Sunday, February 22, 2015

Tosca Pares Down Its Cocktail Program, Continuing a Sad Streak in San Francisco Cocktails

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We thought we were sad when The Coachman closed this month. Not to mention that Trou Normand closed its early morning and espresso service. Well, we got a heavy dose of salt in the wounds when we learned that one of our other favorite bar programs, Tosca Cafe's, is being cut down. Star bar director Isaac Shumway is out, and the general manager and chef will now run the bar instead––with what we can only imagine to be a drastically simplified cocktail menu. Call us the Sorrow of Drinking.

Under Isaac, Tosca had one of our most favorite cocktail programs in the city. As a former cook, Isaac brought his experience from places like the French Laundry and Gary Danko to one of the most ambitious cocktail menus in San Francisco. He has one of the most perceptive palates and an unrelenting eye for technique and execution. Classics and originals alike were obsessively honed, perfecting cocktails down to the specific blends of sugars and level of citrus oil. The cocktails—no matter who made them—were executed to perfection. This is a big deal, especially in a city like San Francisco. It's hard to make a great menu. It's even harder to bring together a whole staff to execute consistently and quickly, even when the crowds press in.

We won't be surprised if there is an exodus of bar talent at Tosca following this news.

Cocktails in San Francisco have had a rough start to 2015. Let's hope it's only up from here.

- Noelle

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Bar Agricole and Trou Normand: Tipping and Tax All Included

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Owner Thad Vogler is going the way of a select few other restaurant and bars in the San Francisco and, starting this year, began including service, sales tax, and the healthy San Francisco surcharge in the menu prices at his ever popular SOMA restaurants and cocktail watering holes, Bar Agricole and Trou Normand. In other words, the price you see on the menu is what you get. The reasoning behind the change, said the staff, was to ensure that the cooks, who typically don't get a share of tips, benefited from service charges as much as the front of house.

I can't seem to tear myself from either restaurant and was initially unsure of whether I liked the change or not. $21 for my favorite pasta? $13 for that divine pâté? $15 for those expertly mixed cocktails?

As I thought about it, I came to realize what a noble gesture this is for the consumer. Totally transparency. All in. What you see is what you get. No hidden costs.

I watched the couple next to me finish their charcuterie and cheese plate, and when the check came, the guy exclaimed, "This is awesome! The tip is included in the check!" My mom kept making similar remarks when I brought her to Trou Normand the previous week: "No math!" she told her friends.

And so I've come around. What works especially well for the Bar Agricole family is their impeccable dedication to service and quite simply their delicious cocktails and food. So it makes any sticker shock much more palatable, so to speak.

Now the only problem is that I can't tip more.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

What to Drink: The Michelada at Namu Gaji’s Brunch

Namu Gaji - Michelada

I’m not really a person who gravitates to the Hair of the Dog. The occasional punch or Ramos Gin Fizz with friends will sometimes fit my mood on weekend mornings, but generally speaking, I prefer a strong, black coffee to start my day.

When I do have the occasion to enjoy a long brunch on slow weekend days, I’ve recently started ordering Virgin Marys as my drink of choice. They come quick, burst with flavor even without liquor, and can spice up a couple of fried eggs. And they’re usually about half the price of the spiked version. 

But this all changed when I came upon the Michelada at Namu Gaji

We had come to the Korean-inspired restaurant on a Saturday morning hungry for the clean, comforting flavors of grilled fish, rice, and pickled vegetables. At night, the restaurant offers table service for its elegant plates of Korean American fare, but on weekend mornings, guests can order brunch at the counter and find themselves a seat at the bar along the window, the long communal table, or one of the dozen or so other two tops. 

And then I saw it on a sign by the cash register: the Michelada. A typical Michelada is a sometimes favorite of bartenders, a dirty mix of beer (often cheap), lime, peppers, and spices. In its rawest state, it can sometimes takes the form of a cold can of Tecate with a wedge of lime and a dosing of Tapatio. 

