Monday, June 8, 2015

Where to Drink in Italy: Nottingham Forest, molecular mixology in Milan

Nottingham Forest

At a certain point, all cocktail bars start to look (and feel... and taste) alike. Whether you're in London, Paris, Copenhagen, or San Francisco, you can rest assured that there will be a solid array of well-executed classics and a relaxed ambiance. Sure, it's good, but routine.

That's why I didn't expect much from Nottingham Forest, widely hailed as the best cocktail bar in Milan. That is also why I was totally unprepared for the mad molecular mixology taking place there.

The bar describes itself as "a mercurial oasis where you can hear the echo of the world." A place where "Water can become foam, foam becomes air and air can turn into smoke." It seems dramatic until smoking drinks emerge from behind the bar. And then you notice what else is back there. There are all sorts of contraptions and gadgets. That's when you realize that Nottingham Forest is not your usual cocktail bar.

Nottingham Forest

Nottingham Forest perfume bottle

Walking in, I was reminded a bit of Smuggler's Cove. Nottingham Forest took the British Empire/Robin Hood/Pirate theme very seriously. The bar is wall-to-wall rum and gin. The decor was chaotic, to put it mildly. There were imperial-themed objects packed into shelves, cases, and on every inch of wall space. The bar allows customers to peek through a lower level of gadgets and an upper level of booze at their bartender, who is nevertheless obscured by bottles, tubes, and sometimes smoke. Seating is relaxed but hard to come by.

Nottingham Forest

The cliental is more varied than such a bar would be stateside. An older couple arrived at the same time we did, pounded four molecular cocktails by the time we finished our first round, and rolled out. There were a few ex-pats and a good number of young and hip Milan residents making the Forest their first stop.

Nottingham Forest backbar

The menu is voluminous, and it's extraordinarily confusing in English. It's not Italian custom to ask for recommendations blindly, so forget about asking for the bartender's favorite or his recommendation. Since this was literally our first cocktail experience in Italy, Noelle and I were a bit taken aback when the bartender refused to give a straightforward recommendation. So, we turned back to the confusing menu. Here's what we were dealing with:

Nottingham Forest

Nottingham Forest

Seriously. Candy caviar? Test tubes? And what the heck is sferification [spherification]? So, we picked two things that seemed the easiest to get into: a negroni-type thing and a martini-eque cocktail.

Nottingham Forest

Nottingham Forest Negroni

The negroni cocktail was actually two different drinks, one of which came in a test tube. The negroni was fairly straightforward, but the test tube drink was a kind of peach vodka mixture. The two could be sipped separately or mixed together. I tried both. On its own, the test tube was a bit sweet for my taste, but when it was mixed with the negroni I was impressed with how well peach mixed with the drink.

Nottingham Forest Martini

Nottingham Forest Candy Caviar

The martini thing was neat in concept, but I'm sad to say the drink itself tasted like rubbing alcohol with a heavy dose of everclear. Candy caviar, as it turns out, is an almost liquid jelly, encased in a thin film. The moment you bite into the sphere, it bursts. Each caviar was flavored either of anise (probably absinthe or pastis) or Campari. If you burst a sphere in your mouth along with some liquor, the drink was better, but still far too boozy to be enjoyable.

After these lackluster drinks I was ready to leave. I'm afraid I don't have much patience. Noelle, however, wanted to give the place another shot. So we ordered another round, and this time we didn't truck with the menu. "I want something bitter," I told the bartender. Noelle ordered something smoking and light. It was a good thing we stayed.

Nottingham Forest

My drink, which was served in a stone cup (which I now want). It was flavored with rhubarb, and that's wild licorice that you see on top. It was intensely bitter, just a little bit sweet and tart, and was extraordinarily refreshing. It was served with two types of mint: banana mint and oyster mint. Each of them taste like their namesakes, which is a bit off-putting at first. But they really do enhance the drink.

Nottingham Forest

Noelle's drink, in that dope skull cup, was a wine-based cocktail chilled with dry ice. Don't worry, the dry ice is kept in a little cage so no one loses a stomach. The drink was dry as all get out, herbal (especially because that massive parsley garnish), and ice cold for the full half-hour it took Noelle to finish.

