A jaunt through the juice-laced jungles of San Francisco's exotic drink scene
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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. 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. I'd skipped the bars already well known for their creative specialty cocktails (Orbit Room, Frisson, Absinthe — all tropical drink bars) because they're too easy, and my quest for exotic cocktails would have been less like a hunting safari and more like shooting zoo animals. This still leaves plenty of unexplored bars with "in"-gredients like lemongrass, balsamic vinegar (the new Worcestershire), and cayenne pepper on their drink menus. Hunting them down is left as an exercise for the adventurous drinker. SFBG
Camper English is the new Purple Hooter and the author of Party like A Rock Star: Even When You're Poor As Dirt. Share the adventure at www.cramper.com . Got a favorite local exotic cocktail? Spill it: firstname.lastname@example.org .