The quality, consistency, and creativity of cocktails in San Francisco (and of the bartenders who mix them) has been improving by leaps and bounds over the past couple of years, unbeknownst to people who actually go to restaurants to eat. When I sit down at a bar and ask for a menu, the last thing I expect to see on it is food. Drinking is the new eating.
Our expectations increase along with the caliber of our cocktails, and we demand that our mixologists do more work than a performing chef at Benihana, twisting, infusing, and muddling fresh and trendy ingredients into our drinks. My assignment was to investigate the latest in liquor-slinging calisthenics and hunt down the most exotic cocktail ingredients in the city. It's dangerous work, but I was up for it.
My first stop was the Redwood Room (495 Geary, SF. 415-775-4700, www.clifthotel.com). The drinks on the menu revolve around house-made simple syrups infused with floral flavors like lavender, elderflower, and hibiscus. And though simple syrups are the salad dressings of cocktails, it's not fair to expect bartenders to defoliate the floral arrangements every time I'm thirsty. (I think I just came up with a great new idea for a theme bar!) I purchased an Elderflower Collins made with syrup, gin, and muddled blackberries and raspberries and topped with soda water that nullified most of the flavor in the drink. So I recommend one of the other cocktails instead. I mentioned the nature of my quest to the lovely bartender, who asked if I'd noticed all the pomegranate drinks on bar menus lately. Pomegranate? Let me just grab my iPod and I'll meet you down at the Ultra Lounge for pomegranate cosmopolitans because it's obviously still 2005.
No, baby, this is the Summer of ’Six and all the cool kids are cuckoo for yuzu.
I popped over to Ponzu (401 Taylor, SF. 415-775-7979, www.ponzurestaurant.com), where they have two(!) yuzu cocktails on the menu. The Sultana, made with yuzu juice (it's a Japanese fruit), vanilla vodka, and mint, is surprisingly together. The excessive sweetness of vanilla is cut short by the tart yuzu and cooled by the mint that floats on the top of the drink (and then gets stuck in your teeth). But the aptly named Yuzu has caused me to reconsider my pledge to give up vodka (the new schnapps). It's got vanilla vodka along with yuzu and ginger juices, served up. The interplay of the vanilla with the two juices is so interesting and well balanced that you'll be too busy thinking about the magic happening in your mouth to mind that you're drinking it out of one of Ponzu's aluminum martini glasses. (For real.)
The Lobby Bar at the St. Regis Hotel (125 Third St., SF. 415-284-4000, www.stregis.com) is a post-2000, sleek, grand room (ultra-lobby?) where you can still get a seat because the XYZ crowd hasn't discovered it yet. The yuzu lemon drop doesn't sound good at all, but I'm starting to think this fruit can fix anything. It's made with vodka, Cointreau, sugar, and yuzu juice and is served in a martini glass with a sugared rim. Everything is wrong with that sentence except for "yuzu" and "glass." Sugar rims are the fake boobs of cocktails, but it still turned out great. Go yuzu! Also on the menu are a margarita with yuzu, a kaffir lime gimlet (the new martini), and a blood orange cocktail. Also note: The bar snacks rock.
Over at Cortez (550 Geary, SF. 415-292-6360, www.cortezrestaurant.com), the soon-to-be rotated seasonal drink menu boasts two elderflower cocktails. I ordered the Elderflower No. 10, made with elderflower syrup, Tanqueray No. 10 gin, lemon juice, and orange bitters, the last of which gives this drink a surprising level of complexity. Superb. At Rye (688 Geary, SF.