Alchemy 3-Virginia Miller

Oakland’s New Spirits Shop Extraordinaire

Article & Photos by Virginia Miller

ALCHEMY BOTTLE SHOP, Oakland (3256 Grand Avenue, temporary number: 415-553-0803)

Alchemy's upstairs art gallery

Alchemy’s upstairs art gallery

Oakland will soon have a spirits shop to delight spirits and cocktail lovers. Alchemy Bottle Shop, from Tova Herman, formerly in the wine industry, and Peter Mustacich, who quit his Financial District day job (where he frequently spent breaks at Cask) to open their Grand Avenue spirits shop, is going to be the kind of store that’s heavy on amari and unusual, small-batch spirits, one with an art gallery upstairs featuring local artists, primed for tastings and events.

As they finish the build-out, opening date is still an estimate. They are hoping for March, and with a space as airy, elegant and welcoming as this one promises to be (not to mention the prime location on busy Grand Ave.), it looks like East Bay-ers will have another spirits shop destination along with Ledger’s Liquors in Berkeley.

After my “hard hat” visit to the under-construction shop, I chatted with Tova and Peter about Alchemy. It quickly became apparent that their love and knowledge of spirits ensured we not only had plenty to talk about, but that spirits lovers can expect good things while novices will benefit from their desire to share and educate:

Virginia: Can you tell us about a few unique spirits you’re particularly excited to be stocking at Alchemy?
Tova: There are SO MANY amazing spirits that we are super excited to be carrying, but here are a few of our favorites:
Breckenridge Bitters – An American take on Genepy, made in CO using local Alpine herbs
Firelit Coffee Liqueur – Made in CA, using beans from Blue Bottle and other local roasters. Unlike other coffee liqueurs we’ve tried, this one actually tastes like coffee! And delicious cold brew coffee at that.
OOLA Barrel Aged Gin – It is absolutely one of our favorites – partly because of their unique choice of botanicals (rose petal and black lemon!) and partly because of the amazing creaminess they get from barrel aging.
Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky – Made using a Coffey still, this is unlike other Japanese whisky because it’s a blend of grains rather than a single malt, but we love it for it’s balance and smooth, full-bodied texture.
Alchemy's elegant, white shelving

Alchemy’s elegant, white shelving

Virginia: What type of events, classes or tastings can people expect at Alchemy in your shop and art gallery?
Tova: We really want to focus on engaging our customers and teaching them about new products they might not be familiar with, so we’re hoping to bring in lots of producers who can actually talk about how their product is made and what goes into it. We also think that context is really important when it comes to spirits so rather than just tasting them straight, we really want to get into demonstrating how to mix our products into cocktails. We’re hoping once we get up and running to do a weekly series of interactive cocktails classes that people can sign up for in advance, in addition to our in-store tastings and art gallery openings.

Virginia: What will be different about Alchemy than other liquor/spirits stores?
Tova: I think the main difference we’re striving for is a higher level of interaction with our customers. There are many places that you can go if you’re simply looking to buy spirits, but for someone who is just getting into craft cocktails, or who wants to know more about some of the unique and obscure spirits we’re starting to see more of, it can be very overwhelming and intimidating. There is sometimes a certain attitude around spirits and mixology that can feel exclusive and we want to work as hard as we can to dispel that. Through our classes and tastings, we really want to engage our customers as much as possible and pass on our knowledge as well as the knowledge of all the distillers and other industry professionals that we know. We want to be a fun and accessible place that people come to learn and talk about spirits, as well as a place where you can pick up a number of great bottles.
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Around the Bay

Still dreaming of A16 Rockridge's fried pizza with smoked tomato sauce

Still dreaming of A16 Rockridge’s fried pizza with smoked tomato sauce

Get Thee to Oakland for
FRIED PIZZA & AMARO at A16 Rockridge

Photos and article by Virginia Miller


Seventh Circle cocktail

There’s only a few places in the country where one can find fried Neapolitan pizza, a twist on Italy’s perfect pies. There’s Forcella and La Montanara in NYC, and now A16 Rockridge. Even in Naples, there are few restaurants making this style of pizza. The owners of A16, included Wine Director/Sommelier Shelley Lindgren, fell in love with fried pizza in Naples, wanting to replicate it at their brand new, second location of A16, open merely a month.

The original A16 opened in San Francisco in 2004, well before the Neapolitan pizza craze that hit much of the country in ensuing years. Rockridge is not merely a copycat of the original. Yes, it boasts Lindgren’s impeccable, regional Italian wine selections and authentic pastas and pizzas. But there are two draws the SF original does not have: the aforementioned fried pizza and a full bar, including one of the best amari/Italian herbal liqueur collections in the Bay Area.

Chef's antipasti selection ($14)

Chef’s antipasti selection ($14)

First, the bar, which offers plenty of excellent small batch, craft spirits to choose from. Though not touted as an amaro bar, in the first week of opening, I was immediately impressed with a full shelf of Italian bitter liqueurs, aperitifs and digestifs. There was not a bottle I wasn’t familiar with, but it’s unusual to see the convergence of rare amari (plural for amaro) I find at bars nationwide all in one place. Typically, when I come across such a selection, it’s an amaro-specific bar, like Balena in Chicago or Amor y Amargo in NYC, not merely one aspect of a restaurant bar.


