APPETITE A celebratory or comforting drink is just what we crave at this time of year. When it comes with an excellent bite, even better. Here are a few of the most noteworthy drinks, winter cocktail menus, and dishes in SF as 2012 passes into 2013.
It's not a cocktail, and its blowfish base has long been known as dangerous... but in skilled hands, is entirely safe. Ame Restaurant in The St. Regis serves this fugu (blowfish) fin sake, the most adventurous drink on order this winter. Yes, it's infused with an actual toasted fugu fin resting in the bottom of a ceramic mug ($15 for 6 oz.), filled with warm Honjozo-style "Karatamba" sake from Japan's Hyogo prefecture. In Japan, this torafugu is considered to be of the highest quality, the fins traditionally roasted and steeped in warm sake. I couldn't miss a chance to taste the rarity when it came on the menu a few weeks ago — and it will be available through February 2013. On a brisk, clear winter's night, it warmed me from within with rich, layered, funky, even umami notes.
Eat with: Sit at Ame's small bar with a mug of blowfish fin sake accompanied by Ame's now classic Lissa's Staff Meal ($16.50), an artful bowl of cuttlefish noodles, appropriate soft and muscled, tossed with brightly fresh sea urchin and quail egg in soy and wasabi.
In the St. Regis Hotel, 689 Mission, SF. (415) 284-4040, www.amerestaurant.com
Launched on December 17, Blackbird's winter menu offers the most sophisticated, satisfying cocktails in the Castro. Owner Shawn Vergara has been filling this needed niche on Market Street since opening Blackbird in 2009. This brand-new menu features some of Blackbird's best drinks yet. I adore Italy's sexy, sparkling red wine, Lambrusco. Here it's a vibrant aperitif with pear-infused gin in the Poached Pear ($8), balanced by honey and lemon. Crimson King ($9) is another rosy, cool sipper of hibiscus-infused brandy, house pistachio orgeat, cranberry, and lemon. My tops on the new menu just might be Harvest Moon ($10). It's a Bols Genever and Nocino (green walnut liqueur) base, sweetened with maple and pumpkin butter, balanced by lemon and Angostura bitters, softened with egg whites.
Eat with: Blackbird's six different bar jars smeared on crispy crackers make for playful snacks, whether you opt for the smoked trout or deviled ham jars. I lean towards the pimento cheese jar laden with piquillo peppers and cheddar.
2124 Market, SF. (415) 503-0630, www.blackbirdbar.com
Running through the first week of January, 15 Romolo's Sherry Christmas! explores the wonders of sherry in cocktails that don't taste merely of sherry. The impressive range is no surprise from what has consistently remained one of the best cocktail menus in San Francisco — with damn great food, too. The menu features all sherry styles from fino to oloroso, which act as shining stars or subtle unifiers. Manzanilla sherry subtly backs gin in Gardner's Delight ($10) next to celery bitters, Dolin blanc vermouth, lemon, and a house thyme shrub — a lively "delight". White Elephant ($9) illumines white port, sherry vinegar. and spiced liqueur with manzanilla sherry, a dash of absinthe tying this refresher together. Typically when I see rye whiskey, Cynar, and amontillado sherry together, I expect a musky, fall-spiced drink. In the case of a Solstice Sour ($10), these elements are mixed with a light hand, touched with lemon and cinnamon syrup, a cocktail that manages to capture winter in an almost spring-like way. Here's hoping these sherry beauties stay on past January.