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.

The Alembic
1725 Haight St
(between Cole St & Shrader St)
San Francisco, CA 94117
Neighborhood: Haight-Ashbury
(415) 666-0822

Prospecting for Alaska beer from a cruise ship

During the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s, the stampeders who flooded the boomtown of Skagway, Alaska, could send a telegram anywhere in the world for $5. The problem was that the wires did not extend beyond the “telegraph” office wall; the telegraph didn’t reach Skagway until 1901. It was one of many cons foisted by notorious criminal kingpin Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith upon unsuspecting treasure seekers.

Skagway and the 49th state have become a bit more civilized since a Mountie referred to the town as “little more than a hell on earth.” Nowadays, cruise line tourists rather than prospectors comprise the vast majority of visitors to coastal towns like Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. Swindles such as three-card Monty and the shell game are no more. Instead, we have incessant automated BINGO and smoky casinos aboard the giant floating hotels. The shills who a century ago lured prospectors to financial ruin have morphed into “discount” jewelry merchants – some of which pay endorsement fees to the cruise ships -- pushing “closeouts” and unprecedented “bargains.” It’s called “progress.”

But if you manage to wend your way around the hucksters, visiting Alaska on a cruise ship can be quite enjoyable. The scenery is breathtaking even in transit, and the service and food aboard ships like the Norwegian Pearl are exemplary. The selection of wines available, while not exhaustive, was well-thought-out, too. Good riojas, a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and a fine Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett (great with a roast duck/duck confit combo) made excellent meals even more enjoyable.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the beer onboard, which seems to be stuck in a time warp not so very far advanced from when Soapy Smith plied his nefarious trade. Onboard options included Bud, Coors, Miller and Euro lagers like Heineken and Stella on draft AND in bottles. The only Alaska beer on offer was bottled Alaskan Amber. Bass Pale Ale was available on draft and Guinness in cans. (Distributors are partly to blame, but the cruise lines are ultimately responsible and should demand better brews.)
That meant we had to forage for good beer whenever we went ashore, and happily the Alaska boomtowns, built upon a foundation of saloons rather than office buildings or churches, did not disappoint.

Avoiding the clutter and tracking down good beer in the Alaska cruise ship ports is a little like panning for gold: there’s a lot more crap than gold in the pan. The farther you get away from the tourists and the places set up to serve them, the better luck you’ll have. Walk right past the first bar, the gaudy Red Dog Saloon and its sawdust floors, limited beer selection and misanthropic, out of tune pianist playing for way too many tourists.
The Rendezvous, also on South Franklin Street, is worth a stop for a very nice Midnight Sun stout on tap, but the bar seems to lack charisma and character beyond a couple of pool tables. Farther down the street is the Triangle Club and Bar, which highlights beer from The Alaskan Brewing Company, the most widely distributed beer in the state and the 11th largest craft brewer in the U.S. Triangle pours a four-beer sampler of Alaskan beers – kolsch, amber, white and IPA – which are nice but not overwhelming (Alaskan Brewing doesn’t widely distribute its more exotic offerings). If you keep walking, the Viking Lounge Pulltaps & Billiards on Front Street has DJs and dancing. (By the time you read this, Alaskan Brewing will have opened a new Alaskan Brewing Deport in downtown Juneau.)
But the best beer bar in Juneau, hands down, is The Alaskan Hotel and Bar, a dingy tavern that doubles as a cheap hostelry in a historic building. Opened in 1913, the Alaskan Hotel and Bar proclaims it’s “the oldest operating hotel in Juneau.”

The selection of beers on tap, along with how it is served, is usually a good indication of the passion of the publican and the quality of the establishment. AHB doesn’t just settle for what’s easy and local. Bringing in great Belgian-style beers like Fin du Monde in bottles and Blanche de Chambly and Maudite on tap from Unibroue, as well as draft Chimay and Old Rasputin Imperial Stout from North Coast in California, is a good sign that AHB takes its beer seriously and respects the discriminating palates of craft beer drinkers. AHB also serves some distinctive beers from Midnight Sun Brewing Company, which doesn’t have the distribution that Alaskan Brewing has, but makes consistently challenging beers. We enjoyed a pitcher of Midnight Sun’s delicious Kodiak Brown, opaque and toasty, with restrained hops and a little bite. (Midnight Sun’s other beers are also worth seeking out as they gain larger distribution in the “lower 48.” Try the Arctic Rhino Baltic Porter and the Mayhem Belgian Double IPA.)
Before long, a young bluesman named Sammy started playing some Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, creating what might be the ideal Alaska pub vibe: a little funky, a little divey, with amazing beers as the perfect social lubricant.