Monterey anchovy crudo

Amongst the cocktails ($9-11), there are light, aperitif sippers like Amalfitano (limoncello, soda, Amaro CioCiaro, mint) on to boozy beauties like Catch 22 (gin, Cynar, vermouth, orange bitters, olive). I immediately took to the lively Giusto, bracingly elegant with aged grappa, Campari and Punt e Mes vermouth, and to the subtle heat of a lush Seventh Circle, the spice of rye whiskey playing off the bitter of Campari, and the heat of Calabrese chilis balanced by lemon and honey.

Impressive amaro collection

Amari collection

But how can one stick to only cocktails when Lindgren’s wine selection is calling? Explore specific regions of Italy and if you’re lucky enough to be there on a night Lindgren is, ask for her pairing recommendations with each course. Expect unusual, thoughtful pairings. I continue to recall the earthy, fruity sparkle of Cantine Federiciane Lettere Penisola Sorrentina, a frizzante-style red from Campania which Lindgren paired with a couple of my plates.


Geoduck Cavatelli

Executive Chef Rocky Maselli serves a range of dishes, all happy companions with the wines, like Monterey anchovy crudo ($11), a fresh acqua sale ($11) salad of cherry tomatoes, green melon and sesame-semolina croutons, or silky burrata ($12) with crostini, crumbled pistachio and dragoncello (aka tarragon). An impressive cavatelli ($12/20) of cannellini beans and geoduck sugo has been my favorite dish in initial opening weeks (outside of the fried pizza). Rarely is strange-looking geoduck this buttery and delicious.


Coffee cocktail for dessert

Then there is fried pizza. The Montanara Rockridge pizza ($17) is only at the Rockridge location and is alone worth trekking across the bridge for. Where a Montanara pie would typically be a straightforward marinara, olive oil, basil proposition, the mozzarella is sometimes smoked and the pizza dough is lightly fried, ending up even more puffy and crispy than the typical Neapolitan pie.  A16 takes it a couple steps further using the creamiest, most expensive mozzarella: burrata; then they smoke the tomato sauce vs. the cheese, adding a fantastic layer of sweet-savory tomato smoke.

It’s hard to write about this pizza without wanting to drop everything and head straight to Oakland for another.

Written by in: Around the Bay | Tags: ,

Top Tastes

Muguboka's killer hae-mool (seafood) dolsot (stone pot) bibimbop

Of Banchan, Ramen & Squid Innards

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Delicious banchan spread at Muguboka

Authentic Asian cuisine of every category is one of California and the Bay Area’s strengths, with constant new openings from hole-in-the-walls to hipster hotspots. Busy dining at a slew of Asian newcomers, like the Richmond’s mellow Daigo Sushi, or Szechuan outpost Chili House, these three restaurants stand out for one (or a few) reasons.

MUGUBOKA, Inner Richmond (401 Balboa St. at 5th Ave., 415-668-6007)

An acquired taste at Roku: shio-kara (fermented squid & innards)

Passing Muguboka many a time over the years, I meant to visit but never did until recently. What I found is a humble, all-day respite serving an impressive array of banchan (mini-dishes accompanying a Korean meal), whether kimchi or myeolchi bokkeum (crispy mini-anchovies). Free, generous banchan and bottomless tea make even upper teens-priced entrees a deal. Dining alone, I attempt to finish the banchan… and fail. There’s a plentiful selection of soups and stews featuring tofu or Korean sausage, and dishes like go dung uh gui (broiled salted mackerel), or hae-mool pajeon, those ever-fabulous seafood-green onion Korean pancakes. I finish with a complimentary, cool pour of sujeonggwa, a sweet Korean punch alive with cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns, dried persimmon.

Best dish: Muguboka serves a mean hae-mool (seafood) dolsot (stone pot) bibimbop ($16.95), the scorching stone pot arrives sizzling with rice, egg, squid, shrimp, mussels, veggies and nori on top.

Best suited for: A mellow setting with copious amounts of Korean food. Expect two meals for the price of one.

RAMEN SHOP, Oakland (5812 College Ave. near Birch, 510-788-6370)

Show-stealer: wild nettle fried rice

Open just since the beginning of the year, this is an early word on Oakland (Rockridge, to be exact) hotspot, Ramen Shop, packed since day one with long waits (no reservations). A short, ever-changing menu offers three types of ramen, one dessert and a handful of appetizers so it’s possible to try the entire menu in one visit. Chez Panisse alums, Sam White, Jerry Jaksich and Rayneil De Guzman already have a hit on their hands, if crowds are any indication. Though early Yelp comments are trending towards the frustrated-to-spend-$16-on-a-bowl-of-ramen kind, this is quality ramen… house-made noodles, salt-cured eggs, ultra-fresh ingredients. Meyer lemon infuses shoyu ramen ($15) with bright dimension, while spit-roasted chashu (literally pork roast, often known as char siu) adds heft to particularly flavorful spicy miso ramen ($15).

Spicy miso ramen

But my favorite aspects aren’t ramen. Meyer lemon shows up again in unique kimchi/house pickled Napa cabbage ($5), to winning effect, a spirited contrast to chili. Then, wild nettle fried rice steals the show (see “best dish”). The third best element is liquor. While wine and beer work quite nicely, it’s a rarity (I can’t think of any other local example) to see cocktails with ramen. Straightforward, refreshing mezcal or rye-based punches ($10) make fine ramen companions, as does a classic hi-ball ($12) of Hibiki 12-year Japanese whisky and soda. A nutty-tasting black sesame ice cream sandwich ($5) in brown sugar cookies is the right finish.

Best dish: Easy… wild nettle fried rice ($9) interlaced with Monterey Bay squid and Llano Seco pork is as comforting as it is gourmet.

