Appearances are deceiving in San Francisco: the distance between two pointsÂ on a map, for instance; or that funny looking nun with a mustache. It’s true ofÂ restaurants as well. Elegant facades can belie inferior eats. AndÂ gritty basement boÃ®tes often bubble up with tantalizingÂ flavors. File Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen under the latter. In theÂ harsh light of day the restaurant’s visual charms are all but washed out -Â like one of those TenderloinÂ tender traps I’d normally studiously avoid. Yet I’d heard there were interesting experiments going on behind the bar – as well as in the kitchen – and felt it my duty to check things out. I’m glad I did because Jasper’s – despite an anodyne sense of design – is no ordinary “corner kitchen,” but the latest in a wave of cocktail bars and speakeasies that are marking the City by the Bay as a town that takes its tipple seriously. I start with a classic, the Negroni,Â whichÂ Jasper’s happens to keep on tap. You read that right: gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth in an ideal 1:1:1 ratio on tap. Frisco apparentlyÂ has a penchant for lip-smackingÂ aperitifs; the Negroni proved so popular that a second herbaceousÂ cocktail recently joined the tap: a mix of gin, sweet vermouth, and fernet dubbed The Hanky Panky. MixologistÂ Kevin Diedrich is the mastermind behind the clever idea, as well as a dozen-plus seasonal cocktails, like Rhubarb Mule (a mix of bourbon, orgeat, rhubarb syrup, ginger ale and bitters) and a Wiessen Sour (bourbon, lemonade, orange marmalade, house-made bitters, and white beer). Plus, there’s also what might very well be theÂ perfect summer concoction: house-bottled carbonatedÂ Pimm’s cup, muddled with strawberries and mint. Even better, there’s the kitchen inÂ Jasper’s Corner Tap & Kitchen, whichÂ under chef Adam Carpenter has it’s own seasonal sensibility. If this weren’t laid-back San Francisco, you might even call it a gastro-pub. (But it is, so you won’t) Even so, the constantly evolving menu has been crafted to complement the strongest stout to the most subtle ale. I order a handful of small plates to see if works with various cocktails: saltyÂ Shishito peppers, a trio of deviled eggs, briny brussel sprout slaw andÂ house-made sausage bites, andÂ a warm soft pretzel with smoked gouda fondue. It does. Then I squirrel away the fondue, knowing it will be heaven for dipping with French fries. If you want to go “full gastro” The J Burger is a monument to the humble pub burger of yore; griddled Lucky Dog Ranch beef, English blue cheese, bacon onion marmalade, and frisee salad on a baguette bun. You won’t finish it, butÂ apparentlyÂ few people do. A lighter alternative is an equally flavorful filet of Scotch salmon atop a bed of organic black lentils. Sated, sedated, and just a little bit intoxicated, I’ve no room for coffee, let alone dessert. Before I head to the door GM Matthew Meidinger makes a point to tell me how at firstÂ peopleÂ came to Jasper’s for Diedrich’s drinks. Then I finish the thought for him: now they stay for the food, too.
According to sources, the first Irish coffee was invented and named by Joe Sheridan, head chef at the restaurant and coffee shop in the Foynes terminal building. (A precursor to Shannon Airport, Foynes was the last port of call for seaplanes on the eastern shore of the Atlantic. During Word War II it would become one of the biggest civilian airports in Europe) The coffee was conceived after a group of American passengers disembarked from a Pan Am flying boat one miserable winter evening in the 1940s. Sheridan added whiskey to the coffee to warm them. After the passengers asked if they were being served Brazilian coffee, Sheridan told them it was Irish coffee and the name stuck. In 1951, Stanton Delaplane, a travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, tasted what had by then become the traditional airport welcome drink and was smitten. Returning home he told his friend Jack Koeppler, owner of the Buena Vista CafÃ© and the two set about trying to recreate the drink. Stymied by the Irish flair for floating the cream on top, the duo went so far as to seek help from the city’s then mayor, George Christopher, who also happened to own a dairy. He suggested that cream aged for at least 48 hours would be more apt to float, and so it did. In later years, after the Buena Vista had served, by its count, more than 30 million of the drinks, Delaplane and the owners claimed to grow tired of the drink. (And who can blame them, the currency had been cheapened: bastardized versions of a drink that wereÂ less hot toddy and more like hot candy had popped up everywhere.) A snark after my own heart commented that the problem with Irish coffee is that it ruins three good drinksÂ â€“Â coffee, cream, and whiskey â€“ but youâ€™d never surmise that from the crowds that still take the Hyde Street cable car toÂ MaritimeÂ Park inÂ searchÂ of the original elixir. In fact, if you’ve never tasted a proper Irish coffee, you have no idea what you are missing – two go down nicely on an afternoon, while three guarantee a lovely start to the evening.Â Here’s how it’s done: Fill a glass goblet with hot water, then empty. Pour in hot coffee until about three-quarters full. Â Drop in two sugar cubes. Stir. Add a full jigger of whiskey and top with a collar of lightly whipped cream. Do not stir. Drink piping hot in two or three sips. Okay, four at most.
