Friday, January 3, 2014

Meet the Cocktails: Tosca Cafe

If you want to find iconic San Francisco, you only have to look at Tosca Cafe—a famous spot known for a comfortable seat at the bar, a bright and welcoming sign, and a hot spiked drink. For years, the North Beach haunt has been the place for locals and visitors alike, drawing high profile bar flies, like Sean Penn and Bono who would hang out in the dark, seedy back area. Unfazed, locals would while away the day sipping beer next to the towering cappuccino machine. A few months ago, the Spotted Pig Team, April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, brought a new, updated finish to the mainstay—opening up a robust kitchen and bringing in local rising star talent Isaac Shumway (formerly of Heaven's Dog, Bourbon and Branch, and Alembic) to direct the bar program.

Luckily, the space maintained all the best parts of a true bar—a majestic back bar, the handsome, original cappuccino machine, and comfortable booths—with some updated elements (new upholstery for the seats, gorgeous glassware, and some added mood lighting that highlights the original paintings on the wall). It makes for a beautiful interior. It's one of those bars that transports you to a kind of San Francisco twilight zone where you can't tell if it's 1920 or 1990 or what.

The revamp has led to one of the most robust cocktail programs of the year. Led by bar director Isaac Shumway, the menu showcases the best of what we hope for in a cocktail lineup—delightful sippers bolstered by rich, strong, complex drinks. In particular, the menu not only draws on the original house cappuccino. The heart of the menu lies in strong classics and twists on classics, including a whole bedrock of classic drinks not listed on the menu. That is to say, if you come in and order a classic drink not listed, you can expect a damn good cocktail, no foibles.

 ^Bar Director Isaac Shumway

Isaac has brought a venerable ice program to Tosca, freezing and cutting crystal-clear ice cubes. They are beautiful and slow melting, creating a pristine experience for straight spirits on the rocks or strong stirred drinks.

What's more, if you're looking for the best whiskey in the city, Tosca is a must. It may not be the widest selection of brown spirits (please see: Hard Water), but it is some of the most carefully and excellently curated. Hardcore fans will notice the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, the Pappy Van Winkle, the Elijah Craig 21, the Michter's 20, and the Four Roses Special Reserve just hanging out on the shelf like it's nothin'. If you don't know what those things are, then now's the time to learn.

Now meet the cocktails!

The Polo Cup: Gin or Vodka, cucumber, mint, basil, elderflower, lemon, soda. This is a drink you can order for your cocktail-phobic friends. It's light, easy drinking, but still packs some serious flavor. It's just sweet enough to please the club crowd, but it won't leave you with a sugar headache.

Suffering Bastard: Armagnac, St. George Terroir Gin, fresh pressed ginger, lime, bitters, soda. A variation on Trader Vic's classic cocktail, the Suffering Bastard is everything I love in a tiki drink. It's just sweet enough to hold the spiciness of the ginger, which matches the terroir gin perfectly. The lemon and soda add a nice, dry finish that keeps you coming back for more.

Bennet: three ingredient drinks are often the best, but it's hard to find a place that does them justice. Tosca has the ratios perfect. No matter who you order a Bennet from, you'll enjoy three perfectly matched ingredients: Miller's Gin, lime, aromatic bitters (house made).

Trouble in Paradise: Bourbon, Campari, lemon, basil, grapefruit, black pepper tincture. Perhaps my favorite on the menu because it hits all my favorite notes. It's bitter, spicy, tart, and herbaceous. This drink is also the most culinary on the menu, insofar as its got layers of complex flavors. Don't be put off by the basil and black pepper, they blend with the other ingredients perfectly. Though it's a rich cocktail for sure, it doesn't taste like you're drinking a soup or anything.

The Zamboanga Cocktail: Marie Duffau Bas Armagnac, pineapple gum, maraschino, lime, aromatic bitters. For whatever reason, this drink is a rare sighting on a classic cocktail on their menus. It's a shame, though, because it's one of the most interesting. The pineapple gum pulls together the other ingredients perfectly. The olive and lime garnish provide that extra bit of salt and acid to round out the flavors in this one. So good.

Rosita: Gin, calvados, Dolin Blanc, grenadine, lemon peel. The Rosita is a delicate drink, perfect when you want something a little slower and lighter without sacrificing flavor.

House Cappuccino: Marie Duffau Bas Armagnac, bourbon, Dandelion chocolate ganache, organic milk. This is Tosca's most famous drink right now. It's a delicious drink on a cold afternoon when you want a happy hour warmup. The chocolate ganache (locally sourced!) is incredible.

Cap Haitian Apple Toddy: Haitian rum cider, roasted apple, spiced butter. All the food press in the city is obsessed with the House Cap, but in my opinion this Apple Toddy is at least as good as the House Cap, if not better. It's warm, spicy, and smooth—what I hope for on a foggy San Francisco night. The perfectly roasted apple in this sucker is as soft as pudding (did we mention that Isaac used to cook at French Laundry and Gary Danko?).

Casino Bar Negroni: Campari, Carpano Antica, Beefeater Gin. It's a perfect negroni, what else is there to say?

Pro tip: Ask for the Tosca Martini. It's hand mixed every day then stored in the freezer till it's ice cold. When ordered, it's poured over a big, cold ice cube so clear, you can peer right through the glass and not know it's there. It's delightfully viscous, smooth, and still packs a perfect punch. Let it sit for a few minutes, give it a spin, and then let it warm you up.

Or, if you're feeling dangerous, ask for a Cafe Brulot. It's coffee, brandy, orange, and clove all set on freakin' fire.

Naturally, one of the highlights of Tosca Cafe is the food (and not nearly enough San Francisco bars serve food with their drinks!). With April Bloomfield in the kitchen, you can expect more than your typical bar food.

In fact, for a long time, we've contemplated the idea of starting a bar bites series. Among them, would have been former Bar Agricole chef Brandon Jew's uni deviled eggs and duck liver toast (which we have affectionately begun to pine after to the tune of "Duck Tales"—Duck Toast! Woo hoo!).

But those dishes being in memorandium since Jew left Agricole, we are super excited to welcome PIG TAILS from Tosca onto the short list (capitalization added for exuberance).  Don't be put off by the thought of eating pig tails. Though cute in story books, pig tails are delicious at Tosca! They satisfyingly crunchy on the outside with rich, soft bits of fat that you can suck off the small bones. It comes with a sauce of Agrodolce reduction, vinegar, herbs and sugar, which is bright and satisfyingly acidic. If you thought wings were fun to eat, these will blow your minds.

And the pigs tails make a perfect complement to the drinks.

For vegetarians (like Josh), the cauliflower gratin provides a rich and hearty dish. Our favorite part of it is the whole half lemon, which gives a generous squeeze over the whole plate and brings the bold, cheesy flavors all together.

Here's all the photos:

- Josh + Noelle

Tosca Cafe
242 Columbus Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 986-9651
Opened 5 p.m. - 2 a.m. Kitchen closes at 1 a.m. Closed Monday.

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