Last week I was in San Francisco for a tech conference, accompanied by Mrs. Wonk. San Francisco is a hotbed of well-regarded bars and at the forefront of a lot of today’s mixology, so when I saw an announcement that Imbibe magazine, Aviation Gin and locally renowned bar Trick Dog were presenting a cocktail dinner while we were in town, I was elated. Three of my favorite things! I even woke up Mrs. Wonk to tell her the good news. (Good thing she was excited too.)
Aviation Gin is one of the better known products from Portland’s House Spirits, which I’ve written about previously in my Bridgetown Rum review. Both House Spirits and Imbibe magazine (which needs no introduction in cocktail circles) are from Portland, so I was surprised to see they chose San Francisco for the event. Within the city’s cocktail scene, Trick Dog is consistently ranked among the top bars. On our second visit to Trick Dog (as with my earlier visit), we came away impressed by the caliber of what they do there.
Although many San Francisco bars don’t serve food (and really, sometimes making a bowl of nuts available would go a long way), Trick Dog is complemented by a fully functional restaurant, with new chef Michael Logan manning the kitchen. The dinner’s theme was “North Beach Italian Supper,” celebrating San Francisco’s Italian-influenced North Beach neighborhood. Each of the three courses were served with cocktail pairings featuring a liquor from the House Spirits lineup.
Trick Dog had closed early on this Sunday night to prepare for the 9 pm event. The restaurant was empty and quiet except for the bustle of service staff, busily preparing food and prepping cocktails. As the evening’s attendees filtered in, we were greeted by an off-menu but delicious opening cocktail (a sherry cobbler over crushed ice in a short metal tumbler—always a Wonk favorite) and prior to the formal start I had the opportunity to chat for a while with representatives of both Imbibe and Aviation Gin.
Eventually it came time to take our places for dinner. While most of the guests ascended the stairs to the upper dining room, perched above the kitchen and bar, about ten lucky folks, Mrs. Wonk and myself included, were seated at the bar. While we could hear a great time being had upstairs, we bar-sitters enjoyed our front-row seats and chatting with Trick Dog’s friendly staff as they worked through their cocktail preparation and food service. The other advantage of being at the bar was the more than occasional extra pour of leftover cocktails. The food was well executed and served family style, with plenty to go around – so much that I eventually cried uncle, but a satisfied cry at that.
The courses began with fritto misto and bagna cauda, essentially Italian tempura with an olive-oil dipping sauce, along with misticanza, a chopped salad of mixed Little Gem lettuce, salami, mozzarella, and olives, with a lemon-oregano vinaigrette. This starter set was paired with the Pizza Negroni, a twist on the traditional Negroni using mozzarella-washed Aviation gin, Campari, Martini & Rossi Gran Lusso, and tomato water. Mozzarella-washing, or more generally “fat washing,” is simply infusing a spirit with a flavorful fat, relying on the natural solvent properties of ethanol to extract flavors. (Typically a short time in a freezer is enough to solidify the fat for easy separation from the infused spirit.)
I was honestly a little apprehensive about what the Pizza Negroni would taste like, but it pleasantly surprised me. It’s rare that a drink’s intensity increases with time, and the Pizza Negroni certainly did. At first the mozzarella influence was mild, but by the time I finished the pour it was mozzarella overload in the best possible way. I might not drink it every night, but it was certainly a fun and interesting taste experience that I’d absolutely recommend.
The second course was ricotta and eggplant cannelloni and chicken cacciatore over housemade pasta. It was paired with IGT Punch, made with Aviation gin, verjus (the pressed juice from unripe grapes—it has a subtle vinegar-like quality), Concord grape juice, House Spirits Coffee Liqueur, lemon thyme, and peppercorn. Grape was the primary character of the IGT Punch, but there was also something else I couldn’t identify. I mentioned to the bartender that it had a smoky element, almost mezcal-like, and she surprised me by admitting there was in fact a bit of “secret mezcal” in it. Win!
The final course was dessert: House-made Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches, paired with a sweet cocktail made of grappa, Krogstad Aquavit (courtesy of House Spirits, naturally), peach, and amaro (though we were enjoying it too much to ask which one…). By this time I’d had more than my share of the IGT Punch, so my recollections on this drink are a bit hazy, though Mrs. Wonk says it was her favorite drink of the night, a balanced, slightly savory counterpoint to the sweet dessert.
As the event was winding down, Morgan Schick, the creative director of the Bon Vivants (the team behind Trick Dog), came over to chat. We talked for quite a while about international travel (including his recent trip to Bogota, Colombia—definitely on the Wonks’ top-ten travel list), spirits and bars, his recommendations for other food and drink stops in San Francisco (including Bar Tartine and State Bird Provisions—both of which were on the week’s itinerary, and well worth a visit when you hit the city), and a few stories behind the ever-creative Trick Dog menu designs—both current and past. A genuinely nice guy.
If you find yourself in San Francisco and are adventurous cocktail-wise, please do yourself a favor and seek out Trick Dog. Cocktail Wonk’s orders! Grab a seat at the bar and take your time perusing their ever-changing, whimsical menus. I’ve personally experienced the “Pantone color fan” and current “tourist map” menus. Not only are they clever in and of themselves, but the cocktails are worthy of the effort put into the design.
We visited lots of bars in the San Francisco Bay Area – stay tuned for future posts reviewing these other cocktail dens. A big thanks to Imbibe Magazine for letting me use some of their photos taken by Allison Webber in this post. For more photos from this dinner, check out the full set on Facebook.