I recently took a trip to New York City to catch up on a couple of years' worth of new bar openings and my brain couldn't help but make comparisons between San Francisco and New York. The quality of cocktails in both cities is great, and to my taste, neither city is better or worse (in that trajectory up, sometimes things are simply different).
But there is one aspect where New York has the upper hand: the spaces that the bars occupy. Carved out nooks with a patina and atmosphere applied by decades and in some cases centuries, is a look that no amount of reclaimed wood can replicate. It isn't simply about how it looks, but there's also something about the way it feels.
That is part of what makes the bar at Tosca Café so great, a rare space that endured the awkward teenage years of being uncool long enough to become the hottest place in town. Thankfully Isaac Shumway's drinks, like the fantastic Choke Hold ($12, reposado tequila, Cynar, Antica Formula Vermouth, maraschino, orange peel) are on par with the atmosphere.
"I felt Tosca was the space to focus on amazing classics, or contemporary classics. An iconic classic bar with a lot of history," says Shumway. "I intend to rhyme this in the cocktail menu."
The Choke Hold certainly does that. Based on the classic Brooklyn cocktail (rye, dry vermouth, Amer Picon Orange Bitter Liqueur, maraschino liqueur), here using sweet vermouth, but also tequila and the complex artichoke liqueur Cynar. The combination of tequila and artichokes sounds odd, but the vegetal qualities of each compliment in a way that makes it a perfect aperitif. Bold, lightly bitter, and definitely stiff enough to ease you into the barstool for a bit.
"In terms of flavors, I went with what I felt made sense at the current Tosca: lots of amaro [as a base] in the cocktails, aperitif/ digestive cocktails...a place where you can come and get the perfect Martini, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, or Daiquiri," says Shumway.
Those drinks feel right at home at the bar, and holding one in your hand feels as much a part of the restaurant as the layers of smoke that stain the walls. Sipping the smoky scotch based Old Grampian ($12, Bank Note & Lagavulin 16yr Scotch, honey, orange and aromatic bitters, orange peel) conjures that perfectly.
While you wouldn't associate the Tropical Daiquiri #1 ($12, El Dorado 3 Year Rum, lime, cane sugar) with the Italian influences of the bar or neighborhood, it feels right at home with the era of white coats. The drink tastes deceptively layered for a simple list of ingredients in the cocktail. The secret is the sugar mixture that Shumway and his staff experimented with, originally designed to be used in a Sazerac cocktail. Whatever blend or alchemy they used, it makes for a silky Daiquiri redolent with citrus fragrance and accented by vanilla and floral qualities.
The whole cocktail menu sings and croons in a pitch perfect way for the bar and the space, and it shows the skill and restraint that Shumway is capable of. He has accomplished something quite rare: capturing the neighborhood, the café's history, and the vibe of the bar in a single-page menu of drinks.
1 ½ oz. Reposado Tequila
¾ oz. Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
½ oz. Cynar
1 barspoon Luxardo Maraschino
Combine all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice, and stir until well chilled. Strain into a cold cocktail glass. Twist an orange peel over the drink, and garnish with the peel.
Tosca Cafe, 242 Columbus (at Pacific), 391-1244