415-786-7803), the most exotic ingredients used are blackberries and cucumbers (the new strawberries), which just aren’t freaky enough for the purposes of this safari, although they do make a mean basil gimlet.
After waking the next day reeking of elderflower and ginger, I changed my shirt and hit Aziza (5800 Geary, SF. 415-752-3056, www.aziza-sf.com), the Moroccan restaurant on Geary at 22nd Avenue. Aziza uses überdramatic cocktail ingredients like smoked almonds, kumquats, thyme, and nutmeg. I started with the tarragon caipirinha, which has cardamom pods muddled into the drink along with the eponymous ingredient. Then I tried the rhubarb one with strawberry, wild fennel, and vodka, and followed it with the celery one muddled with vanilla vodka and dusted with crushed peppercorns. All three drinks were too sweet for my taste (probably to match the sweet and savory flavors in the food), and it appears the rest of the menu is too. The rhubarb was my favorite of the three, as the plant gave the drink a creamy, clean texture. The pepper atop the celery was another nice touch (and I'm seeing this done with watermelon cocktails at other venues), but overall the unique ingredients used in the cocktails seem more fancy than functional.
At Solstice (2801 California, SF. 415-359-1222, www.solsticelounge.com), most of the drinks involve the latest standard fresh ingredients, like raspberries, pomegranate, ginger, and lychee, made into preprepared purees, juices, and flavored syrups. (I'm sure it saves time muddling.) One drink uses fresh lemongrass (the new basil), but I went with the Sol Provider, made with vodka, maraschino liqueur (the new triple sec), and ginger, muddled with cucumber and mint. It was a fresh, crisp cocktail that didn't need as much syrup as was used, but invites exploration of the rest of the drink menu.
After stopping into a few other venues not worth mentioning except that they all served basil or cilantro gimlets, I hit the Mission's Bissap Baobab (2323 Mission, SF. 415-826-9297, www.bissapbaobab.com), which uses fresh house-made hibiscus, tamarind, and ginger juice in its specialty drinks. I started with the Salaan, a tamarind margarita that's one of three on the menu. It was deliciously different and avoided the usual margarita maladies — too sweet or too salty. The Sedeem uses all three juices along with white rum and tastes like a rum punch, except it's a smooth and interesting drink instead of the usual headache-inducing Kool-Aid. Baobab also features rums infused with coconut, pear, pineapple, and other flavors, served on the rocks. Everything here tastes like summer.
From there I walked over to Noe Valley’s Fresca (3945 24th St., SF. 415-695-0549, www.frescasf.com). All three outlets of this Peruvian restaurant use the same drink menu, which highlights eight variations of the pisco sour (the new caipirinha), as well as pisco sangria and the old caipirinha. Fresca no longer offers the chirimoya colada that's still on the menu, because it can't acquire any more of the chirimoya fruit. How's that for exotic? The Cojita is a mojito made with coca leaf–infused rum that imparts only a subtle dried-leaf flavor to the drink. It was tastier for its innate mojito qualities than for the added flavor of the coca leaves. Maybe it needed more of them. The chicha sour is a pisco sour with added chicha morada, a sweet dark purple juice with a hint of clove made from boiled purple corn in Fresca's kitchen. It was also a solid and well-mixed drink (frothy egg white cocktails, we don't have enough of), but very straightforward. These might make better sense accompanying a spicy meal here than on their own. If you're into the whole eating thing.
At this point, I'd overspent my drink stipend and had to end my adventure.