In Skagway as with Juneau, finding beer means wading through the throng of cruise ship passengers and getting away from jewelry stops and tourist bars. To build up our thirst and to get a sense of the place, we walked past the downtown area to Skagway’s feature attraction: the town’s version of Boot Hill.
Simple white crosses mark the final resting places of Gold Rush era residents. The cemetery is dominated by a monument to Frank Reid, who was embraced as a local hero after an epic shootout with Soapy Smith that ultimately claimed the lives of both men. On his deathbed, Reid is reputed to have declared that he gave his life for the honor of Skagway – a dubious claim in a town that had very little honor to speak of. Soapy, meanwhile, was laid to rest just outside the limits of the cemetery -- a posthumous outcast of the new, more genteel Alaska. (If you go, don’t miss the beautiful waterfall right above the cemetery.)
Skip the tourist bars in Skagway and head straight for the Skagway Brewing Company. From the minute you enter, it’s obvious that the brewmaster in this rather inconspicuous brewpub/gift shop knows a lot about brewing beer and isn’t afraid to pique the beer palates of customers with brews like Skagway Spruce Tip Ale. Skagway Brewing also makes a very respectable, hoppy Chilkoot Trail IPA, which was a great segue between the cemetery and the White Horse Railway ride over the historic stampeders pass that led to the gold country.
Along with the White Pass Railway ride, Skagway Brewing belongs on any serious beer drinker’s Skagway itinerary (together with Lemon Rose bakery downtown, which makes some of the best cookies in the state).

Ketchikan presented a different challenge: a limited amount of time on shore and no brew pubs in sight. So instead of trying to push the beer bar higher, we took in a bit of history in the Sourdough Bar, right off the docks. Despite its location perilously close the cruise ships, the Sourdough is the real deal, and apparently too divey to attract many cruise ship tourists. Even though the Sourdough doesn’t have any taps, it has plenty of local character and some good beer in bottles, like the very tasty Alaskan Oatmeal Stout – a perfect beer for a dreary day. The Sourdough’s walls are covered with dozens of ominous black and white photos of stricken ships and boats that had run aground, caught fire or suffered some other nautical misadventure. Better yet, the Sourdough is a hangout for locals, the sort of guys who look at the sky and say, “It might get a little sloppy out there tonight.”
Like prospecting for gold, finding the “real” Alaska, or at least real Alaskans, and good beer takes patience and persistence, but it’s worth the effort. Cruise ships like the Norwegian Pearl could be more helpful, however. Their menus and the wines reflect a commitment to fine dining but the beer on offer sadly implies that the operators are not fully convinced that craft beer belongs in the mix. The Pearl, for example, hosted a “European Beer Tasting,” with mixed results. You can’t expect a whole lot from a neophyte beer server pouring bottles of Newcastle Brown, Franziskaner Weissbier, Bass Pale Ale, Boddington’s and Guinness. And it’s a shame.

Cruise ships have an opportunity not only to meet the dining needs of their passengers but to educate them, too, and perhaps introduce them to tastes that they might otherwise not encounter. They’re doing it with food and wine, but if you want good craft beer, you’ll have to do some prospecting of your own -- off the ship.

The Alaskan Hotel and Bar
167 S Franklin St
Juneau, AK 99801
(907) 586-1000

Skagway Brewing Company
7th St and Broadway
Skagway, AK 99840

Sourdough Cocktail Bar
301 Front St
Ketchikan, AK 99901
(907) 225-2217

Copyright 2010

Raw seafood and beer star at Bar Crudo

Beer lovers love happy hours, and some of the beer bars in San Francisco offer some great bargains. Toronado, of course, has $1 off draft beers from opening until 6 p.m. At Lucky 13 in San Francisco, you can drink fresh Pliny the Elder, Dogfish Head 90, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, Anchor Liberty and many more for $3 a pint from opening until 8:30 p.m. Most other beer bars offer some variation of a happy hour from around 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. or so. (Don’t forget to tip $1 per beer.)
But one of the best happy hours in the city isn’t even at a beer bar; it’s at Bar Crudo on Divisadero. Bar Crudo’s selection of some four-dozen bottled beers, along with a handful of well-chosen taps, would put many so-called beer bars to shame. But what sets Bar Crudo apart is its happy hour food. Usually, happy hour in a bar means a few munchies, Buffalo wings, or something deep-fried and virtually unrecognizable. At Bar Crudo, a lot of the food never goes near a flame, let alone a deep fryer. Bar Crudo, as its name implies, specializes in raw dishes, mostly seafood -- six types of fresh oysters; five types of clams; and small plates of raw arctic char, butterfish, Tomba tuna, Hokkaido scallops, spicy yellowfin tuna and Hawaiian ono -- as well as steak crudo and several other “cold” preparations. You can also order cooked seafood, as well as delicious seafood chowder, brimming with large chunks of fish, and fish tacos ($5 at happy hour).