Nottingham Forest

A huge perk of drinking in Italy is that all cocktail orders come with food. Free (are you listening, American bars? Now that's a heck of an idea!). Nottingham Forest's food was probably the best bar food we had. I guess it's just a variety of focaccia, but it was better than the chips most place serve!

Nottingham Forest (warning: sound)
Viale Piave, 1, Milano, Italy
6:30pm-2am, Tuesday-Saturday
6:30pm-1am, Sunday

No reservations, no proper line. Get there early and jockey for position. Drinks are about 8 euro a pop. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

How One Man Went from Homeless to an Airbnb Chef: Support the Homeless at This Friday's SummerTini


If you told Gary Smith last year that today he’d work at one of San Francisco’s most desirable employers, Airbnb, he would not have believed you. 

As of last year Smith, 52, did not have a job for some 36 years. Suffering from mental illness and without the life skills to manage the ups and downs, he was living on the street and just getting by with social security. With some guidance, he enrolled in the Episcopal Community Services (ECS) of San Francisco’s Conquering Homelessness through Employment in Food Services (CHEFS) program, a six-month course designed to give homeless people the skills to get and maintain a stable job. The program equips participants with general life skills and trains them for jobs in kitchens. This supports them in finding housing and increasing their quality of life.

When the program was through, he landed a job in Airbnb’s kitchen through an agency. Today he’s known at the hot startup for his signature brownies.

“To walk into Airbnb's lobby every morning is a dream come true. Now I'm employed and no longer homeless," Smith says. "Those two equations have never come together for me. [The CHEFS program] can take away the darkness of the life you have.”

Smith is just one of the many graduates of the CHEFS program, which is hosting its 11th annual fundraiser, SummerTini on Friday, June 5 from 6:30pm-9:30pm at The Bently Reserve. (Buy tickets here.)

Guests will be able to nosh on bites from NOPA, Commonwealth, Michael Mina, and other top San Francisco restaurants. Bartenders will be slinging custom cocktails from bars like Trick Dog, Lolo, and Lazy Bear. And there will be a DJ, photo booth, and live and silent auctions, which will sell off items from Bourbon and Branch, The French Laundry, and flour+water, among other places. Proceeds from the event go to the CHEFS program and ECS.

“San Francisco is a foodie town, and we have a program that’s food focused,” says ECS Development Director Bruce Beery. “So SummerTini's a great way to showcase the CHEFS program and the partnership we have with many restaurants and chefs in San Francisco through an event like this.”

The CHEFS students will also be there at the event serving guests. “It’s our opportunity to showcase the skills of these chef students to the 450 people who will be there,” says Beery.

"Works Really Good"

The CHEFS program enrolls about 100 students each year. Participants first master culinary knife skills, then train in a kitchen preparing meals on a daily basis under the guidance of professional chefs and guest chefs from the community, and lastly work in a supervised working environment at a restaurant or congregate meal provider. At the same time, the students are given guidance in other life skills that will enable them to live independently.

Smith, for instance, learned how to prepare a wide variety of kitchen classics, like cookies, brownies, salads, and various meats. He also learned about working with other people, navigating the health system, taking care of himself, and finding and living in an apartment. 

Graduates have placed at a variety of restaurants within the Bay Area, including EO Asian Restaurant, St. Francis Yacht Club, as well as Airbnb, among other places. About 75% of graduates are also able to find a place to live. For many, like Smith, the impact is life changing. 

“I don't know how to say what it does for me as a person inside. It makes me feel valuable to work in a place like Airbnb,” says Smith. “There’s no way I could tell you my story for real. I just have to tell you I’ve lived it, and I know that little program on Tehama Street works really good.”

Photos courtesy of Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Negroni Week 2015 Kicks Off Today: Classic cocktails for a good cause

Casino Bar Negroni

It's that wonderful time of the year. Starting today, bars across the country put out their best negroni to support a good cause of their choice.

Negroni Week first started in San Francisco two years ago, and now Austin, Chicago, New York are just a few of the other cities participating this year. Each bar spotlights their own take on a negroni and a portion of the proceeds go to a charity of the bar's choice. Last year more than 1,300 bars globally raised more than $120,000 for good causes. This year there are over 3,500 bars taking part globally.

Negronis are one of the most classic drinks, traditionally made from just three ingredients: gin, Campari, and vermouth plus an orange garnish. Learn more about which bars are participating this year on the Negroni Week website.

