Sunday, February 22, 2015

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


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.

UPDATE - 3/2
Thanks to an anonymous commenter who pointed out an article in SF Weekly. Paolo Lucchesi reports that Tosca has replaced Isaac with Joe Cleveland who will "take over lead bartender duties." Congrats to Joe! We are anxious to see what he does with the cherished program and spot.

- Noelle

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Bar Agricole and Trou Normand: Tipping and Tax All Included


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 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

Sunday, February 1, 2015

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

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.


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).

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

Enter Coachman

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.

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.