Bar Review: Bar Mia, San Francisco

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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.

nostrasf.com

Bar Review: The Franklin, Philadelphia

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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!

thefranklinbar.com

Bar Review: Third Rail, San Francisco

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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

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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!

johncolins.com

Tasting Beers and Stout Ice Cream at Peter B’s, Monterey, California

A recent trip to Monterey, California took us to Peter B’s Brewpub, back behind the Portola Hotel. A rowdy place full of pool tables and TVs blasting sports, it’s also home to Monterey’s biggest brewpub operation, with about a dozen beers on tap at any one time.

This time we came in search of something special, a not-yet-released ice cream flavored with Peter B’s own stout. Made by local icecreamateur Butch Adams (pictured below), who runs a small operation just off of Cannery Row called Kai Lee Creamery, it’s quite a treat, very mild up front, with a modest chocolate and nutty character to it — not quite stout, but not coffee or chocolate either. Lovely and restrained, I can’t think of a better way to end a session of sampling craft beers — unless you maybe drop a scoop of this into an IPA. A-

While we were there, we naturally sampled the five “always on” brews that Peter B’s offers, plus a couple of barrel-aged seasonal releases. Some quick thoughts follow on each of the beers.

Belly Up Blonde – A classic blonde ale, quite rich and malty. Fresh and chewy, with a slight oatmeal character. 5% abv. B+

Fort Ord Wheat – Unfiltered wheat ale. A bit musty, this is missing the bracing citrus of good witbiers. A little muddy on the back end. 5.8% abv. B-

Inclusion Amber Ale – Nice body on this, a good bridge to Peter B’s stronger brews. Mocha notes are prominent here, with some decent hops, though it’s far from bitter at 35 IBUs. Dried fruit and mushroom notes on the finish add interest. 5.13% abv. B+

Legend of Laguna IPA – The big guy (60 to 80 IBUs, depending on where you look). Ample citrus all around, with a ton of bitterness behind it. Hang in there for the evergreen finish, plusa touch of rum raisin. 6.5% abv. B+

Stout Resistance – The stout used in the ice cream, you get big coffee and cream notes on this black brew. It’s mouth coating and rich, but a lot of mushiness in the body mars this otherwise capable stout. 5.7% abv. B

Scotch Ale (seasonal) – Nutty with roasted grains and a slug of raisins. Nice balance here, and it’s quite different and fun. A-

Port Barrel Aged Stout (seasonal) – A real change of pace. Extremely cherry-fueled from start to finish, with a smattering of plums and raisins. Big body with a bracing, bitter finish that works well with the lightly sour body. B+

Bar Review: Trick Dog, San Francisco

trick dog cancerA quick pre-dinner stop at San Francisco’s new Trick Dog became a fun diversion into oddball mixology. The cramped space is carved into the newly resurgent corridor surrounding the unfathomably popular restaurant Flour + Water, and many of the patrons (like me) seem to be folks who come here while they’re waiting for their table at F+W.

There’s beer and wine to be had here, but the focus is on a collection of 12 cocktails, each named for a sign of the zodiac. My wife and I sampled three of the dozen, and enjoyed them all. The Gemini was my least favorite, a bit overpowering and featuring two kinds of amaro, Noilly Prat vermouth, a sour orange tincture, sesame, and cava.

My favorite: The Cancer (pictured), including Black Grouse, Ardbeg 10, salted pineapple, peanut, and sage, all on a big fat block of ice. This was the strangest sounding conflagration on a list that features a lot of really oddball combinations (sherry and kiwi soda? guava and stout? whiskey and whey?) and I ordered it just for that reason. The combination of pineapple and smoky scotch was surprisingly on point — and the peanut notes were just as much fun.

Good but not great: The Libra, which serves tequila, tangerine, dill, lime, egg white, and maccha powder in a coupe. This fell somewhere between a margarita and pisco sour… and works quite well on the whole.

Trick Dog has a variety of bar snacks on offer (table service is available upstairs for diners), but you’ll need to arrive early if you want a seat downstairs in order to nosh on them, otherwise it’s standing room only.

Fun place.

A-

Bar Review: Hard Water, San Francisco

Hard Water, located on San Francisco’s waterfront just a block from the Ferry Building, is a tiny little place, a restaurant that serves Cajun cuisine and has no tables. Everyone sits either at the bar, a big horseshoe that juts out from the kitchen, or at a ledge around the walls. You’ll take your barstool and you’ll be thankful for it!

Hard Water isn’t particularly famous for its cuisine — which was very good in my encounter there — but rather for its specific devotion to Bourbon whiskey. The back bar, stretching to the ceiling, features over 300 bottles of the stuff, everything from plain old Buffalo Trace ($4/oz.) to Michter’s 25 Year Old ($150/oz.). The super-rare stuff, like Pappy Van Winkle, can only be ordered in flights. The current top shelf listing on the menu is 1/2 oz. each of  A.H. Hirsch 16 year old, Michters’s 20 year old 2012, Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old 2009, and Rittenhouse 21 year old rye. Total price: $250 for 2 ounces of whiskey.

While the bar has some interesting cocktails on the list — the Presbyterian my wife ordered with Wild Turkey 101, lemon, ginger, and soda, was breezy and tart — I turned my attention to the exotic Bourbons on the list. You’d think with 300+ whiskeys listed there’d be plenty I hadn’t tried, but that wasn’t quite true. The few I hadn’t encountered were heavily focused on newer craft distillery releases… and “single barrel” releases that Hard Water had purchased from the big guys.

I focused my attention on these for the evening, ordering 1 oz. pours of Elijah Craig 12 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (94 proof), Four Roses Hard Water Barrel (108.2 proof), and Willett 10 Years Old Hard Water Barrel (128.6 proof). (Well, I ordered the Weller Hard Water Barrel and was brought the Willett Hard Water Barrel, but such is life in a restaurant where we had other people’s orders misdelivered to us on two other occasions.)

None of these was more than $10 an ounce; the Elijah at $5 an ounce is an insanely good deal — the same price as Johnny Drum, for crying out loud!

Both the Willett and Elijah Craig were exceptional, the former a fireball loaded with wood and vanilla that really softened up and brought forth chocolate notes with a hearty splash of water (droppers are provided). The Elijah Craig was ready to go at 94 proof, a creamy caramel candy with mint, citrus, and cinnamon touches. The wild surprise was the Four Roses, a wholesale flop that is easily the worst 4R I’ve ever encountered. A 10 year old made from the OBSO mashbill (which I’ve never encountered in a single barrel or small batch release outside of the company’s standard offerings), this was a dead, flat, and dull whiskey. Herbal and earth notes dominated the body, and the finish was nonexistent. It’s hard to believe someone tasted through Four Roses’ inventory and picked this oddity as a signature barrel.

Whiskey tasting aside, my experience at Hard Water was modest and memorable more for its curiosity than its intrigue. The place is loud and dim, the food (and most of the drinks) overpriced, and the seating uncomfortable. Even the menu is tough to parse. Why have several dozen bottles of Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project here if they aren’t really for sale? (It says “flight only” next to their listing… but no flight is listed.) I suppose those who are really determined will simply have to ask, and hope they don’t bring Smooth Ambler instead.

B / hardwaterbar.com

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