Best suited for: The joyous convergence of ramen and Japanese whisky – and for those with time on their hands.

ROKU, Castro (1819 Market St. at Octavia Blvd., 415-861-6500)

Roku yakitori

Opened in October by JapaCurry‘s Jay Hamada, Roku sits at busy Market and Octavia. Similarly bustling inside, groups of friends down Japanese beer and fried chicken in the form of karaage ($7) or chicken nan ban ($8), the latter a specialty of Kyushu, Hamada’s hometown island in southern Japan. Under warm wood walls graced with unframed, vintage Japanese posters, I opt for the likes of house-made noodles and mochi bacon yakitori (though I couldn’t help but long for FuseBOX’s supreme bacon-wrapped mochi).

Hotate butter w/ membrane skirt & stomach intact

During opening weeks, I went straight for dishes I’ve never tried, like shio-kara ($4): room temperature, fermented squid swimming in its own innards. Salty and gummy, it is, as the menu states,”an acquired taste.” Likewise, hotate butter ($12) topped with the vivid orange of tobiko/fish roe is unexpected. Scallops are sautéed in butter, but unlike most of our Westernized experiences with the succulent bivalve, the stomach and membrane skirt are left on around the scallop flesh. Call it umami, call it funky, the taste is more accurately both.

Though I find preferred renditions of classic izakaya dishes elsewhere, it’s items like the seafood salad (see “best dish”) or rare dishes for a bold palate that make Roku interesting.

Refreshing seafood salad

Best dish: Surprised to prefer a seafood salad ($13) in an izakaya, this one is laden with red king crab and smoked salmon, tobiko, boiled eggs, yellow bell pepper and tomatoes over romaine, bright in a yuzu wasabi dressing.

Best suited for: The hardcore who want authentic dishes they won’t find on typical menus. Also for groups of friends.

Written by in: Top Tastes | Tags: , ,

Around the Bay

Saltfish and ackee, Jamaica's national dish, at Miss Ollie's in Old Oakland

ISLAND BREEZES: Searching for Caribbean

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Though not an island girl, I crave sorrel, that cinnamon-spiced, rosy-purple juice made from the petals of a sorrel plant, or multi-colored Scotch bonnet peppers, both common in the Caribbean and ideal together, sorrel cooling off the pepper’s scorching heat. One of my closest friends is Jamaican and we’ve been exploring local Caribbean food for years, though lacking in abundant options.

A Caribbean staple: sweet, grilled plantains

Saddened to lose Penny’s Caribbean Cafe – a tiny Berkeley dive with excellent Trinidadian home cooking – when Penny moved back to Trinidad a few years ago, I’ve trekked to San Leandro for festivals (Jamaican cornbread fritters) and curry goat at Sweet Fingers, savored the sunny patio though more Americanized food at Primo Patio Cafe tucked away in SF’s SoMa, dined at now defunct pop-up Kingston 11 in Berkeley, and appreciated Sarah Kirnon’s inventive Caribbean fusion (Jerk Cornish hen!) from her days as chef at Oakland’s Hibiscus.

Caribbean foods can also be found at Oakland grocers like Minto Jamaican Market and Man Must Wak where you can stock up on authentic ginger beers and Ting (beloved Jamaican grapefruit soda), to name a few items, and I’m curious about San Francisco-based caterer Lehi Cooks Jamaica. Thanks to my dear friend and her family who get their Jamaican food fix at this tiny haven, I’ve found my favorite Caribbean outpost in the most surprising of locales: Menlo Park.

BACK A YARD, 1189 Willow Road, Menlo Park, 650-323-4244 (also San Jose)

Drinking Ting with Friday's escovetich special

With squeaky front porch door and perpetual line out the door, closet-sized Back A Yard is clearly a locals’ favorite in suburban Menlo Park. The term “back a yard” refers to the way things are done “back home”, appropriate to this humble, comforting spot. Chef Robert Simpson began his cooking career in Jamaica, gained European perspective in Belgium, then cooked at various Caribbean resorts before coming to the Bay Area.

For vegetarians, Back A Yard's jerk tofu retains a meaty, grilled quality to silky tofu

Under fluorescent lighting, crammed into a handful of tables, I down a Ting which cools off the Thursday-Saturday tender curry goat special ($12.75). Generous platters come with sides of sweet plantains, green salad, and coconut-laced rice ‘n beans, different from New Orleans’ version but equally heartwarming and moist. Another top side are warm, honey-sweet festivals, like a doughnut meets cornbread. Jerk chicken ($9.50) appropriately shines, though jerk tofu ($8.95) likewise exhibits meaty, grilled tones amidst silky texture. Friday’s special is escoveitch: it was snapper on a Friday I visited. Choose a grilled filet ($12.75) or whole fish (market price), head and eyeballs intact, not so much an immaculate fish dish as Caribbean comfort food, recalling days I’d polish off a whole grilled fish in the countryside of Vietnam.

Thu-Sat special: tender curry goat

Jamaica’s national dish, saltfish and ackee, is a must, served here only on Saturdays ($14.50). Salty cod is sautéed with Scotch bonnet peppers and subtly sweet, soft ackee, a fruit related to the lychee. This version shines compared to others I’ve had, confirmed by my friend as authentically reminiscent of saltfish and ackee she grew up with in Jamaica. Dessert ($3.25) is the one letdown, whether a blandly cold sweet potato pudding or a sliver of key lime pie lacking the tart oomph I crave in what is one of my favorite pies. Nonetheless, this hole-in-the-wall is a treasure bringing heartfelt Caribbean cooking to South Bay folk… and worth a trek for hardcore foodies.

