Absinthe Brasserie Shakes Things Up in New York

Before the great cocktail boom that started half a decade ago, to get a solid drink in San Francisco proved a challenge. At that time one place stood out: Absinthe Brasserie. For almost fifteen years, this bar has pushed the cocktail renaissance into what it is today. Now, as bar manager Jeff Hollingersteps down (though still has a hand), the famous brassiere welcomes Matt Conway, formally of nopa.

“What I hope to see from Absinthe, and what I’m trying to help ensure, is that we maintain our relevance in the growing list of these watering holes,” said Conway. “In my mind, doing that is not about having a ‘celebrity’ bartender or having the most obscure ingredient, it’s about providing your guests with a great experience.” 

Of course, if you aren’t able to get to California any time soon, getting the three-star Absinthe experience is difficult, except this week. Conway, as well as Hollinger, chef Adam Keough, pastry chef Bill Corbett, will be taking the city by storm. First up, Conway and Hollingerwill be guest bartending on Tuesday, July 17 at Death & Co, and then on Wednesday, July 18, they will be at PDT. They will not only being showcasing their skills to these chic bars, but a taste of what Conway plans to do with the Absinthe menu.

“What I am bringing to the bar is some different experiences and maybe some different ways of looking at things,” said Conway. “I tend to let my own personal preferences influence the drink and spirit list, so we’ve [Absinthe] recently brought in more vermouths, fortified wines, and amaros, which I try to incorporate into drinks rather than just have them in the fridge or back bar.”

On Thursday, the rest of the Absinthe team will be whipping up their minimalist, French-flared cuisine during a multi-course meal at the James Beard House. Though these events don’t beat an actual trip to the West Coast to experience the whole of Absinthe, which the San Francisco Chronicle rated as one of the top 100 restaurants in the city in 2011 and 2012—it’s the next best thing. 

I’m Always Drunk in San Francisco: Classic Drinks in the City by the Bay

“I’m always drunk in San Francisco,” goes the 1962 standard, a favorite of Bay Area crooners. “I always stay out of my mind. But if you’ve been to San Francisco, they say that things like this go on all the time.” Truer words have never been belted. From the whiff of marijuana on every corner to the famously booze-infused Bay to Breakers, to the partying in the streets of the Castro, San Francisco earns its moniker as Fog City for more than just the weather.

However, while a good deal of this imbibing isn’t the most discerning in nature, those with a palate for a finely concocted cocktail would do well to park their bar stools in the City by the Bay. “San Francisco is one of the best, if not the best, cocktail cities in the world,” says Jeff Hollinger.” Them’s fighting words, but Hollinger has the pedigree to back up the claim.

Author of The Art of the Bar: Cocktails Inspired the Classics, Hollinger helped create one of the nation’s most esteemed cocktail programs at San Francisco’s Absinthe–home for another few weeks of Top Chef favorite Jamie Lauren–by serving up inventive, ingredient-driven cocktails. While he loves pushing the envelope (he’s recently been experimenting with mushroom-infused beverages), Hollinger’s real love is the classic cocktail. Such drinks have staying power, he says, because they “fall in the realm of simplicity.” He compares them to comfort food, explaining that these are the drinks that you’d pair with that infamous dying meal. His choices? A perfectly roasted chicken and a Manhattan. So taken is Hollinger with the classic cocktail that last December he stepped down at Absinthe to open a sister property, the Comstock Saloon, which he’ll run with Jonny Raglin, another Absinthe bar alum. Hollinger and Raglin have converted the massive San Francisco Brewing Company space into a bar and restaurant reminiscent of a turn-of-the century saloon. Slated to open May 20, Comstock will feature ragtime jazz piano, seafood cocktails and potted meats and a drinks menu finely focused on the old standards. “It’s almost as simple as you can get,” he says of the cocktails that will consist almost entirely of martinis, Manhattans, and negronis. “We’re getting away from trying to reinvent the wheel.”

And while he admits that San Francisco has a reputation for more culinary-inspired drinks, he insists that Comstock is part of a backlash against the perception that, unlike New Yorkers, San Franciscans don’t drink the classics. Below some other key Bay Area beverages that he’d include in his cocktail primer.

