a big, menthol-driven, slightly smoky concoction that will likely knock more than one patron on his ass in short order.

I save the best for last, and that’s Mardigras’ crowning cocktail achievement, The Night Cap. An avowed after-dinner drink, it blends spiced rum, amaretto, chocolate-chili syrup, and amaro with a Port-infused coffee, topped with whipped cream. Decadent and addictive, it isn’t overdone in any of its constituent elements, the coffee balanced by chocolate-covered cherries and a hint of bitter edge. It’s the best White Russian meets Hot Buttered Rum meets Irish Coffee you’ve ever had, I promise.


Bar Review: The Franklin, Philadelphia


Philadelphia isn’t exactly known as a hotspot for craft cocktails, but those of discriminating tastes do know at least one spot to go for elevated libations: The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., a cheeky name for an underground bar and seemingly one of the only drinking establishments in Philly that doesn’t have a TV.

I’ve had craft cocktails all over the country, but I have to say the tasting menu at The Franklin is one of the most interesting and avant-garde cocktail experiences I’ve ever encountered. Head bartender Sara Justice (at left, above) keeps things unique and fascinating — yet she avoids the trap of turning your cocktail into, say, a puff of smoke that you inhale.

Recently I had the pleasure to enjoy Justice’s “Thaw” menu, which had been created as a nod toward winter’s turning to spring. I was catching Thaw on the tail end of its seasonality — summer was in full effect in Philly as the temperature outside hit 93 during my visit — and The Franklin noted that a new summer menu was in the works (and probably available by the time you read this).

Thaw is a five-course tasting menu of cocktails, not including various amuses and surprises sent out from the bar. For example, we started off with a homemade cucumber soda — slightly sweet, slightly green — before diving into a spin on the hot toddy called It Begins With a Seed: tequila, mezcal, malva flower, and a sunflower seed syrup… quite a smoky/herbal/warming experience and welcome even on a hot day.

One big highlight of the menu came with drink #2, Sweater Weather, a complex concoction comprising Elijah Craig 12 Year Old bourbon, a ton of Peychaud’s Bitters, fennel, and a grapefruit syrup which is topped off with a whipped Earl Grey tea honey. The presentation alone is dazzling, but the layers of flavor in the drink really elevate it into something special.

A clear crowd-pleaser comes with the fourth drink, Berry Patch, which adds Barbados rum, strawberry syrup, wheat berry syrup, cream, and egg white, plus a sprinkle of nutmeg. The drink is meant to recreate all the flavors in a strawberry shortcake — and it does, perfectly, right down to the cake. As a “dealer’s choice” cocktail, Justice sent out a drink called What Life Hands You — a liquid version of lemon meringue pie that included a graham cracker syrup made from the real thing.

All the drinks served at this establishment were worthwhile, and it was hard to believe that the bar has only been around for six years — making it the oldest craft cocktail joint in town. At $65, the price may sound steep, but considering the time and ingredients (and ingenuity) that goes into some of these libations, I am sure any true cocktail fan will find that to be money well spent. Go now!


Bar Review: Third Rail, San Francisco


Here’s a cute idea: A bar that specializes in custom cocktails… and bespoke jerky.

Third Rail, in San Francisco’s Dogpatch region, is a cozy little joint where you can get a small beer, shot, and a bit of jerky all for 10 bucks during happy hour. This seemed like the most popular choice among the post-work regulars during my recent visit, but I focused on the cocktails during my encounter.

It’s rare, but in sampling four different libations, I didn’t have a single bad drink. Arguably my favorite was the Crossbow (tequila, blood orange, lime, Punt e Mes, and bitters, on the rocks), but the Evil Twin (mezcal, grapefruit, lemon, Aperol, chili bitters, served up) gave it a run for its money. Whiskey-based cocktails including the eponymous Third Rail (bourbon, Lillet, honey, lemon, orange bitters) and the Bone Machine (bourbon, oloroso sherry, amaro, bitters) were both quite good.

Then there’s the jerky — we tried the Sonoma Smoke and it vanished into our gullets all too quickly. It’s closer to chunks of smoked meat rather than anything you typically think of as jerky, sweet, salty, and succulent as all get-out. Artisan chicharrones (pictured) are also on the menu, but these aren’t house made and include quite a bit of sugar used to dust the puffy bits of pork. In an understated bar filled with excellent options, it’s the only item that’s even close to a miss.

Bar Review: John Colins, San Francisco


John Colins is a bit of a wacky place, located in the heart of San Francisco’s South of Market area. One wall beyond the bar shows off a moving beach scene. Upstairs there’s a sushi bar with 20 seats. Gourmet coffee is also available. And no, the name isn’t misspelled.

John Colins has a (mild) focus on beach-like cocktails, though it’s far from a tiki place. Recently I dropped by on a (busy) Friday night to sample some of the bar’s most popular offerings.

There’s a little bit of something for everyone here. If you’re into simplicity, the namesake John Colins (a John Collins is a Tom Collins with whiskey instead of gin) goes down easy, and the use of a honey syrup instead of simple sugar syrup gives it a slight tropical kick. One of my favorites of the night was the Sicilian, a combination of bourbon, sour mix, and amaretto, with an IPA float. The kicker here is the brandied Luxardo cherries — nibble on one, then take a sip… they go together perfectly. (You’ll certainly have to ask for extras.)

008The Pepino Paloma mixes up a very tall blend of tequila, smoky mezcal, cucumber, agave, grapefruit, and Squirt soda. This one’s all about the chili salt rim. Ditch the straw and get a big bite of that spicy-salty mix with each sip (lest the cucumber element overwhelm you). Another high point is the Hemingway, a traditional daiquiri with a twist — rum, agave, Luxardo maraschino, lime, and grapefruit. This starts off crazy sour, but keep things stirring and mixing to bring the fruit forward.

Thrillseekers can check out the Beso de la Muerte (“The Kiss of Death,” pictured), a spicy margarita made with habanero and Thai chili plus ginger-infused tequila. Spicy doesn’t quite cut it. I couldn’t muster more than about a quarter of this drink — and tales from the bartenders indicate that it’s taken down more drinkers than have successfully downed it.

John Colins is a somewhat rowdy place with a mixed crowd of downtown techies and older patrons out for a cocktail before dinner. That said, I was still able to carry on a conversation both with the staff and my wife, and service was quite attentive when seated at the bar.

Next time I look forward to giving the sushi a try — from what I saw, it looks quite delightful. In fact, I’m now hungry. Thanks, John Colins!