Alembic's dazzling distillation of food and drinks
The Alembic is more than just a bar or restaurant, it’s a mad scientist laboratory for food and drinks, with the customers along for the ride as willing accomplices.
Conventional wisdom generally dictates a lowest-common-denominator approach to pub drinks and food: a menu loaded with fried, spicy and salty food that appeals to a lot of people and keeps them drinking familiar beverages without too much thought. The Alembic throws conventional wisdom out the window. Rather than pull customers along the predictable path, Alembic challenges them with a palate pleasing palette of flavors that customers may mix to fit their mood.
The Alembic, the Upper Haight sibling of Magnolia, is a little hard to pin down to a category. It’s known mostly for inspired interpretations of mixed drinks made with top-notch ingredients. The traditional “Canon” portion of the drinks menu features time-honored cocktails like a Sazarac (with 6-year rye whiskey and Peychaud’s bitters) and an Old Fashioned, stripped of the garbage with which the noble old warhorse is often weighed down. Even more popular are Alembic’s “New School” cocktail creations, such as The Vow of Silence and Promissory Note. It goes without saying that Alembic’s spirits are first rate, and the board above the bar abounds with remarkable whiskeys, gins, rums and tequilas.
But cocktails and spirits are hardly the whole story. The beers on tap and in bottles are also well chosen for their distinctive flavors, like Magnolia’s Kolsch and Proving Ground IPA; Damnation, a strong Belgian-style pale ale from Russian River Brewing; Bear Republic’s Red Rocket Ale; Marin’s Point Reyes Porter; Firestone Walker’s Solace, an American Pale Wheat Ale; the most recent installation of the Fritz Maytag/Ken Grossman 30th Anniversary series, this one a bock; and Moonlight Brewing’s intriguing Left for Dead. Whiskey drinkers are familiar with sour mash, but it’s less common in beer. Brian Hunt at Moonlight says he achieved the distinct lactic acid flavor he was after with Left for Dead by souring the entire mash with lactic acid bacteria that occur naturally on the malt. “The lactic bugs do also add a set of their own fermentation flavors, notably along the prune/raisin notes, which you find differently but present in beers soured at the end of the normal fermentation,” he said.Bottles are also carefully chosen for their capacity to harmonize with food and are thoughtfully organized under their dominant flavor profiles: Bright and Crisp, All Hopped Up, Toasty and Malty, Stiff and Sweet, Deep and Mean.
Clearly, the implied suggestion at Alembic is for the customer to be his or her own food mixologist, creating flavor sensations by matching food and drink. Snacks and starters are chosen to titillate the palate rather than numb it with grease, salt or heat. So instead of poppers, salted beer nuts, fries and onion rings, you’ll find pickled quail eggs, honey cumin glazed nuts, jerk spiced duck hearts and Shishito peppers with house-cured salt. Entrees and desserts are also constructed to show off a breadth of flavors rather than a single dominant taste.
On a recent visit, for instance, I ordered a Croque Madame, a delightful breakfast sandwich welcome at any time of the day. Russian River’s Damnation struck all the right notes, harmonizing with the individual components -- Serrano ham, gruyere, béchamel and toast, topped with a lightly cooked organic egg and pea tendrils -- with just enough yeastiness, carbonation and sweetness to balance the complex sandwich. Each bite was a little epiphany.
Even more enticing combinations beckon throughout the menu, which includes dinner entrees like Wagyu beef tongue sliders, crispy pork belly and scallops, pressed duck confit, bone marrow and black cod. Prix fix dinners are also on offer ($35), along with suggested beverage pairings. Desserts present yet another opportunity for magic, matching Eagle rare chocolate pudding, caramelized brioche, warm chocolate chip cookies and tarragon poached strawberries with beers like Le Chouffe and Hook Norton Double Stout, or a lovingly crafted cocktail, whiskey, tequila or liqueur
Alembic refers to a distillation device, and in the case of the restaurant, this is metaphorically accurate. Alembic is an engine that distills an unexpected outcome from ordinary ingredients. Alembic is a bold concept and one that would fail without discriminating customers who are adventurous and secure enough to break free of the predictable in the pursuit of something extraordinary (under the careful guidance of knowledgeable servers, if necessary). Alembic is to be applauded for the breadth and depth of its beverages and the creativity of its kitchen, but mostly for its faith in its customers, who are willing participants in Alembic’s ambitious culinary alchemy. We hope that Alembic is a foretaste of a future where our dazzling local food bounty reaches unusual heights combined with the full palate of fermented beverages now at our disposal.
1725 Haight St
(between Cole St & Shrader St)
San Francisco, CA 94117