The Ginger Rogers and the Sacred Heart at Absinthe. Naturally, Hollinger starts at his former bar, which he says is still going strong, run by “cocktail geeks” like himself. Because it’s his old stomping grounds, Hollinger allows Absinthe two classics. The Ginger Rogers, created by Hollinger’s predecessor Marco Dionysus, is a mojito-like concoction of gin, ginger beer and mint and has been on the bar’s menu since day one, proving its classic potential by becoming a staple of the twelve-year old program. The Sacred Heart earns its spot in Hollinger’s pantheon because it was Absinthe’s first cocktail to include its namesake liquid when the green fairy was legalized. Unlike other absinthe-based beverages, this one is subtle and layered, combining with pomegranate infused tequila, limoncello, and a splash of lemon-lime juice.

The Manhattan at Bix. Classic in every sense of the word, this supper club, a city favorite since 1988, is tucked away on tiny alley in Jackson Square. The space immediately sends you back to the glamour of the speakeasy with waiters and bartenders in captain’s coats and a menu that highlights oysters, steak tartare, and a classic Cobb. “When I walk into Bix,” says Hollinger, “I immediately want to drink a whisky cocktail.” He usually goes for the Bix Manhattan, made with Maker’s Mark Bourbon and Carpano Sweet Vermouth. But it’s not the precise jiggering or a perfect shake that garners Hollinger’s praise. “The shape of the glass,” he says swooning over the curvy, delicate vessel into which the red-hued liquid is poured. “It’s a sexy glass.”

The Margarita at Tommy’s. When asked why the margarita at Tommy’s, a family owned Mexican stalwart in the Inner Richmond district, makes his list, Hollinger shakes his head and laughs. “It keeps me from drinking too many shots of tequila with Julio,” says Hollinger of the temptations of bar master Julio Bermejo’s world-class selection of tequilas. But Julio’s famous margarita, which has been mimicked around the world, isn’t just a less potent distraction from the hard stuff. “Julio reinvented the margarita,” explains Hollinger. “No cointreau. Just agave, tequila and lime juice.” And boy is there ever lime juice. Sitting at the bar, patrons are treated to a show, as bar backs, powerfully wielding manual juicers, work their way through seemingly endless crates of limes, to create an explosion of citrus in every glass.

The Sazerac at The Alembic. Part of Hollinger’s love for The Alembic stems from the awesome playlist constantly on rotation at this paean to American whiskey. “They play Nashville Pussy so loud you can’t even think,” he murmurs in awe. “That’s my dream.” Hollinger also praises the humble creativity shown behind the bar. “It’s a whiskey bar, but it’s not trying to make a big deal about it,” he says. “It’s simple and inventive.” Co-owner and mixologist Daniel Hyatt’s ballsiness extends past his willingness to blast lewd psycho-billy tunes. The Alembic incorporated absinthe into its signature Sazerac before the ban on the green fairy was lifted, an act that earns the New Orleans inspired cocktail a place on Hollinger’s list.

The Irish Coffee at Buena Vista. “It’s the only thing they do,” says Hollinger of the Irish coffees poured in this almost century old bar. In an unabashedly touristy part of town, with the sounds of cable cars rattling past and a view of Fisherman’s Wharf across the street, Bay Area visitors pull up seats at the long bar and watch as practiced bar tenders pour countless rounds of Tullamore whiskey, hot coffee and cream into the waiting rows of glass mugs.

White Manhattan at Nopa. Although Hollinger believes that the days of the sexy, uber-constructed cocktail may be numbered, he has faith that Neyah White, the man behind the bar at San Francisco hot-spot NOPA will persevere. When White is tending bar, Hollinger opts for bartender’s choice, sipping whatever concoction of house-made ingredients and selection of unaged white whiskies that White cares to make. But Hollinger calls NOPA’s White Manhattan, made with white whiskey, Dolin blanc, Benedictine, and orange bitters, “a simple stroke of genius.” “When I tasted it,” he says, “I thought, of course, why the hell wouldn’t you?”

And at the end of the day, er, night, it’s that sense of predetermined perfection that makes a classic and keeps it so.

Industry Insiders: Mourad Lahlou, Self-Made Iron Chef

Mourad Lahlou, chef and owner of Aziza in San Francisco, will make his debut on Iron Chef March 1st. He talks about learning the tricks of the trade, a genuine malice towards Dr. Atkins, and his love of fat.

