Flaming Spanish coffee, kumquat shrubs, 'infierno tincture' .... fresh delights at Comal, Copita, Grand Cafe, and Absinthe
APPETITE Wet your whistle: Here are a handful of spots in Berkeley, Sausalito, Union Square, and Hayes Valley with new drinks to put on your warm weather radar — and accompanying bites to go with.
Downtown Berkeley has never overwhelmed with excellent dining options, much as I've combed restaurants within the BART vicinity over the years. Gather (www.gatherrestaurant.com ) is my top recommend in the area, but Oaxacan newcomer Comal promises to be a favorite. It's owned by the former manager of the band Phish with executive chef Matt Gandin, formerly chef de cuisine at Delfina, running the kitchen. The hook for drink lovers is a cocktail menu created by the Bon Vivants (www.bonvivants-sf.com ), Josh Harris and Scott Baird. I went on opening night, May 5, and no surprise from that expert bartending crew: each drink tried was a winner, featuring South of the Border spirits from tequila to mezcal.
Jack Satan ($9) is not remotely evil. Despite a tinge of heat from the "infierno tincture," the whole effect is tart loveliness with Tres Agaves Reposado, hibiscus syrup, lime, and salt. Another immediate standout is a Black Daiquiri ($10) mixing Pampero Aniversario Rum, Averna, lime, sugar, and Chiapan coffee tincture. Tart, bitter, sweet and robust, coffee notes do not dominate but add a hint of earth and body. Mexican classics like the Paloma get the Vivants treatment — the Palomaesque ($9) which substitutes Don Amado Rustico Mezcal for tequila, ups the bitterness ante with Cocchi Americano alongside grapefruit, and rounds it all out with lime, honey, salt, soda.
Oaxacan food, one of my great cravings (mole!), is the other great draw here in the open, modern space and appealing back patio. Of initial dishes tried, duck mole coloradito (a red mole sauce) enchiladas ($14) already had me jonesing for a return. Duck mole and a little Jack Satan? Sins worth committing.
2020 Shattuck Ave., Berk. (510) 926-6300, www.comalberkeley.com 
TV chef and cookbook author Joanne Weir showcases her love of tequila — and recipes from her Tequila — at Copita, Sausalito's spanking new Mexican restaurant with sidewalk seating, open air setting, and rotisserie chicken, all a stone's throw from the shimmering Bay. Still working out opening kinks since opening a couple weeks ago, two visits have allowed me to work my way through the entire cocktail menu and enjoyable flights (try the $20 Highlands Reposado flight: Siete Leguas, Ocho, Excellia reposados) with shots of house sangrita: tomato, pineapple, cucumber, orange, celery, ancho chile, lime.
There are cocktails like Joanne's favorite — one I love to make at home — the Prado: Corazon blanco tequila, Luxardo maraschino liquor, lime, egg white. Fun is the spicy and smoky "Raspado": Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal, tamarind, with a chile-salt rim hit spicy, smoky and sweet simultaneously. Add anejo to your Oaxacan chocolate milkshake ($6), and don't miss the restaurant's most heartwarming bite thus far: Mexico City-style quesadillas ($8), fried and filled with Yukon gold potatoes, a savory, excellent house chorizo and queso fresco with crema on top.
739 Bridgeway, Sausalito. (415) 331-7400, www.copitarestaurant.com 
Grand Cafe hasn't been the obvious place for a quality cocktail, but with new bar manager Kristin Almy on board, there's a stronger focus on cocktails at the Hotel Monaco bar than ever before. In keeping with the restaurant, French influence resounds with cocktail names like Bardot and St. Tropez. Most drinks dwell on the softer side: fizzy, layered, delicate, though a light Napoleon's Dynamite ($9) is a fine intro for those who don't think they're whiskey drinkers: Bulleit Rye, Dubbonet Rouge, lemon, and grapefruit bitters go down all too easy.
Merci ($8) is an elegant, dry aperitif ideal for afternoon or pre-dinner sipping and light on alcohol: Noilly Prat dry vermouth, sparkling wine (prosecco), and Almy's house blackberry liqueur. A lovely Three Musicians ($9) is subtly soft, infusing tequila with piquillo peppers, mixing cucumber and lime, topping the drink with Lillet foam. Though ideally I'd like a stronger kick of heat and boldness, I see the dilemma at the Monaco: appealing to tourists and locals alike. This menu challenges the inexperienced palate with an approachable, playful whisper. Add on a round of braised ground octopus flatbread ($14) and it's a happy hour.
501 Geary, (415) 292-0101, www.grandcafe-sf.com 
With recently updated cocktail menu from former bar manager Jeff Hollinger, who went on to open Comstock Saloon (www.comstocksaloon.com ) in 2010, classic stalwart Absinthe offers new drinks. If you like it sweet, but a little tart and smoky to keep things interesting, try the Sol Y Fuego, as I recently did. Bartending charmer Raoul mixed a kumquat shrub with nutty-spiced Velvet Falernum, lemon, bitters and a base of Don Amado mezcal. Savor it with fat garlic pretzel sticks dipped in fondue-like Vermont cheddar mornay. Don't forget to finish with Absinthe's house specialty: a flaming, cinnamon-laced Spanish coffee. Worth the spectacle alone.
398 Hayes, (415) 551-1590, www.absinthe.com 
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