MISS OLLIE’S, 901 Washington Street at Ninth St., Oakland, 510-285-6188

Pull up to Miss Ollie's bar for chicory coffee & Creole doughnuts (call for availability)

Chef Sarah Kirnon (formerly of the aforementioned Hibiscus) just opened Miss Ollie’s at the beginning of December, currently only during Tuesday-Friday lunch in a corner location of Swan’s Market in Old Oakland. Visiting opening week, lines were already long and waits for food even longer (30 minutes), not ideal for a low-key, eat-in or take-out lunch. Despite opening kinks, Oakland is clearly craving quality Caribbean, packing communal wooden tables in a spacious, spare dining room.

Named after, and in tribute to, Kirnon’s grandmother, the food is decidedly more casual than in her Hibiscus days, modeled after the Caribbean one-stop shops she grew up with: affordable (under $10) daily changing dishes from curry goat to her popular fried chicken – grandma’s recipe.

Sorrel & Creole ham salad

Initially, dishes were uneven, whether flavorless, cold Creole ham and sweet potato salad ($7.50), or a two-note (salty and HOT) saltfish and ackee ($8), begging for more plantains and ackee to contrast Scotch bonnet peppers and uber-salty cod. But Miss Ollie’s sorrel is a superior, refreshing rendition, while lamb patties ($7) in a puff pastry evoke an Indian-Caribbean empanada, redolent of cardamom and allspice.

Daily specials are announced via Facebook, like fresh loaves of Jamaican hard dough bread or chicory coffee sweetened by condensed milk with Creole doughnuts. Miss Ollie’s fills a needed void and is certainly one to watch.


Around the Bay

Jittery John’s bracing cold brew coffee sold and served at Doughnut Dolly


Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Beauty’s beauty of a bagel and lox

Bagels and doughnuts in their many iterations (beignets, malasadas, bomboloni, etc…) are two of the more comforting breakfast – or any time – foods. It’s tougher than it should be to find proper bagels, but alongside notable SF sources, the East Bay welcomes a few new arrivals.  I stop first for fuel at Berkeley’s just-opened coffee and wine bar Bartavelle for a well-executed Sightglass Coffee cappuccino in the tiny-but-charming former Cafe Fanny space next to Kermit Lynch and Acme Bread.

Coffee at the new Bartavelle

First, bagels. Like anyone who has ever lived near or in NYC, I miss New York bagels. There’s nothing like properly boiled and baked bagels, with dense, chewy insides and cracklin’ exterior, topped with excellent schmear and lox. In Manhattan, I’ve schooled my California born-and-raised husband, The Renaissance Man, on NY bagels, journeying to different neighborhoods, from Barney Greengrass and Ess-A-Bagel, to favorites like Russ & Daughters.

Outside NYC, we get little that is comparable. In the Bay Area there’s the likes of short-lived Spot Bagel or now the excellent Schmendricks in pop-up form at Fayes Video & Espresso Bar on Wednesday and Friday mornings or by individual order. I’m impressed by Schmendricks bagels from Brooklyn native, Dave Kover, his wife Dagny Dingman, lawyer-turned-baker, Deepa Subramanian, and her husband Dan Scholnick. While I anticipate a permanent storefront for Schmendricks, Wise Sons‘ bialys, as a cousin to the bagel, fill a void.

Beauty’s Bagel Shop

Then there’s Montreal-style bagels, less chewy than a NY bagel, slightly thinner yet dense, with a touch of char from wood-fired baking. Beauty’s Bagel has been the rave of Oakland since opening this Summer, their bagels hand-rolled, boiled in honey water, then baked in a wood-fired oven. Yes, it’s NY prices: $9 for closed, $12 for an open-faced bagel sandwich, or $1.65 per individual bagel (in a few choice flavors like sesame, poppy, onion, or everything). But the quality is a significant step up from most. After apprenticing at a Montreal bagelry and working as a chef at Delfina, Blake Joffe and girlfriend Amy Remsen, made roughly 800 bagels a week at Addie’s Pizza Pie in Berkeley before opening Beauty’s. Serving Healdsburg’s coffee king, Flying Goat, they also craft chopped chicken liver, deviled eggs, cream cheeses/schmear and pickles in house, sourcing smoked trout and lox. It’s a fresh lox, scallion schmear, tomato, red onion and capers bagel sandwich that makes me smile, almost as if I’m back in Manhattan on the hunt for a perfect bagel and lox… including the Manhattan prices.

A box full of Donut Savant

On to doughnuts. SF masters the best in both old school Bob’s Donuts (particularly at 1 or 2am when they’re pulling those gems out of the oven) or the newer gourmet wave at Dynamo Donuts, with their beautiful Campari or spiced chocolate donuts, to name a few. Oakland gained two doughnut newcomers this summer, Donut Savant and Doughnut Dolly.

Doughnut Dolly, down a cheery Temescal alley

Downtown Oakland’s Donut Savant serves essentially glorified donut holes, their Twitter feed making me crave flavors like key lime, pumpkin or an Old Fashioned with Bulleit bourbon glaze, Angostura bitters cream and a twist of lemon, which they introduced at Oakland’s Art Murmur in August. This led to disappointment when first crossing the Bay Bridge weeks after they opened only to be met with a sign during regularly scheduled morning hours saying they’d return hours later with more donuts.