But this was not Namu Gaji’s Michelada. Namu Gaji’s Michelada is made from tomatoes—when possible, from the restaurants’s farm in Sonul ag park—gochugaru (bright red Korean pepper flakes), bulldog vegetable and fruit tonkatsu sauce, tamari (aka Japanese soy sauce from miso), wasabi, ginger, and unfiltered Asahi beer. It is garnished with a lemon wheel and a long peel of ginger. I was entranced.

And rightly so. The wheaty unfiltered Asahi beer went perfectly with the bright burst of California tomatoes and sweet Korean pepper. Unlike Bloody Marys—which sometimes make the tomatoes, salt, and alcohol feel like fire in your throat—the Michelada offered a milder, more drinkable, slightly effervescent alternative that tasted cohesive. It was everything I actually crave when ordering a Bloody Mary.

Namu Gaji - Barley Tea

For those who find the acid of tomato juice tough on their stomach, a cup of traditional barley tea is a restorative follow up (in fact, you’ll find the same kind of tea served as a finisher at the three-Michelin-starred Saison on the other side of the City).

By the way, if you're into beer cocktails, 15 Romolo is hosting its 5th annual Booze and Beer Brawl event on Feb. 15 at 6 p.m., as part of SF beer week. Some of the city's best bartenders will be competing for the best cocktail of the night, and you get to try each of their creations and then vote. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. We often go and wrote about it a few years ago. Enjoy.

Namu Gaji
499 Dolores St
San Francisco, CA 94110
(between 8th St & Dorland St in the Mission)
(415) 431-6268
namusf.com

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why The Coachman Is Like Second City for Cocktails—And It Just Closed

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The Coachman on its penultimate night.

Chances are that if you haven't heard of Second City, you probably have and just don't know it.

If you have ever used a 30 Rock gif to describe your life, quoted Billy Murray's character in Caddyshack, gotten your news entirely from The Colbert Report, or ironically or unironically used the phrase "win-win-win" from Steve Carrell in The Office, then you have benefited from Second City, Chicago's infamous live improv group. The full list of Second City alum reads like a who's who of the most influential, funniest comedians of the last fifty years. After earning their chops at Second City, alumni go on to act or write in TV (most notably Saturday Night Live) or film. Audiences flock to the shows, knowing that they can watch performances from some of the funniest people in the country––many of whom will go on to become nationally famous.

The Coachman—formerly known as Heaven's Dog—is San Francisco's Second City for cocktails.

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A sadly blurry picture from an iPhone 3GS during our first visit to Heaven's Dog in 2009.

A Cocktail Geek's Dream


Heaven's Dog opened in 2009 in a dodgy part of San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood, about a block away from the city's main theaters on Mission between 7th and 8th. This sister restaurant to Slanted Door had opened with some fanfare. The craft cocktail scene at the time was small and young, and those who cared about good drinks on both coasts knew that with Erik Adkins at the helm, Heaven's Dog would be amazing. Erik was and is the Slanted Door group's beverage director, and by that time he had earned the respect of "mixologists" everywhere (remember when that term didn't make you sound like a d-bag?)  for his encyclopedic knowledge of cocktails and their history, his meticulousness, and his almost supernaturally perfect execution. 

Heaven's Dog was built to be the cocktail geek's dream. It opened with a beautifully executed curation of Charles H. Baker drinks, ones that would become favorites in the craft cocktail crowd—the Fourth Regiment, an Improved Whiskey Cocktail (a Buffalo Trace old fashioned with a touch of absinthe and maraschino), the Bittered Sling (armangac, bitters, sugar, and nutmeg), and the Remember the Maine (rye, sweet vermouth, cherry herring, and bit of absinthe), for example, just to indulge myself in a few fond memories. It was one of the first places to use crystal-clear ice for every drink and to put a bar-wide emphasis on cocktail consistency. Even on the bartender's side, Erik designed the bar to be a thing of beauty—a "jet cockpit for making cocktails," as former bar manager Trevor Easter once called it. It was optimized for the bartender with the racks, sinks, glasses, and garnish trays in the most sensible and ergonomic places. And the bar itself was a long, handsome single piece of wood that was so large it had to be moved in before the front door was fully installed.