Here are just a few of the drinks being offered in San Francisco this year. We'll update this list as we learn about more.

The Drink: Pup-groni - Campari, Aperol, Big Gin House-Infused with Saffron and Orange Peel, Alessio Torino
Charity: ASPCA

The Drink: Negroni Rosa - Campari, Brooklyn Gin, Imbue Petal & Thorn Vermouth, Dolin Blanc Vermouth
Charity: Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research

Benjamin Cooper 
The Drink: White Negroni - Campari Caviar, London Dry Gin, Gentian Aperitif, Blanc Vermouth, Lemon Bitters
Charity: Doctors Without Boarders

Bluestem Brasserie
The Drink: The Downstroke - 2oz St George Botanivore, .75oz Campari, .75oz Carpano Bianco, dash Regans Orange, dash angostura. The negroni is stirred and served up and garnished a flamed orange peel.
Boxing Room
The Drink: Frogroni - Campari, Cocchi Americano, House-Made Grapefruit Cordial
Charity: SF-Marin Food Bank

Burritt Room 
The Drink: Burritt Negroni - Campari Sorbet, Dry Gin, House Rosé Vermouth, Strawberry Shrub
Charity: Sprouts Cooking Club

Cafe Claude
The Drink: The Pastèque - Bombay sapphire, Giuseppe Carpano sweet vermouth, Aperol, Campari and watermelon bitters  
Charity: CUESA.

The Drinks: 
  • Classic Negroni - Campari, Beefeater Gin, Carpano Antica
  • Barrel-Aged Negroni - Campari, St. George Dry Rye, Punt e Mes, White Peppercorn, Vanilla, Cardamom, Licorice, Marshmallow
  • South Indian Negroni - Campari, House-Made Vermouth, DOSA-Spice Mix
Charity: Katherine Delmar Burke School

The Drink: Sheroni - Gin, Sherry, Vermouth
Charity: CUESA

Jasper's Tap Room and Kitchen
The Drink: Smoked, aged negroni with chinato on tap

The Drinks: 
  • Umberto’s Negroni - Campari, Four Roses Bourbon, Cocchi Americano, Meletti Anisette, Peach Bitters
  • Negroni Fumé - Campari, Beefeater Smoked Gin, Antica Formula Vermouth
  • Lisbona-Milano - Campari, Plymouth Gin, Tawny Port
  • Sloegroni - Campari, Spirit Works Slow Gin, Carpano Bianco
Charity: Meals on Wheels

Poggio Trattoria
The Drinks:

  • Tony's Negroni - Bombay Sapphire gin, Campari, Vya red vermouth
  • Negrosky - Negroni with vodka
  • Dirty Negroni - Negroni with dry vermouth
  • Negroni Sbagliato - Negroni with sparkling wine
Charity: Willow Creek Academy

The Drink: Loló Negroni - Campari, San Juan del Rio Mezcal, Cocchi di Torino
Charity: SF-Marin Food Bank

The Drink: Negroni on Tap and Negrowlers (Campari and beer cocktail)
The Charity: Charity: Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research

Above image caption: Negroni from Tosca

Gaspar Opens New Cognac Room as Johnny Codd's Next Project: 50 Brandy Cocktails, Oh My!

Johnny Codd

After the untimely closing of The Coachman, many have been wondering what the former bar manager Johnny Codd would do next. Well, today Johnny opens a new bar program in San Francisco called The Cognac Room at Gaspar’s glittering upstairs bar.

Gaspar's Cognac Room
The Cognac Room

While Johnny is known for his creative execution (like deconstructed Sazeracs made from Peychaud ice cups, blended negronis, or Campari ice cream made to order at the bar), with The Cognac Room he is also establishing a track record in taking classic drinks and creating balanced renditions using modern techniques, something he first did at The Coachman.

The Cognac Room is going beyond its namesake spirit to bring to the fore a multitude of brandy cocktails from throughout the decades. When many people think of brandy, the first think of brands like Christian Brothers that were popular in the 70s and 80s. The Cognac Room, however, is (thankfully) taking a much broader approach to brandy. Brandy is a category comprised of any spirit distilled from wine, pomace, or fruit. This includes a host of other spirits like grappa (distilled from grapes), pisco (a Peruvian spirit distilled from grape wine), and eau de vie (an unaged spirit distilled from fruit).

