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Archive for June, 2012

Restaurants: AQ, San Francisco

Barbeque pork with shelling beans and corn bread speaks of hot, lazy summer days. With a glass of lemonade in hand and Vin Scully narrating baseball on the radio, here you have the glorious season where the days are long, the nights are warm, and the fields and orchards thrive. Summer means water balloon fights and kayaking on lakes. It’s the season for outdoor camps and family trips to the beach and to Europe. It’s the season for blockbuster, mega budget films.

Now that the seasons have turned another page from spring to summer officially, so too has the menu and the atmosphere at the intensely seasonal restaurant AQ. Many restaurants follow the usual local, seasonal, organic, on, and on script, pioneered in the 1970’s by the likes of Moosewood and Alice Waters. The nearly year old AQ takes the seasonal focus to an entirely different, very literal level. The entire restaurant changes every four months from the decor to the menu crafted by the gifted chef Mark Liberman to the attire worn by servers. AQ’s concept follows the dining as theater ideology best exemplified by Chicago’s Next, where the menu completely changes every three months and may involve a theme of Kyoto kaiseki followed by “Childhood.”

Here, it’s the seasons that act as the narrative for this theatrical piece. Unlike Next, there are no tickets to attend this play. AQ is a theme restaurant without feeling like there is any theme. Everything here feels natural. The decor speaks of the time and place. That time is summer. That place could perhaps be the Provençal countryside. The place certainly is not where AQ actually is located, just south of Market, along a still gritty stretch of Mission Street, not far from the future Twitter headquarters in one direction and the edgy Sixth Street corridor in the other. SoMa is a vast district of San Francisco, with some of the most glittering blocks in the city and some of the most struggling. AQ quite possibly is the most glittering restaurant presently in the city. Just a block away is still one of the city’s most challenging urban renewal projects. Whether Mayor Ed Lee can succeed in turning Market Street and Sixth Street into the successful gentrification projects that his predecessors did with other areas of South of Market (SoMa) remains to be seen. It certainly helps to have game changing restaurants like AQ with these projects.

Despite AQ being the work of a rookie restaurateur Matt Semmelhack, the experience at AQ is one of the smoothest and well-thought out the city has to offer. Too many restaurants strive to cut corners. That’s not the case here. Prices are where they should be. The menu is the right size. Servers know every detail of every dish, save for a few cocktails. Hostesses are actually glad to see you, such a strange concept these days. This place clicks much like the 2010 Giants in October. Everything is organized and compliments each other, with a few dashing stand outs along the way, with a dose of joie de vivre to keep matters light and fresh. (more…)

Cocktail of the Week: Fool’s Wager, AQ, San Francisco

Many of my good friends refer to the spirit driven cocktails I often order as “brown drinks.” Whether intensely smoky from mezcal or bitter from amaro or elegantly strong from bourbon, these drinks tend to not branch too far from the central spirit à la martinis and manhattans.

Then there are the apertif drinks that are far less stiff, yet still let you know what spirit should be the focus. Negronis are a perfect example of blending Campari with gin, where despite having the same amount of each with the one to one to one ratio of a traditional negroni, the juniper notes of the gin shine through and contrast directly with the herbal twang of Campari.

The excellent, hyper-seasonal restaurant AQ in San Francisco, changes its atmosphere and menu entirely every season. When the leaves change, the servers’ uniforms change too. With the Summer Solstice just passing by last week, in came the new food and cocktail menu, complete with all your summer favorites from peach and watermelon to summer squash and corn. One of the new cocktails is quite possibly the most beautiful cocktail yet I’ve tasted so far this year. Then again, I couldn’t have sampled the “Fool’s Wager” in March.

“Fool’s Wager” is a riff on the negroni, where the only usual negroni ingredient involved is Beefeater Gin. The gin receives a smoky sidekick from Ardberg 10 Year Scotch. The Campari and sweet vermouth make way for punt e mes and gran classico, adding a touch of cinnamon and an alluring caramel note in place of the brash sage fields Campari provides. A summer bent completes the twist with the addition of peach bitters, adding a delightful fruity edge and of course, a major indication of what season we’re in.

You’d never think you’re having a negroni here. It’s the spirit of balance and refreshing, yet jolting that the negroni thrives at and so too does the “Fool’s Wager.” The drink is indeed one of those “brown drinks” without being potently spirit driven. In fact, it’s more in line with the apertif category in terms of being a smooth, slick sipper. This is a far superior summer drink to box wine sangria and lawnmower beer. Hurry, there are just under three months left to enjoy this. Don’t be the fool who misses out.

Beer of the Week: Pacific Brewing Laboratory’s Nautilus Hibiscus Saison

Pacific Brewing Laboratory might sound like a craft brewing operation from the Stanford Linear Accelerator, but actually is the result of dedicated home brewers Bryan Hermannsson and Patrick Horn. The pair started brewing in their garage and now the lab’s concoctions can be found at numerous craft brew bars in San Francisco.

I first sampled their beers a few months with Squid Ink Black IPA, where porter notes meet hops delightfully. It wasn’t until this summer however that I realized their full potential, courtesy of a sensational Belgian saison, called the Nautilus Hibiscus Saison. The Squid Ink brings to mind rugged, aggressive notes, and the color of the night sky. Nautilus is summer elegance.

