APPETITE Let's be clear: the Bon Vivants crew's newly opened Trick Dog in the Mission — featuring a cocktail menu modeled after a Pantone swatch book — is the hot food and drink destination of the moment (see my early review on the Pixel Vision blog at SFBG.com). But slipping at the bar at these three restaurants, ranging from elegant to festive, offers some of SF's best cocktails with incredible bites on a long winter's eve.
It's impossible to get a reservation at Rich Table, one of the most buzzed about restaurants in the country right now, but I find seats at the bar open up often on a Monday, and arriving when they open at 5:30pm is ideal.
With new bar manager Jason "Buffalo" LoGrasso (from Quince and Cotogna), already lovely cocktails expand from four-five offerings to seven on the regular and four on the dessert menu. After tasting every LoGrasso cocktail ($10), I'm in love with the Carnegie Martini. Inspiration is genius — a pastrami sandwich from Carnegie Deli, where my Dad took me for my first reuben as a teenager. LoGrasso combines elements of the ultimate sandwich into a clean, refreshing whole. Wisely using St. George's Dry Rye Gin as a base, caraway comes in the form of Combier's Doppelt Kummel Extra liqueur, an aromatic caraway liqueur redolent of cumin. LoGrasso adds drops of mustard oil and a pickle.
Other heights include a lively Shivered Timbers, red with pomegranate touched by ginger and cinnamon, evoking rhum agricole but using Smith & Cross Pot Still Rum. Top aperitif? Figaro Chain — bright, stimulating Swan's Neck vodka, Averna, lemon, and ginger. Dessert cocktails shine, too. Rich Coffee is a harmonious blend of Fernet, Sightglass coffee, and pistachio cream. Carthusian Hot Cocoa sings with chocolate, Green Chartreuse, mint, and pineapple marshmallow.
Eat with: doughy, savory doughnuts ($7) topped with shaved dried porcini, the clincher being thick raclette dipping sauce. Amuse bouche "Dirty Hippie" elevates granola to gourmet with cool buttermilk panna cotta doused in pumpkin seeds, sprouts, and spices. Divine tajarin ($27) egg noodles (a Piedmont pasta style) in house cultured butter under shaved Perigord black truffles dissolve in the mouth. Sigh.
199 Gough, SF. (415) 355-9085, www.richtablesf.com 
Carlo Splendorini has crafted some of the most elegant, balanced cocktails anywhere. In my travels sampling cocktails the world over, it's rare to experience the precision and finesse Splendorini brings to drinks ($11-14). Prime example: the way barrel-aged Bols Genever and Beefeater Gin seamlessly weave with pine-y notes of Clear Creek Douglas Fir eau de vie, the earthiness of sencha green tea, brightened by tart yuzu, lemon, and grapefruit foam. This combination could easily go wrong, but it's exquisitely layered. Similarly, Yamazaki 12-year Japanese whiskey, chamomile tea, and a spoonful of Yellow Chartreuse over a shiso leaf dramatically cast against a giant ice cube in a wine glass make a striking sipper.
Eat with: oysters brilliantly accented by drink sauces (Pimm's Cup, Elderflower Fizz, Bloody Mary) instead of the usual mignonette, or a meaty Monterey bay abalone ($21) grilled over shiitakes, tokyo turnips, mirin-scented rice in a miso broth. A more affordable bar bite: Mina's signature ahi tuna tartare starter ($19) doused in ancho chile, sesame oil, and mint is $10 during happy hour.
252 California St., SF. (415) 397-9222, www.michaelmina.net 
With new chef Robin Song (formerly of Haven and Plum) on board, there are elevated touches to Hog & Rocks' ever-approachable food, like a special of perch crudo ($14), delicate with nasturtium, puffed rice, minced Manila clams, and blood orange. This suits bar manager Michael Lazar's robust yet refined cocktails just fine. Chef Song's amuse bouche of buckwheat gougeres topped with warm, salty lardo is divine with Lazar's Miller's Meyer ($11), a vivid winter cocktail of Martin Miller's Gin, Meyer lemon syrup, and herbaceous Elisir M.P. Roux liqueur lending whispers of anise, verbena, and lavender. My drink of choice is house Willett bourbon, a bracing 130 proof but cut with water. Rye spice and sweet corn notes meld perfectly in Lazar's Old Fashioned with orange and Angostura bitters.
A refreshing Cider Press Buck ($11) showcases one of the most edible garnishes around: a spiced Arkansas black apple (preserved via Cryovac). This delicious garnish evolves with the seasons, atop Old Fitzgerald bourbon, lime, ginger, and Wandering Aengus dry pear cider, confirming the current cider craze. The Buck pairs with H&R's always pleasurable ham platters ($16), now with Monte Nevado Jamon Serrano from Spain, Greci and Foizani Proscuitto from Italy, and a stunningly smoky ham exemplifying all I love best in Southern hams, Edwards Surryano from Virginia.
3431 19th St., SF. (415) 550-8627, www.hogandrocks.com 
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