Where are you when you’re out of the kitchen? There’s a restaurant in Napa called Ubuntu. They do wonderful things with vegetables, and they treat vegetables in a very mature way. I love the barbecued brussel sprouts. I also love Coi. Another favorite of mine is Nopa in San Francisco. Another one is Zuni Café. And then there’s A16.

How do you describe yourself? I’m self-taught. I never went to school for cooking. I never worked for anybody else in any kitchen whatsoever. My first restaurant was my first gig as a cook. I’m not classically trained. So, my style of cooking is such that I don’t have any barriers. I was never told how to make anything, so I’m never restricting myself in a way that certain things have to be done a certain way. I can’t get away from that. But, everything that I make, I make it in a way that it makes sense to me. Just to give you an example — I was never told how important it is to sear meat before you cook it, because you sear all the juices and the flavor inside. This is a popular myth on TV shows, in books, and chefs are always talking about it. You’ve probably heard this so many times. I find that to the most bogus thing in the world. If you take a piece of meat, and you weigh it before you sear it, and then you sear it again, you lose just as much juice as if you don’t sear it. So the trick is in knowing how to cook it.

Your style is trial and error? Yes, but sometimes I feel like I’m re-inventing the wheel. It works both ways. Sometimes it would take me almost a month to figure out how to do something

What’s a positive thing you’ve noticed in the hospitality industry recently? The first thing is the fact that the economy is so hard, and everybody is feeling the pinch. Even the places that are not slow, they feel like they need to up their game. I’m seeing people offer a lot more for a buck. They’re trying to keep customers, they’re trying to attract newer customers, but the bar is definitely being raised in these hard times. You would think it’s the opposite — that people are trying to cheat and cut corners, but from the good places that I frequent, and the good places where I know chefs, everybody is really trying to give customers more.

Any kitchen secrets?

What’s the worst diet out there? The Atkins. It’s the biggest crock of shit I’ve ever heard of. Look at the Italians — they’ve been eating pasta for thousands of years. The Northern Africans have been eating couscous for so many years, and the French eat baguettes in the morning, the afternoon, and night. They eat croissants, and they’re healthier than most people in America. They don’t go to the gym every day for three or four hours either, and they live longer. I don’t understand why people would want to give up that much substance in their lives, and their joy, just because somebody said, ‘Oh, if you don’t do that, then you’re not going to be fat’.

What’s on your radar right now? I’m really enjoying The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. It’s from a restaurant called The Fat Duck in England, and it’s by Heston Blumenthal.

What’s on the horizon for you for 2009? = I’ll be on an episode of Iron Chef that’s out on March 1. I’m in negotiations with Food Network to be the next Iron Chef. I’m also hoping to open another restaurant this year. And I’m working on a cookbook.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure? I have so many. I love fat. Anything that has fat in it is good for me. I love peanut butter with green olives. I take two slices of bread, and I smear the shit out of it with peanut butter. Then I slice green olives and lay that on there, and more peanut butter, and there’s the sandwich. I love Ice cream, and dates. There are a lot of calories per date. But they’re really good.

San Francisco: Top 5 Raw, Local, & Organic Restaurants

imageEven steaks are healthy when grass-fed …

1. Greens (Marina) – Vegetables grown by Marin County Buddhist monks. Experience the zen of eating. 2. Nopa (Western Addition) – Fresh scrumptious organic and locally obtained vegetables and meats in clever combinations. 3. Cafe Gratitude (Sunset District) – Rich nut-mashed pesto, blended almond milk and mint smoothies and lacey vegetables are eco-ecstasy.

4. Flora (Oakland) – Red meats always on point, as are the desserts and apps. Did we mention the amazing cocktails? 5. The Slanted Door (Financial District) – Food as incredibly sparkling and fresh as the ocean view.

San Francisco: Top 5 Late-Night Cafes for Clubbers

imageI go out eating after midnight.

1. Orphan Andy’s (The Castro) – Late-night Castro hotspot where tweaky club kids eat tuna melts with fries 24/7. 2. Chai-Yo (Tenderloin) – Ass-kickingly good and cheap plates of Thai standards served till 1 a.m. 3. Ryoko Restaurant & Bar (Tenderloin) – Downtown sushi hideaway with dim lighting, house beats and service till 2 a.m.

4. NOPA (Western Addition) – Fresh, scrumptious, organic, and locally grown vegetables and meats in clever combinations 5. Taqueria Cancun (Mission District) – Mind-boggling burritos make you never want to leave.