When I was able to trek back to the humble shop and find actual donuts, I bought every one in sight. Flavors were straightforward, rather than the interesting aforementioned. Chocolate coconut donut holes won over chocolate or vanilla, though a dark chocolate donut with a light dusting of sugar was plain but more satisfying. One topped with butter cream stood out with creamy contrast and candied ginger strips.

Doughnut Dolly’s filled doughnuts

Doughnut Dolly charms in an alley off 49th Street. Pastel-striped walls and a friendly woman graciously attending to each customer makes it feel immediately like a beloved neighborhood secret. By the bottle or glass, Jittery John’s (JJ’s) Cold Brew Coffee is bracingly strong, New Orleans’ style chicory coffee, made by a Oakland local – adding cream or milk makes one $10 bottle stretch to 4-5 glasses of iced coffee. Dare I say it’s almost worth stopping in just for this eye-opening brew that reminds me of Nola? Doughnuts are the filled kind (no holes), the strawberry jelly donut superior to a childhood favorite with fresh jam inside. On my visits, flavors were a little basic for my tastes, the “naughty cream” basically a standard vanilla, with the chocolate pudding-like vs. dark and seductive, but the donut itself has a soft, gratifying texture. When taking a few additional donuts home, a few seconds in the microwave ensured they melted warm in my mouth.


Top Tastes

An array of Korean banchan (bites) accompanies BAP sets at FuseBOX


Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Grilled shishito peppers at FuseBOX

The nation has become increasingly enamored with kimchi and all things fermented. California long being home to some of the US’ densest Asian populations, this side of the palate is staple vs. exotic novelty. As San Francisco’s population consists of as many Asians as Caucasians, it’s no surprise that we are blessed with an endless wealth of authentic Asian food, though Korean has been one of the few not at the forefront. Historically, NY and LA, both areas I’ve lived in, are the strongest/densest for Korean food in the US.

Aria’s fried seaweed rolls

Age 18 was the first time I ate Korean food. My girlhood best friend since my New Jersey days had begun dating her now husband when we went out to dinner with his family. From Flushing, Queens (read about my top Flushing Korean BBQ joint), every meal with his Korean family was the real deal (i.e. not places a Caucasian would go). My first impression of Korean food was: red. The usual array of panchan or banchan (mini-dishes often accompanying a Korean meal) arrived doused in red sauce, each bite fiery with heat. Though I wasn’t hooked immediately on kimchi as I am now, I wasn’t averse to it as I was doenjang (fermented soybean paste) at first, which took me longer to appreciate. As a novice that day in NY, the dish I fell in love with was dolsot bibimbap (meaning “stone pot”), a popular melange of rice, meat and veggies, served in a sizzling stone pot topped with an egg. Though a common Korean dish, in a non-descript NY basement, this superior version spoiled me for all bibimbap.

FuseBox mantra: “I bleed kimchi”

Despite a dearth of Korean BBQ joints in SF and a concentrated Oakland Korean population, it hasn’t been until the last few years I’ve witnessed restaurants offering far beyond BBQ. From the forward-thinking “fusion” of Namu Gaji to the home-cooked joys of To Hyang, Nan, Manna, and Aato, we’ve seen a steady growth in Korean openings in recent years. In Oakland, good times are had at what regulars refer to as the “porno bar” due to the Korean film posters lining the walls (nothing explicit), Dan Sung Sa. Fried chicken and rounds of Korean beers in a comfortable dive atmosphere evoke a Korean speakeasy, ideal with a group of friends. It’s reminiscent of long-timer Toyose, a similarly relaxed, tucked away SF spot in an Outer Sunset garage.

Here’s two stand-outs in another wave of openings exemplifying the gourmet fun of Korean snacking and casual eating, ideal with cheap beer and good friends.

ARIA KOREAN AMERICAN SNACK BAR, Tenderloin (932 Larkin St. between Post & Geary, 415-292-6914)

Aria’s cheery Tenderloin welcome

The Kim family has moved into what was Old Chelsea Fish & Chips with Aria Korean American Snack Bar. The closet-sized space is still dingy on a bustling Tenderloin block, but the Kims have infused it with fresh life, greeting with smiles and a record player stocked with Tom Jones and Sintra LPs. Mom and Pop Kim run the place, though their son and his girlfriend have come up from LA to help them get going.

Aria’s crave-inducing, boneless fried chicken

They have a hit on their hands with their Korean Fried Chicken (9 pieces – $6.99-7.99, 16 pieces $12.99-13.99). It feels like everyone is doing KFC these days, but these boneless, overgrown nuggets are special: crispy-tender, fried in cottonseed oil. Dip in earthy-sweet “spicy sauce” and an addiction is born. Mama’s acidic sweet and sour radishes are just the right accompaniment to clean the palate and perk up the taste buds.

There’s an array of fried snacks, from mixed veggies (carrots, sweet potato, zucchini, onion) to fried seaweed rolls packed with potato and glass noodles ($5.99, 8 pieces). Another of Mama Kim’s recipes is Korean hot and spicy rice cake ($5.99), blessedly chewy, it sits in – what else? – a spicy, red sauce. The Kim family’s good cheer and authentic, fried bites make this the kind of snack bar every neighborhood should be so lucky to have.

FuseBOX, Oakland (2311 A Magnolia St. at 24th, 510-444-3100)

Ridiculously good bacon-wrapped mochi

Tucked away in a sunny courtyard off desolate West Oakland streets is FuseBOX, a truly exciting haven for Asian “fusion” – only open Wednesday through Friday (11:30am—2:30pm) though dinner is promised soon. You could deem it Korean food served Japanese izakaya style, although it’s mashup of both and beyond. Open just over three months, this cash-only respite from Sunhui and Ellen Sebastian Chang offers daily robata bites ($1-3) on the specials board. Granted, these are merely bites, but the joy is sampling a range of grilled vegetables and meat.