At the suggestion of a friend who also happens to double as a local San Francisco restaurant critic, I made it a point to visitÂ Bouche in the gastronomic wasteland of Union Square. I’m very glad I did.Â ConvenientÂ to an evening’s theatre plans, Guillaume Issaverdens’ unassuming hidden California-French bistro proved a welcome surprise of seasonal food amid charming surroundings. Tucked into an upstairs corner with views through mullioned windows the restaurant has all the rustic allure of a Loire farmhouse. A bottle of one of those wines you almost never find on a domestic wine list only reinforces the illusion. (Domaine Auchere Sancerre Rouge, as refreshing a spring red as you’re likely to ever find) Expectations henceforth were felicitously met: aÂ deliriously good duck confit with beet puree and walnuts arrived under a bouquet of radish and spring greens. Sauteed calamari lightly dressed with mushrooms and citrus made a refreshing, lessÂ intense companion and foil. Lamb shoulder balanced the difficult task of tasting earthy without being too fatty or filling an entrÃ©e. (chickpeaÂ pureeÂ instead of potato was a clever deception) And a Proustian nod to the marinated salmon; one of those dishes I will be able to recall years hence. DelicatelyÂ smoked slices of ruby red salmon come coiled atop a bird’s nest of crispy egg noodle, floating on a bed of creme fraiche. NestledÂ inside theÂ nest: a perfectly poached egg. Creamy, crunchy, salty, smoky, the liaison of flavors and textures is heady, if not downright erotic. After this, dessert seems altogether unnecessary – what I really want is a cigarette.
The sudden spring weather that’s forced crocus and daffodil into blooming all over NYC Â isn’t the only reason to rejoice this week: Â Oakland’sÂ Blue Bottle Coffee Co. has finally floweredÂ below-stairs along the Rockefeller Center concourse. The arrival of the Bay-areaÂ culti-roaster known for its devotional handling of single-origin beans is welcome news for Midtown, which despite an oppressively dense concentration of office drones has til now sported just a single coffee shop of note, the Swedish import Fika. (And more on that sliver of Nordic Nirvana in a future post.) Even more unexpected at yesterday’s opening was the noticeable lack of lines – though I expect that’s just an accident of calm before the storm. This is, after all, primo coffee – with primo prices to match. Yet it’s anÂ altogetherÂ friendlier Blue Bottle, too: when my Yirgacheffe YCFCU pour-over managed to somehow fall through the counter’sÂ antediluvianÂ cracks, anÂ adorable cap-clad barista apologized profusely, offering up cookies and a free beverage onÂ myÂ next visit.Â Â At the hipper-than-thou Williamsburg outpost, I probably would have been upbraided for theÂ inferiorityÂ of my boots before being forced to join the back of the line. Forget about letting the proletariat eat cake – let us drink coffeeÂ instead. Coffee revolution, welcome to Midtown.
Actually, no; it’s my new piece of Japanese fetish kitchenalia: a coffee syphon [sic]. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of a coffee siphon since I first visited Blue Bottle in San Francisco.Â Their version looked more like a renegade backyard pot still than something suitable for the home brewer, yet there was no denying the wonderfully rounded taste of the coffee.Â In Philadelphia for the weekend, I stopped for lunch at a little hole in the wall in Chinatown on the recommendation of a friend.Â She said I wouldn’t believe it at first, but their coffee was amazing.Â I didn’t – and it was.Â Aside from serving up inexpensive and tasty Cantonese food, a small section of the front counter was devoted to a handful of siphons and specialty coffees, like Jamaican Blue Mountain and a Japanese charcoal roast I had never heard of before.Â The diminutive proprietress took pains to explain the entire process as she performed it before serving the coffee in tea cups laid out formally on a tray with accompaniments.Â It was a little like witnessing a tea ceremony without the geisha. I love a good ritual and knew I’d be hooked from the moment she started to fresh-grind the beans.Â TheÂ resulting brew was dark and steamy, with a faintly acidic bitterness from the charcoal roasting.Â This was no morning java jolt but more like a digestif.Â At $6 a cup – and $70 a pound – I wasn’t about to start experimenting with that particular roast but I did opt to indulge myself with a new toy. Stay tuned for future updates as I expound on the ritual of the coffee siphon along with what I’m sure will be a multitude of experiments, too.
You could almost be forgiven for strolling past the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande without giving it a second glance.Â Though it’s the largest dome in Spain – larger than St. Paul’s in London even – its main facade faces the intersection of the Gran VÃa de San Francisco and the Carrera de San Francisco in what is essentially a traffic circle.Â Add to that a high steel fence and the incumbent swirl of motorist garbage that it collects, I wouldn’t call it the most inviting of entrances. But passing it by would be a shame as inside there is a magnificent chapel painted by Goya and a secret stash ofÂ art that can be seen at unbelievably close range.Â This is one of those rare times where not speaking the local language actually helps.Â Claim total ignorance of Spanish and the tour guide will show you how to operate the lights on your own.Â Let the Spanish-language tour get started then bolt straight for the altar and nick in through the doors on the left.Â Turn the lights on and off like you’ve been instructed and self-guide your way through the Basilica’s private rooms, which are literally crammed with art.Â Eventually you’ll make your way to an opulent room where the church superiors once met – the Renaissance-era sculpted-walnut seats are one of those marvels of craftsmanship that define the enlightened times.Â As you find yourself looping back to the opposite side of the altar however, you’ll find the star attraction:Â ZurburÃ¡n’s painting of St. Thomas Aquinas. No protective glass, no barriers, the painting is so close you could reach out and touch it. It’s so still – and quiet – that even a confirmed non-believer can’t help but grow contemplative looking at the great scholar as seen by the great artist.
(I had a bit of an oops with the previous encoding of this video – hopefully that’s now been solved.)
A slow trip down the most crooked street in the world:Â San Francisco’s Lombard Street.