In San Francisco’s restaurant scene, the bar has risen to star status while the kitchen plays a supporting role. In an odd plot twist, bartenders have taken on the role of chefs with a complex mise en place of house made syrups and infusions, seasonally sourced components and even customized ice cubes. But, at the new Comstock Saloon, in a location that has been a watering hole since 1907, we get an ensemble production in which food and drink equably share the stage.
Two bartender/owners, Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin preside over a tile and wood paneled barroom that looks like a setting for a Gold Rush saga. With unusual dispatch for this type of meticulous cocktail making, the bar turns out a lush, fruity, balanced Pisco Punch ($10) in a goblet with one sharp edged, oversized ice cube; and a haunting strained rum elixir called a Hop Toad ($11) with hints of apricot, lime and aromatic bitters. Call them girls’ drinks, but I enjoy being a girl at Comstock.
But the real treat for me is the food from chef Carlos Espinas who has created a short, playful menu of traditional bar fare with a contemporary edge– just like the cocktails. Top heavy with small bites and snacks, the all-day menu performs in both the crowded barroom, and a quieter side dining room with similarly evocative decor.
As you drink, nibble on thin cheddar crackers, whipped cream cheese and pepper jelly ($4), one of those inexplicably satisfying American concoctions. Hangtown toast ($6.50), layered with thinly sliced pickled eggs, crisp bacon and tart oyster dressing, has the breeziness of a passed hors d’oeuvre. So do crumbly, mini-biscuits stuffed with warm, clove-scented pork rillettes ($12.50). Chicken-fried rabbit ($16) are actually rabbit beignets, a little bit of meat inside a crunchy batter. They come with soft rabbit pate on hot buttered toast, and a juicy celery salad.
Dinner here is a pleasure. A weekly changing, three course menu can be ordered a la carte, or as a $35 prix fixe. One supper began with kabocha squash minestrone ($8), full of tiny cubes of squash. Buttery, breadcrumb- coated mashed potato and fish patties, called New England cod fish fritters ($12), came alive with a swipe of lemony mayonnaise and a bite of beet and arugula salad. Just these two dishes could be a meal but if you’re a real trencherman, a succulent, peppery, roasted game hen ($22) begged to be picked up with the fingers, though only a fork would do for soft apple-fennel stuffing, a slice of steamed cabbage and plenty of chicken gravy.
On the regular menu, a little gem salad ($8) with croutons of fried grits gets an excellent buttermilk dressing. Homey macaroni casserole ($16.50) is made with plenty of broccoli, cheddar, mushrooms and just enough cream to lubricate everything but still keep flavors distinct. Inspired by the pasty, a mainstay of English pubs, clove-scented beef and marrow stew enclosed in buttery pastry ($18.50) comes with a big California arugula salad.
Comstock Saloon plays to its North Beach location. Locals and tourists, snackers and diners, cocktail lovers and beer aficionados, all feel at home amidst Comstock’s historical backdrop with up to the minute food and drink.
Comstock Saloon, 155 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco
Contact: (415) 617-0071; www.comstocksaloon.com
Hours: Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Closed Sunday’
Price range: $5.50 to $22
Recommended dishes: cheddar crackers and pepper jelly; green salad with fried grits; chicken fried rabbit; broccoli and cheddar casserole; the weekly supper; maple bourbon pudding
Credit cards: all major