Floral notes are everywhere, from the slightly pink hue to the body to the rose petal aroma, from the addition of hibiscus to the brew. Hefeweizen’s banana and clove notes came through strongly, along with a truly buttery mouth feel that made the beer immensely smooth. In fact, some of the taste even seemed like butter, possibly from the unfiltered nature of saison beers.

The usual knock on saison and session beers is the lack of spark to them. That is far from the case here. You’ll be transported to the gardens and the islands from the hibiscus. All together, a beautiful summer beer from pioneering home brewers that pushes what one thinks of a saison.

Wine of the Week: Monje Hollera Listan Negro 2010, Canary Islands

Listan negro is a brash, bold grape that slightly brings to mind Zinfandel with a deeper fruit flavor. It’s the marquee grape for the burgeoning Canary Islands wine growing region, where volcanic soil allows for the vines to not be grafted. Somehow when I visited the Canary Islands two years ago, I never even tried a local wine. That’s a big regret. These wines have one of the strongest expressions of terroir, with a taste and texture nowhere else can come close to replicating. This gives the wines strong spice and fruit notes, with firm structures, but very few if any tannins. Since the wines, such as this 2010 from Monje Hollera, are inspired by France’s Beaujolais nouveau production, the wines are served young. Luckily, they achieve a maturity well beyond their years.

This 2010 Listan negro is tannin free, with a strong taste of ash and hefty nose of plum. Some allspice notes come through along with bing cherries. Since I think of Zinfandel as a fair comparison in structure and earthy notes, here is a fine companion for your next rack of lamb. It’s a wine that makes you think, in a good way. Listan negro might be young and still just getting its footing, but watch out for an eruption of wines from the Canary Islands.

Plat du Jour: Tuesday June 26, 2012– Tastings at Russian River Brewing and Cerveceria de Mate Veza

Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, can quite possibly be credited with taking America’s recent fanaticism with everything craft brew and hop related, and turning the passion into epic fervor as powerful and vast as the Roman Empire during Pliny the Elder’s lifetime.

Well, that fervor could be more courtesy of its most famous beers: Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. The Elder is the elder statesman for the brewery, providing it with its initial fame. The rebellious Younger debunked prior brewing traditions by creating a triple IPA that is now considered the quintessential beer and hopheads worldwide indeed do participate in pilgrimages to its hallowed grounds for the two weeks of the year Younger is produced each February. That, and the fact that it’s an excuse to visit California in the heart of winter.

Prior to earlier this month, my lone visit to the brewery’s tasting room and brewpub attached to the brewery itself in Santa Rosa, was in February for Pliny the Younger. Indeed, it is a truly sensational beer. It is immensely focused, hints of nutmeg and citrus in the aroma, and very strong without tasting in the least boozy at 11%. At triple the amount of hops than a typical IPA, the Younger actually seemed less hop driven than the double IPA Elder. Pliny the Elder strikes you as much more bitter and hop focused, a classic double IPA that every microbrewery now strives to replicate.

Pliny the Younger

Was Pliny the Younger worth a 2 hour drive and 4 hour wait outside “freezing” California style? Of course. That doesn’t mean you need to do it again. It’s an experience. (more…)

Tuesday’s Project: Negroni Variations


Barrel Aged Negroni at Clyde Common

Something about a pitch perfect negroni hits the spot every early evening as the sun sets and the nighttime activities commence. An apertif is meant to be a simple, easy way to get nightlife under way. Be it a tawny port or a pastis, or even some prosecco, accompanied by a few slices of mortadella and some toasted nuts, everything is meant to be calm after the hectic day. A negroni continues that trend, with a hint of ambition on the side.

You can of course go the herbal apertif route and just enjoy a straight Campari on the rocks. There is no harm in that except from my experience it will completely deplete your taste buds for wine tasting with dinner afterwards. The typical negroni is almost as basic the straight Campari: a one to one to one ratio of sweet vermouth, Campari, and gin (obviously Bombay Sapphire will upgrade your negroni over Gordon’s). That holy trinity and ratio truly does work, as if Da Vinci created it. He just might have created it. Stir together and serve either rup or on the rocks, and there you go. (more…)

Monday’s Neighborhood: 9th Avenue and Irving, Inner Sunset, San Francisco

The Sunset District of San Francisco doesn’t see the sunset too often with the near constant fog that blankets the neighborhood, especially this time of year. Indeed, the most common description to this area of the city is not about its diverse culture. The usual response has something to do with wearing ski jackets and preparing for the fog. By no means is the Inner Sunset a hectic, rush hour grinder like the Financial District and Civic Center areas. In fact, rush hour seems to be the 3pm post lunch and school rush when the cafes are bustling and the MUNI street car and bus stops overflow with shoppers and students.

The Sunset District refers to the mostly residential numerical avenues in the western part of the city, south of Golden Gate Park. The north side of the park is the Richmond District. The two get confused frequently. 19th Avenue is the main thoroughfare through both neighborhoods, along with being the very slow main approach to the Golden Gate Bridge from the peninsula. To the east of 19th Avenue is the Inner Sunset and to the west resides the more sleepy Outer Sunset. (more…)