Gaspar, San Francisco
Gaspar's downstairs bar will still service the restaurant with classic cocktails. Shown here with bar manager Greg.

To celebrate these many spirits, Johnny is bringing a whopping 50-odd drinks to the menu. The menu breaks down into "house cocktails" (eight cocktails), cognac (nine cocktails), armagnac (seven cocktails), calvados (seven cocktails), brandy (nine cocktails), pisco (eight cocktails) and eau de vie and grappa (four cocktails). All cocktails are $12.

The focus is primarily on the cocktails, but flights of each type of spirit will also be offered, bolstered by a growing backbar of brandies sourced from Charles Neal and others—a collection curated by General Manager John Allen.

Gaspar is already a popular happy hour spot, especially among FiDi workers, and the Cognac Room will offer a happy hour menu Monday through Friday 4pm-6pm with a short list of $6- and $7-cocktails, wines, and bar bites.

The Cocktails!

Creating a menu of 50 brandy drinks is a tall order (pun unintended), so for inspiration Johnny reached into the historical bedrock of cocktails. He took and refined recipes from The Savoy Cocktail Book (an influential London bar in the 1930s), cocktail forefather Charles H Baker best known for The Gentleman’s Companion in the 1940s,  Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks from 1869, and Jones Complete Bar Guide (1977), just to name a few. 

Here is a selection of the cocktails Johnny has put together for the Cognac Room. (You can see the rest of the preview menu here, though it may change.)

Armagnac Crusta, Gaspar's Cognac Room, Johnny Codd
Armagnac Crusta
Johnny tweaks the classic brandy crusta (often made with cognac) by mixing together armagnac, cointreau (orange liqueur), lemon, maraschino liqueur, and angostura bitters. The cocktail itself contains no sugar and is quite dry, if refreshing, so the drink's cup is often coated in sugar. At places like Bar Agricole, you'll find this as bakers sugar dusted inside of the glass. Johnny chose to encrust the outside of his glass with granulated sugar because it looks beautiful and because the Gentleman's Companion includes an illustration of the sugar dusting on the outside of the glass. The result is a visually stunning drink that sparkles like diamonds.  

Raspberry Claret Cup, Gaspar's Cognac Room, Johnny Codd
Raspberry Claret Cup
This cup is one of the few cocktails that includes red wine, and boy is it delicious. Johnny mixes red wine, brandy, raspberry eau de vie, grenadine, lemon, and seltzer for his claret cup. Served tall and long over crushed ice, this super refreshing drink is tart without being puckering. A generous bouquet of mint garnish forces your nose into the leaves as you take sip, so that you smell the mint as you drink. With bold raspberry notes, the drink will put you right on a grassy lawn on a summer's day. 

Pink Squirrel, Gaspar's Cognac Room, Johnny Codd
Pink Squirrel
This drink is a refined almond joy in a cup. It includes cognac, Creme de Nayoux (almond), Creme de Cacao, cream, and nutmeg. The almond and chocolate fluff together nicely with the cream to make a worthy dessert cocktail, light like a good tiramisu.

Pineapple Apricot Tropical, Gaspar's Cognac Room, Johnny Codd
Pineapple Apricot Tropical
Served on a handsome, large cut of ice, the Pineapple Apricot Tropical includes pisco, lime, pineapple gum syrup, orchard apricot, and angostura bitters. It's a tangy, refreshing drink, slow and viscous. Originally from Charles H Baker.

Pimm's Cup, Gaspar's Cognac Room, Johnny Codd
Pimm's No. 3 Cup
A bar classic, the Pimm's Cup includes Pimm's No. 1, brandy, lemon, ginger, cucumber, mint, and seltzer. The No. 3 indicates that the recipe calls for brandy—opposed to the No. 1 which uses Pimm's as the sole main spirit, the No. 2 that uses scotch, the No. 4 that uses rum, and the list goes on.

The Cognac Room at Gaspar Brasserie
185 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA
(415) 576-8800
Open for lunch Mon-Fri, 11:30am-3pm. Bar menu starts at 3pm. Happy hour Mon-Fri, 4pm-6pm. Open for dinner Sun-Wed 5pm-10:30pm, Thurs-Sat 5pm-11pm.