FuseBOX’s sunny courtyard

From the spare, industrial interior boasting merely a few tables to rice ($2) purified with binchotan (Japanese white charcoal), it’s clear this no typical Asian  eatery. There is, of course, KFC ($5), although here it is lightly fried, spicy chicken wings more akin to Buffalo wings than the aforementioned boneless chicken at Aria. BAP sets ($6-10) offer meat or veggies alongside rice and panchan or banchan (mini-dishes often accompanying a Korean meal), which rotate daily. Spinach roots or French breakfast radish crowns are brined in mustard, nori (seaweed) and sesame leaves are pickled in soy, white zucchini or green mango in vinegar. Kimchee comes in multiple forms, like bok choy and kale.

Refreshing, cool corn tea made in house

The aforementioned robata specials are grilled on wood skewers, from okra and snap peas, to tender chicken thigh and back oyster cuts. The best bite of all? Bacon mochi ($2.50). The mochi is sticky, subtly savory and gummy, satisfying on its own merit – until you reach the bacon and accompanying mustard seeds. Sigh. I’d eat this fantastic bite for breakfast, dessert – basically any way at all. For bigger appetites, there’s sandwiches ($8) like a Tokyo po boy laden with fried chicken, red cabbage slaw, house mayo and pickles.

To drink there’s a bracing, cool roasted corn tea ($1), chilled and nearly creamy with fresh corn flavor. Other drink options include Tang (yes, Tang!), house barrel aged soju, and neighbors like Alameda’s Rock Wall wines or beer on tap from Oakland’s Linden Street Brewery. As their hours expand, I’ve no doubt FuseBOX will become more crowded than its three-day lunches already are. There’s no place like it.

Written by in: Top Tastes | Tags: , ,


Drinking Destination: EAST BAY

Honor entrance

It’s true: the East Bay cocktail scene is growing by leaps and bounds lately, with a slew of new bars (many opened by San Francisco bar stars) popping up from Albany to Alameda. Two comfortable, new hang-outs just debuted January 3rd serving cocktails for the geek and casual imbiber alike. Both claim noteworthy bartenders covering various shifts. I spent an evening tasting through their menus, offering an early peek at cocktail stand-outs… plus more go-to spots around the East Bay.

Honor Kitchen & Cocktails

1411 Powell Street (between Hollis & Peladeau), Emeryville, 510-653-8667

Jenkins' Ear

Situated in a solo building (with parking lot) not far from Emeryville’s shopping center madness (and E-ville’s other shining bar beacon, Prizefighter, which opened at the end of 2011), Honor Kitchen & Cocktails serves gourmet pub food in a room glowing with vintage signs, a Creature from the Black Lagoon pinball machine, and granite red bar, the center around which the space flows. After passing through an entrance lined with cigar signs, records, even an owl, grab a beer from a tub of ice. It’s on the honor system so ask a bartender to add it to your tab (no surprise: this is already garnering early buzz).

Cocktail menu quality was pretty much guaranteed under bar manager Alex Smith who came from Gitane in SF. I’ve written about his exquisite drinks at Gitane few times, unsurprised to find his offerings at Honor Bar more casual but nonetheless sophisticated, easily exhibiting promise at this early date to be among the best cocktails in the East Bay.

Bucket o'wings with biscuit and Bleeding Monarch cocktail

Honor bucket of beers as you enter the main room

While slurping oysters with St. Germain herb mignonette or dipping Kennebec fries ($3.5) in salt and vinegar aioli or serrano ham jelly, select from cocktails (all $10) grouped under “stirred” (spirituous) or “shaken” (mixed with other ingredients). I’m immediately won over by gently smoky, spicy, bright layers of the Porfiriato. Tequila, guajillo pepper-infused mezcal, Cocchi di Torino, Licor 43, and cinnamon bitters meld in a complex yet drinkable whole.

The spirit of tiki hovers over but does not overwhelm the bourbon-based Bleeding Monarch. Passion fruit lends a tropical air, orgeat adds texture, balsamico amaro and Campari finish with deliciously bitter undertones. Black Sabbath is as badass as it sounds: Laphroiag Scotch dominates with a rough and tumble, smoky presence, given nuance by Averna, absinthe, and orange bitters.

Smith’s established skill with sherry shows in Jenkins’ Ear, highlighting oloroso sherry with aged rum, Angostura bitters and cardamom-spice properties of Hum liqueur – no element out of balance. Dessert with a savory essence can be had in a Winter Flip. Whole egg softens brandy and tawny port, while Smith’s housemade Indian pudding is a cream base (rather than a thick pudding) for layers of spice.

Maybe my top drink: Porfiriato

Black Sabbath













The New Easy

3255 Lakeshore Avenue (between Lake Park & Trestle Glen), Oakland, 510-338-4911

Flambeeing kumquats for Winter Sideshow

In Oakland’s Grand Lake district, Easy Lounge closed, transforming into the New Easy. Big Easy inspiration is evident in upcoming Nola Sundays with BBQ, punch bowls (proceeds go to charities) and New Orleans tunes. The space is funky, eclectic, charming, with boozy quotes etched into one wall, stars painted on another, white lights draped over individual picnic tables. The small back patio is warmed by heat lamps and a skeleton gazing over cactus plants.