Erik said that he would work onsite on the project, and funnily you could find him working as the host and zipping around to fill water glasses (which is how we met him).

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An old picture of Heaven's Dog under Trevor Easter. Taken with a iPhone 3GS, now an artifact of the past.

Enter Coachman

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The Coachman on its preview night.

Heaven's Dog was eventually closed for a time after suffering a flood. Owner Charles Phan did away with the delicious Chinese food (Soup dumplings! Siu mai! Corn and pork! Vegetarian pork buns!) and recast it as a British gastropub called the Coachman. Cocktails were equally meticulous, but this time focused on inspiration from the Victorian Era with some real creative flair from Johnny Codd.

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Just one of Johnny Codd's inventive creations, a clarified gin flight.

Johnny Codd took the Coachman in an exciting new direction––not just for the Slanted Door Group, but also for the city. Codd pushed the boundaries, coming up with Aviary-esque cocktails right in our own backyard. His clarified gin flight (three gin and clarified citrus cocktails served up), made-to-order Campari ice cream, and blended Negronis quickly became well known. His "secret menu" was an especially creative endeavor, including roast-your-own marshmallows, smoked spirits, and glasses made of Peychauds ice. At the Coachman, Codd could be as creative as he wanted, and Adkins encouraged and guided Codd's experiments. This is why losing the Coachman is such a bummer for San Francisco. Not only are we losing a great bar, but we're losing a pace for bartenders to master their craft with skilled mentors.


A Star Studded Crew


Over the years, the restaurant bought a celebrated cast of bartenders behind the bar—a mix of industry legends and those who would launch a formidable bartending career from there. Most had come as friends to Erik or as fans/proteges of him. 

Here is a taste of the bar managers:
  • Erik Adkins (of course!)
  • Jackie Patterson (a much-loved early pioneer in the craft cocktail scene)
  • Trevor Easter (who was spotlighted as a Bar Star while at the Dog and subsequently took on the coveted role of West Coast Ambassador for Beefeater and now leads Noble Experiment in San Diego. He also started Bar Coaster while at Heaven's Dog)
  • Ethan Terry (who went on to manage Alembic and founded Reclamation Etchworks)
  • Johnny Codd (who opened the Coachman and is recognized as one of Zagat's 30 under 30 this year)
The men and women behind the bar were equally incredible. Even the opening team was stacked with possibly unparalleled talent. Many were already established or went on to open some of the Bay Area's most renowned restaurants. They included Thad Vogler (owner of Bar Agricole and Trou Normand), Eric Johnson, Craig Lane, Chris Lane (who then headed up Lolinda, El Techo, and now Ramen Shop), Isaac Shumway (bar manager of Tosca), Jennifer Colliau (bar manager the Interval at the Long Now and owner/founder of Small Hand Foods), Erik Ellestad (of Stomping Through the Savoy), John Ottman (of Holy Water), Keli Rivers, and others. 

As much as the bar was Second City, Heaven's Dog/The Coachman was also a Cheers bar. It soon became an industry watering hole and cocktail enthusiast destination. You would often see bartenders on their dinner break or nights off come by for a drink, some dumplings, and a warm welcome. Drink nerds fans would glow from the firelight of flaming 151 for roasting marshmallows.

For ourselves, personally, we learned so much from the six years we spent at the bar. We made new friends, rode a few bar coasters, watched Trevor weep in terror while making a blue blazer, created (and subsequently burned) Pedro with Isaac, enjoyed many a happy hour (and then happy evening?) over tiki drinks with Chris Lane, and had our first ever, mind-blowing negroni jello shot with Johnny as part of his hush hush menu

Friday night, The Coachman/Heaven's Dog closed. It closed quietly and quickly with little fanfare. There was no massive send-off, just a lot of tears from regular customers and staff alike. We've lost something special with The Coachman, and that is a lineage of bar managers and bartenders who were changing the way the Bay Area, and, yes, the nation, thinks about cocktails. We can only hope it is not forever.