While other restaurants conceal frozen fish under deep frying batter or buttery sauces, at Bar Crudo there’s no place to hide. Preparation is subtle and minimal, allowing the fish to be the star of the show.
The lineup of five draft beers matches well with the food: Moonlight Brewing Reality Czech ($3 a pint during a happy hour recently), Allagash White Belgian-style wit beer (which adds some spritzy, subtly lemony zest to the oysters and raw seafood), Firestone Walker Solace, Russian River IPA and the 30th anniversary stout from Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing. (When you see Russian River and Moonlight on tap, it’s a good sign; those brewers, who distribute their kegs themselves from Santa Rosa, love showcasing their beer with great food, and they’re very selective.)
The extensive list of nearly 50 bottles is also carefully crafted to complement the fresh seafood, from Hitachino Nest White Ale and Bavik Pils to Ommegang Ale, Gouden Carolus and Duchesse de Bourgogne Flanders red ale (for those with a sour tooth). Wines are well-matched as well, with some sparklers like German Gilabert Cava Brut and whites and reds from France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Chile, Argentina and Napa.
Bar Crudo moved to what is now known as NOPA (north of the Panhandle) last year from its original location above the Stockton Street tunnel. The highlight of the new restaurant is clearly the fish itself, along with the people who deftly prepare it. There aren’t any TVs, but that’s OK when you can watch gifted chefs work their magic live and in real time.
Bar Crudo is taking California cuisine to a new level, showing the culinary world what can be accomplished with simple, fresh ingredients matched with great beer like Allagash White and Moonlight Reality Czech poured fresh from a tap. The overall experience is sublime, and when you can have half a dozen fresh oysters, a delicious cup of fish chowder or fish tacos and two excellent pilsners for less than $20, it’s almost irresistible.
Bar Crudo
655 Divisadero St
(between Hayes St & Grove St)
San Francisco, CA 94117
Neighborhood: Western Addition/NOPA
(415) 409-0679

5 to 11pm
5 to 10pm

Happy Hour
Tuesday to Sunday
5pm to 6:30pm
Select $1 Oysters
Chowder $5
Fish tacos $5
Beer and wine specials

World Cup pub and grub

Due to the time difference between South Africa and San Francisco, keeping up with the World Cup could be a challenge for people who don’t have Tivo or a DVR. The good news is that sports networks have finally come to the conclusion that a lot of people actually care about the greatest sports event in the world, even in the U.S. A handful of brave pubs are willing to bet that enough people will be willing to rise before the sun to enjoy the far-off cup. Here are a few places to catch them. Remember, it’s always 5 p.m. somewhere. Let me know if there’s any I’ve missed.

Abbey Tavern
Category: Pub/restaurant
Irish pub in the Inner Richmond will be showing all games live (even though Ireland was left out, due to a very questionable goal created by France’s Thierry Henri).
4100 Geary Boulevard
at Fifth Avenue
(between 5th Ave & 6th Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94118
Neighborhood: Inner Richmond
(415) 221-7767
Chieftan, The
Category: Pub
Irish-themed pub South of Market with some good beers (not just Guinness and Harp) on tap, including Paulaner Hefeweizen and Marzen and Czechvar (the original Budweiser). Affligem Blond and Chimay Rouge in bottles. Food is a cut above the typical pub grub, like Prince Edward Island Mussels and Chieftan Guinness Stew. Good place to watch footie and the World Cup. Check out the Web site for special hours for the World Cup live from Africa (bar opens at 6:45 a.m. on Friday, June 11, for the kickoff between host South Africa and Mexico and 4:15 a.m. for The Netherlands vs. Denmark on Monday, June 14.
198 5th St.
(between Natoma St & Howard St)
San Francisco, CA 94103
Neighborhood: SOMA
(415) 615-0916
Danny Coyle’s
Category: pub/restaurant
Irish pub in the Haight will show all the World Cup games live.
668 Haight St
(between Pierce St & Steiner St)
San Francisco, CA 94117
Neighborhood: Lower Haight
(415) 558-8375
Edinburgh Castle Pub
Category: pub/restaurant
English-themed pub that’s been around since before craft beer was cool but still manages to pour some outstanding beers. Will be showing tape-delayed World Cup soccer, starting at 6 p.m., for those with actual jobs.
Hours: 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
950 Geary St
(between Larkin St & Polk St)
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 885-4074
Public House
Category: pub/restaurant
Along with the adjoining Mijita, the new player at AT&T Park. Two dozen well-selected taps and an equal number of bottles. Twenty-three TVs for watching sports. Good food, reasonably priced. Try the mac ‘n cheese and Thom’s Cheesesteak Sandwich. Mijita’s bar opens at 6 a.m. for the World Cup, with the restaurant opening at 8 a.m. Public House bar will open at 10 a.m. Wear any World Cup team’s jersey for some complimentary fries, onion rings or chips with your burger. Get a punch card for drinking the 24 beers on tap and earn a world cup when you’ve completed it. USA vs England at AT&T Park on Diamond Vision free. Pray for fog.
Hours: noon-midnight
24 Willie Mays Plz
San Francisco, CA 94107
Neighborhood: SOMA
(415) 644-0240