The welcoming neighborhood joint focuses on farmers market ingredients. Each Saturday they create a new menu of cocktails using ingredients from the big Grand Lake Farmers Market a block away. Summer-Jane Bell not only created the menu but was hands-on in space design elements, painting stars as she crafted the menu. Her winning bartender team includes Yael Amyra (Circolo, Burritt Room), Ian Adams (15 Romolo, Orson), David Ruiz (Mr. Smith’s), and Morgan Schick (Nopa, Michael Mina).

Carrot juice to good use in the Mad Hatter

Bell’s menu is decidedly playful, reminiscent of American childhood… with booze. The festive theme starts as you receive Chinese take-out boxes of fresh-popped popcorn, while bites of mini sliders and grilled cheese sandwiches are passed around. I had the most fun with Mad Hatter ($10). Sailor Jerry rum and a spicy ginger soda are obvious mates, but the bright orange, creamy drink surprises with golden raisin puree and carrot juice. Bright and healthy, spice and sweetness (but not too much) make it a delightful alternative to an orange creamsicle.

Gift Horse ($9) was probably the most balanced, making fine use of Hayman’s Old Tom gin, which I haven’t seen much on cocktail menus in awhile. Dolin Blanc vermouth and Bell’s winter bitters made with a tequila base, unfold in floral, dry layers with notes of cranberry and fennel from the bitters. Winter Sideshow ($11) offers the spectacle, even if I prefer the former two drinks. The drink will change with the seasons, a base of Beefeater gin and pür Spiced Blood Orange liqueur the backdrop for Angostura-flambeed kumquats, flamed before you.

The New Easy's inviting glow

Balanced beauty: Gift Horse












Cocktailing Around the East Bay

Hotsy Totsy Club sign glows down San Pablo Ave.

Oakland boasts the biggest concentration and range for East Bay cocktails, some of its consistent best at Adesso, casual drinks with bocce ball at Make Westing, elegant classic-style at Flora, pizza with cocktails at Marzano and Boot & Shoe Service, Miel for tequila/mezcal drinks, Conga Lounge and divey Kona Club for tiki kitsch.

Comfortable, good tunes, under pressed tin ceilings at Hotsy Totsy Club

Berkeley keeps it real with organic drinks at Gather, and artisanal cocktails at Revival Bar & Kitchen. The little island of Alameda hosts the beloved tiki gem, Forbidden Island, launched in part by tiki/rum expert Martin Cate who went on to open SF’s Smuggler’s Cove. Here, cheesy B movie nights, and live bands flow with Banana Mamacows. As mentioned above, Emeryville now has two destination-worthy bars for cocktail lovers: Prizefighter and Honor Bar.

Hotsy Totsy carbonated cocktails

Albany is blessed with three old school classics merely blocks from each other along San Pablo Ave.: the musty, tiki vibe of Club Mallard, the mid-century, retro swank of Kingman’s Ivy Room, and the edgy comfortability of Hotsy Totsy Club. Though none of these three are exactly craft cocktail bars, Hotsy Totsy comes closest, with house cocktail sodas, gracious bar manager Jessica Maria, and stellar guest bartenders like Scott Baird of The Bon Vivants, who bartends here weekly.

They’ve kept on longtime bartender Chet, in his 70’s, who has been tending there the better part of a couple decades. Their gorgeous, restored Wurlitzer jukebox is a treasure of rare and popular 45s, which you can play for free to your hearts content.

Hotsy Totsy encourages lingering with friends under pressed tin ceilings, rocking out to excellent tunes hand-selected by staff. Funky ’70’s garage sale paintings line the walls and hilariously creepy movies (like For Your Height Only starring Weng Weng) play silently on the flat screen, add to the edgy, blissfully divey, convivial spirit.

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The Palanquin: a refreshing beer & Lillet cocktail at brand new AQ


Article & photos by Virginia Miller

These three bars (or restaurant bars) are all new openings within the last 1-3 weeks. I’ve visited those in SF a couple times each, while catching a sneak peek of the Oakland bar. Tasting through a number of drinks on these menus signifies all three as bars to watch.

AQ, SoMa
1085 Mission Street (between 6th & 7th), 415-341-9000

Ultimate fall cocktail: Squash Flip

New restaurant AQ takes on the dodgy stretch of Mission between 6th and 7th street with class, warmth and amaro/vermouth-based cocktails (more eventually to come from me on their food). Just opened and waiting on their full liquor license, AQ’s killer bar staff already serves delightful cocktails.

Working collaboratively vs. “top down”, Timothy Zohn appropriately utilizes the talent around him compiling menus and running the bar as a team. Both Ethan Terry and Brandon Josie, who he worked with at 15 Romolo, plus Karly Pearson from The Alembic, have all joined Zohn here. It’s safe to say we can expect quality cocktails from this gifted group of bartenders.

Not only is there a seasonal focus to the menu, the bar top and glassware are seasonal, too. Vintage glasses emblazoned with autumn leaves evoke fall, while the current copper bar top will transform to Italian marble in winter.

Churchill's Bane - for martini drinkers

I have been waiting to see a local bar lead in the ever-increasing trend of amaro (low alcohol, Italian herbal liqueurs), even as many all over the city have been crafting elegant amaro cocktails for some time. AQ showcases amaro and vermouth-based cocktails quite nicely. Zohn says they will also offer boozier drinks, like classic cocktails alongside seasonal variations of those classics. They eventually plan on opening a downstairs cocktail lounge (with additional restaurant seating) sporting a whiskey and gin focus. Currently, cocktails are $10 each.