- Josh and Noelle

Video of The Coachman's last hour, as friends and family say goodbye.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

All the Cocktails on the Opening Menu at Mourad

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I feel for restaurant owners on opening night. Despite what often seems like glitz and glam from the outside, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to open your doors for the first time and invite in hoards of San Francisco sophisticates with high expectations. Yet when Mourad Lalou opened his latest project, Mourad, in San Francisco's neo gothic Pacbell Building in SOMA last night, he did so with seeming ease. Service seemed calm. And the cocktails—of course my interest point here—were elegantly executed.

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The opening menu is put together by Christ Aivaliotis, of consulting firm Wizard Oil. After getting his start with Erik Adkins at Flora, Christ opened a cocktail consultancy with his business partner Tory Bayless and was brought on to create the program at Mourad.

It's a simple, but well constructed, menu with cohesive flavors and a touch of spices to go with the restaurant's theme—which, like its Michelined sister Aziza, focuses on Morocco.

The restaurant is an impressive stage for cocktails. The layout is designed to resemble a traditional Moroccan home, which grows in intimacy as you move from the front to the back. It starts with the living room and opens up to the main dining room. The staircase in back looks like it could move into a bedroom—in actuality another dining room. The bar itself is granite-topped and so long that it curves into an L. The backbar is impressively large and rises above the counter with modern, minimalist shelves.

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Here is what you can expect from the opening cocktail menu at Mourad and some scant notes:

On the Spot - rye, nocino, manzilla, triple sec. A smooth and stirred drinks with velvety elements of fig from the sherry.

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Calgula's Kiss - rum, cherry liqueur and lime. Bright and refreshing. Not too sweet.

On the Spot - Mourad

Baco: tequilla, pineapple, lime, cinnamon, herbsaint. It's bright, sweet, slightly buttery (from the pineapple), and cohesive.

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Chrysanthemum - Benedictine, French vermouth, and Elisir mp Roux (a herbsaint from Provence, France). It's a sweet drink that tastes like honey suckle, though the texture is still light and not viscous. The drink is relatively low ABV, and tastes like a milder, sweeter martini for those who like the flavor profile of the classic drink with less aggressive notes.

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Old Blanco Daisy - pisco, pomelo, and tonga mix made of real passion fruit, real lilikoi. The tonga mix is made made of pomegranate, orange peels, and pomelo. They also had real lilikoi seeds for sweetnss and texture. Though it sounds sweet, the pomelo balances out the drink with a touch of bitterness.

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Copa Gibson - A classic mix of Sipsmith Gin, bitter, and onion.

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Salt and Pepper - gin, lemon, grapefruit, bitters. They use Broker's gin in this drink, which is dry and botanical—a good match to the grape fruit and bitters.

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Mourad
140 New Montgomery St.
San Francisco, CA 94105

Monday, January 5, 2015

What to Drink in Hawaii: The Blood Mary at Halekulani’s House Without a Key

Halekulani Bloody Mary

The Mai Tai at the Halekulani is easily one of the most legendary cocktails in Honolulu. Lesser known, however equally mythic, is the same five-star hotel’s Bloody Mary. While not listed on the menu, those who know about it can order it at the House Without a Key, the hotel's historic outside patio with famous views of iconic Diamond Head and, around sunset, a live Hawaiian band and hula dancer.

It has been said that the Halekulani’s Bloody Mary is so good that there is only one guy at the hotel who knows how to create the mix. He makes it in batches for bartenders to simply add the spirit before serving, so that even the bartenders don’t know how to make the drink. This guards the recipe from inquiring minds. I imagined an old, leathered local man alone in the bowels of the hotel, huddled over a large tub, carefully making his brew. (My other image, curiously, was a Don Ho with big 70s hair and large sunglasses making the mix in the open, but no one knowing exactly what he was doing.)

Sadly, upon a little investigation, it turns out that the myth isn’t exactly true. Many bartenders at the Halekulani know how to make the mix ahead of time, and they collaborate on it. (On the bright side, this did assuage my anxieties around losing the recipe with the old man. Also, good bye, Don Ho.)

