TRUE LAUREL, SF: NICOLAS TORRES
Opening at the end of 2017, it was immediately apparent that True Laurel was special. Esquire magazine dubbed it one of the best new bars in the country for 2018, but I’d already called it in January at Time Out, knowing in a city of a few hundred bars that surpass the best in many a global city, this was destination-worthy.
Why? Well, when you start with a superb two-Michelin-starred restaurant Lazy Bear, and have its gifted chef, David Barzelay, and bar director, Nicolas Torres, behind the food and cocktails, it already has running start. Then enter uber-talented chef de cuisine Geoff Davis to take the menu on to ultimate bar food.
Pull up to two bars inside the understated but sleekly-designed space. The smaller bar is lined with an array of vintage spirits you can order by the pour, whether an whiskies and brandies from the 1800s or rare eaux de vie (clear fruit brandies) dating back to the 1970s.
Barzelay and Davis’ dishes are nothing short of “wow.” The opening menu introduced two dishes we hope never leave the menu: an aged beef, griddled patty melt and hen of the woods mushrooms tempura fried in Kölsch beer, dipped in a sour cream and alliums dip. These days, a Buffalo iceberg wedge salad, lush crab bisque dotted with sherry or blistered snap peas tostada accented with chocolate mint, lime and mole powder, are a whole new level of “bar food.”
Nic Torres’ cocktails are at a level of experimentation in keeping with the best in the world. As someone who has been to over 20,000 of the top cocktail bars globally, I can vouch for the delicate creativity of drinks like Top Dawg, a low proof drink of rancio wine, fermented tonic and a rim of black sudachi and smoked salt. Understatement and elegance define Torres’ unique drinks. Bold vision is reigned in by a balanced palate — and low proof/low ABV drinks are some of the best.
Early standout drinks included Golden Child, mixing mezcal, clarified golden beets, gentian wine reduction and black lime bitters. On the current menu, Paloma Prieta brings a whole new angle to a classic Paloma. Torres infuses mezcal with aromatic California-grown guavas, then shakes with Dolin Blanc Aperitif, lime and his own pampleau, a “wine” made from fermenting grapefruit rinds mixed with gentian and grapefruit juice. A black salt and red jelly rim graces one side of the glass in a drink that goes down light, easy and utterly crushable. Cold-Hardy & Tolerant is a stunner on the current menu featuring Bertoux brandy, kumquat honey, sweet vermouth, a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar, a drop of sesame oil and a touch of Port Charlotte Bruichladdich Scotch, exhibiting a peaty smoke that doesn’t overwhelm but defines this whisky-brandy sipper.
Torres has always gone creative with vodka, as with his current The Fungus Among Us, infusing vodka with truffles, mixed with candy cap mushrooms, oxidized wines, lemon and sparkling splash of Pet-Nat wine.
1.5 oz. NEFT Vodka
0.5 oz. Honey
0.5 oz. Lemon
0.25 oz. Fino Sherry
0.25 oz. Fennel Ferment Liquid (chopped, salted fennel bulbs by 2.5% weight with a dash of fennel seed, coriander seed and lemon peels; the mixture lacto-fermented for three weeks)
0.25 oz. Arak Sanine
Shake, strain and serve over one large rock of ice in an Old Fashioned/rocks/short tumbler glass.