The Squash Flip is the ultimate fall cocktail. Carpano Antica sweet vermouth lays the base, roasted butternut squash puree delivers savory fall spice, while a whole egg gives it those creamy overtones typical of a Flip. The Palanquin is for beer drinkers: 21st Amendment IPA, Lillet blanc, lemon and honey forms a zippy refresher, with subtle floral whispers from lavender bitters. Churchill’s Bane works in place of gin with gin botanicals infused in dry vermouth. Reminiscent of a classic martini, orange bitters and twist of lemon tie it together. Another fall-spirited imbibement is Permanent Record, with a base of cream sherry and toasted pecan-infused white port, balanced by barrel-aged bitters and garnished with a flamed orange peel.

I’d call this the bar to watch at the moment. In AQ’s open, comfortably chic space, pulling up to this bar hints at changing delights in talented hands.

584 Valencia St. (between 16th & 17th), 415-552-2510

An unforgettable Pina Colada

Wo Hing General Store is the latest venture from Charles Phan, in the original Slanted Door space, no less. I miss my regular lunches there many years ago so it’s heartwarming to see the space revived.

In opening weeks, I’m hearing mixed reviews of the food, but I initially find it similar to his other Chinese venture, Heaven’s Dog: the food is good, well-prepared, if overpriced compared to the dearth of Chinese food in SF. And just like Heaven’s Dog, the highlight is the cocktails.

The drink menu is a thoughtful spirits line-up, with a fine wine list plus a couple beers (like local Magnolia Pub’s New Speedway Bitter) for good measure. Cocktails (all $10) come from bar manager Brooke Arthur who put the bar at Range on the map and most recently managed the bar at Prospect. Here she goes for classics-with-a-twist and relaxed cocktails offering an unfussy good time, complimentary to Phan’s refined Chinese comfort food.

Mezcal por mi Amante

Let’s just get this out of the way: the early “word on the street” is true. Arthur’s Pina Colada is about the best I’ve ever had. It’s what I wish Pina Coladas ordered on a tropical isle tasted like. Her’s improves upon the standard with white rum, lime, pineapple, soft with coconut cream, and a gentle shave of nutmeg. It’s the Colada of your dreams.

Both the Brooklyn (rye, dry vermouth, Amer Picon, maraschino) and Jimmy Roosevelt (cognac, Angostura-soaked sugar cube, sparkling wine, green chartreuse float) are boozy and elegant. The latter exhilarates on ice, hitting first with herbal chartreuse notes, then slowly-dissolving sweet layers from the bitters-laced sugar cube.

Luscious Laughing Water

Mezcal por mi Amante shows off mezcal’s soft, summery side infused with strawberry. Lemon, agave nectar, Angostura bitters, and egg white froth round it out. A slightly pink (with grapefruit juice) Iceberg Daiquiri is as refreshing as it sounds, additionally mixed with white rum, lime, maraschino, vanilla, bitters.

Besides the Pina Colada, my favorite may be Laughing Water. Rye whiskey spice melds with a dose of cinnamon, dry vermouth, pineapple juice and lemon into one lush whole, evoking fall by way of a breezy Indian Summer.

Non-alcoholic sips ($6) are no afterthought. As more old fashioned soda drinks appear on menus, a Wild Cherry Phosphate (wild cherry bark, cherry juice, soda, acid phosphate) is a robustly tart example of how to do phosphates right. There’s also a Ginger Rickey with lime, and Don the Beachcomber’s Soda with cinnamon syrup and grapefruit.

PLUM BAR, Oakland
2216 Broadway (near Grand Ave.), Oakland, 510-444-6600

Tart & lush: the Rose Aprium Sour

They had me at the high-ceilinged, skylight-punctuated bar with walls lined painstakingly with pages of American poetry books. The deal was sealed with cocktails from Scott Beattie and a bar helmed by Michael Lazar, who helped create the book Left Coast Libations.

Just opened last week, it promises to be one of Oakland’s great bars, not because of flash or even experimentation, but because of the effortless elegance of recipes from experts who know how to craft them (here’s hoping all bar staff are trained to prepare them accordingly). There’s also wine on tap, beers and bar bites from Chef Ron Boyd (of neighboring Plum), like grilled cheese sandwiches and beef tendon chicharrones. I haven’t sampled the bar food yet but did taste a few of the cocktails.

B3 cocktail: bourbon, ginger beer, Bonal, lime

Besides cocktails ($10 each), they are building up a fine selection of Scotch in particular, though have a notable range of spirits, plus a private lounge area (space for 12) behind a greenhouse cabinet stocked with herbs and produce used in the drinks.

How could I not fall in love with the Rose Aprium Sour? Infusing a special batch of St. George’s fabulous gin with rose apriums (an apricot-plum hybrid) results in a softly tart-sweet juice balanced with honey syrup, lemon and maraschino liqueur, made absolutely silky with egg white.

The ultimate refresher? A B3 cocktail. Evan Williams single barrel bourbon gets an obvious perk from lime and ginger beer, but gains that “something extra” with the subtly bitter, herbaceous properties of Bonal quina. I am happiest to see one of Beattie’s best recipes from Spoonbar, where he bartends in Healdsburg: John Chapman. It tastes like fall magic with St. George’s whiskey and Pear Eau de Vie, plus lemon, apple, ginger and a Thai coconut foam. It goes down all too easy.

NOTE: After only a couple weeks (though these guys were involved well over a year before opening), both Scott Beattie and Michael Lazar are no longer with Plum Bar. My favorite recipes there being their recipes, I can no longer vouch for the quality level of cocktails here.

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