But just because the myth isn’t true doesn’t mean the drink isn’t quite simply delicious and, in fact, the recipe still has a twist. According to the staff, the Bloody Mary makes use of the most classic ingredients: tomato juice, horseradish, Worcestershire, tobasco, celery salt, and—adding one more special touch—au jus. It’s a great idea in concept. Mixing in the rich savory juices from beef gives deep complexity to the spicy drink. What’s alluring in practice is that the Halekulani also happens to be home to La Mer, the most elegant French restaurant on the island. The food there is exquisite and expertly crafted, enjoyed by patrons in the quiet dining room with pristine views of the Pacific. Au jus from potentially La Mer in my Bloody Mary? Yes, please!

The result is a satisfyingly sweet, briny, savory, and slightly spicy Bloody Mary served with a generous celery stick and a lime wedge. Guests can choose from vodka or gin. Unlike many other Bloody Marys which easily veer too spicy, too acidic, or too rich, the Halekulani’s well-balanced rendition is easy to enjoy to the last drop and is a ready companion to the sweet, round tunes of a Hawaiian band and the winter’s swollen sunsets, all found at House Without a Key.

Inspired by my interest in the Bloody Mary recipe, one of the friendly waiters did offer his friend’s favorite mix for making the drink at home: V8, A1, and tobasco sauce. Yet another concoction that I will perhaps have to try some day.

House Without a Key
Halekulani Hotel, 2199 Kalia Road, Honolulu, HI 96815
(808) 923-2311

Monday, October 13, 2014

Pst! Check Out the Coachman's Secret Menu (Told Through Instagram and Phone Pictures)

After much debating back and forth about keeping it to ourselves, we're going to let San Francisco into one of our favorite little secrets: the secret menu at the Coachman in San Francisco's gritty part of SOMA. 

As if you needed another reason to check out their extremely creative program, someone allowed bar manager Johnny Codd near liquid nitrogen, fire, fireball, and a smoke machine, and this menu was the fantastic result. 

If you are at the bar and you ask for it, you'll be allowed to choose from a short list of these sippable wonders. They run for $14-$16 and are perfect to impress a date or just to add a bit of fun to your evening. 

Fit for the genre of secret cocktails, we are going to depart from our usual photography treatment. What better way to share them than in low-lit phone and instagram photos? Because the real thing is always going to be so much better than the pictures anyway. (Trust us.)

The menu sometimes rotates a little, but check this out:

Something Ridiculous
The bartender sets a goblet on fire with high proof alcohol and toasts a marshmallow in front of you. Then you can enjoy bites of gooey toasted marshmallow paired with rich, chocolatey porter, and a cocktail of rum, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, cream, and toffee syrup.

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Something in an Ice Sphere
What's better than your favorite cocktail? Uh, your favorite cocktail in a freaking ice sphere.

Coachman Secret Menu - Something in an Ice Sphere


Something Tiki
We have so many favorite tiki drinks, we just can't choose our favorite! And why should we have to with this awesome (and did we mention adorable?) tiki trio, which includes a Mai Tai, Pain Killer, and Pina Colada. Don't forget to wear sunscreen.



Something Smoked
Choose from Buffalo Trace, House made fireball, or Hunting Flask (one of the house cocktails made with infused Redbreast whiskey). Then decide on mesquite, apple, hickory, or cherry wood chips. Add smoke.



Something Special
Is this what you think you see? If you're wondering that, the answer is probably yes.



Something with Cheeky's
At one time, something cheeky was made of this delicious adult icee—and by that we mean a blended negroni, a super cold, thirst quenching, and somehow creamy cocktail of campari, sweet vermouth, and gin whipped up in a Vitamix with ice (Johnny likes to add a little squeeze of lime over the top, as well as some egg white to the mix). The garnish was a negroni jello in a real orange peel.

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These days, they've added a bit more to the order. Instead of the blended negroni (still available upon request, and we recommend you do on a hot day), you get a cheeky trio: a deconstructed sazerac in an absinthe ice glass (you're not hallucinating), a cheeky of housemade fireball, and the jelly negroni.



Shhhh. Don't tell anyone.

The Coachman
1148 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 813-1701