Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Dish on Drinks: Clock Bar

Time Stands Still at this Hotel Bar
335 Powell St. (first floor of the Westin St. Francis), San Francisco
Union Square
PH: 415.397.9222
Daily, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. (food until 10 p.m. nightly except 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays)
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

In a city that’s turning bartending into an art (I think this is where they came up with the term “mixologist”), it was only a matter of time that some of the biggest names in the restaurant business paid attention to the drinks. And you don’t get any bigger than Michael Mina. (OK, maybe Thomas Keller might trump him.)

This summer, Mina opened Clock Bar at the Westin St. Francis—right across the lobby from his two-star Michelin restaurant that bears his name. Clock Bar gets its name from the grandfather-looking clock that stands ornately right outside.

I visited the Clock Bar for the first time last week on a warm summer night. If it wasn’t so warm, I probably would have appreciated the enclosed bar that has no windows and just lots of gold touches. The space is actually the size of my studio apartment, so in a strange way I felt right at home.

Two glowing podiums dominate the space, which looks like a mix of modern with a beautiful glass encased fireplace and touches of ‘70s geometric shapes highlighted on the shelves at the bar.

Early on the crowd is a mix of tourists, hotel guests and conventioneers in an almost sports bar-like atmosphere. But as the evening goes on, you get the young professionals and bar hoppers looking for a fun time in more of a lounge atmosphere. Clock Bar tries to keep them happy with delicious drinks and a mini bar menu designed by Mina and executed by Clock Bar’s Executive Chef Chris L’Hommedieu.

First a disclaimer: The lighting was such the typical mood lighting of a lounge that it was really difficult getting shots of the food. Ironically, my photos of the drinks didn’t turn out half bad.

Clock Bar’s food menu is reasonably priced between $12 and $15 for eight selections, with a typical bar food attraction to fried things and a nod to Mina’s signature seafood flair. There are two desserts (chocolate panna cotta and blackberry custard) for $8.

The guy sitting next to me was raving about the tuna tartare ($12), which I read is assembled in front of you. But I’ve had so many tuna tartars that I’m a bit tartared out. So I went for the black truffle popcorn ($12), which I heard is quite addictive.

OK, you might think (just like the guy next to me) that $12 is a lot for a bowl of popcorn, but I have to say it smelled wonderful. The mustiness of the few black truffle specks mixed with the fragrant chives were all illuminated by the heat of the popcorn. Even though I’m not a frequent popcorn eater (bits undoubtedly always get stuck in the back of my throat), I can see how these are addictive. But don’t expect the black truffles to be the winning flavor; I think it was more the chives that sealed the deal.

Then I tried the Lamb Tenderloin Panini ($15). It was made up of four quaint pieces of panini almost like finger sandwiches, served with harissa aioli, Sylvetta arugula, and roasted sweet peppers smashed between a nicely toasted panini-style roll. While everything melded nicely together, I couldn’t really detect a strong lamb flavor. It was tender, but it could have been any other meat.

But really, I felt the food was just a supporting act for the drinks. The 14-page drink book included several interesting featured cocktails and then a variety of classics cocktails along with alcohol-specific drinks focused on the likes of gin, vodka, and even absinthe. It’s the type of complete drinks list that would serve well the cast of Mad Men.

I tried a couple of the specialty drinks, created by head bartender Marcovaldo Dionysos. Up first was the Uptown Manhattan ($11). Manhattans are one of my favorite drinks, mostly because I love the amber color. I typically see them served in martini glasses and the bourbon makes you feel like a real man. But they can often be too strong because of that.

Dionysos’ twist on the traditional Manhattan is that he blends in Amaro Nonino instead of vermouth and adds cherry-infused brandy. This is all served in an old-style champagne glass with a burnt orange peel that the bartender lights up right before he serves it to you. (Don’t worry, it just makes a crackling noise and doesn’t light up the rest of the alcohol like a flambĂ©.)

The blend is a bit easier to swallow than the traditionally potent Manhattan. I could probably even drink two of these, but I decided to try another special: the Napa Sour ($11).

I occasionally like a sour drink, like a Lemon Drop. So if you like those types of citrus-based drinks that lean more sour than sweet, then you’ll love Clock Bar’s Napa Sour because I do. I wish this could be my new drink, but it’s only served here. Guess I just have to come back more often.

The Napa Sour is made with Bulleit bourbon, fresh lemon, sugar and egg white all froth up and then topped with a bit of Napa red wine (usually a cabernet sauvignon). It just looked beautiful to me how the bartender was able to keep the red from mixing in with the rest of the drink. And the taste was just a perfect balance of sour and subtle sweetness.

I think it’s too early to really get a sense of what kind of bar Clock Bar will be. At times it feels like a sports bar while other times it’s a trendy lounge. And early on it often feels like a waiting area for diners with reservations at Michael Mina across the way.

Whatever it turns out to be, it has definitely raised the bar on how a hotel bar should be designed and delivered. The food is noteworthy although not necessarily amazing, but the specialty drinks are worth watching the mixologists create and for you to consume.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (for the elegant food); 4.25 (for the delish drinks)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Clock Bar on Urbanspoon


foodhoe said...

ooh, what a cool looking spot! I like appetizer/bar food and am eager to check this place out and have some popcorn!

Carolyn Jung said...

Are the drinks as good as at Cyrus in Healdsburg? That's my ultimate touchstone for perfect cocktails. After your posting, I'm dying to see if Clock Bar's libations measure up to that standard.

Passionate Eater said...

I love your description of the "musty" truffle aroma of the popcorn. I think I would try to make that stuff at home first though, before shelling out $12--just b/c I am cheap.

Chef Ben said...

Carolyn, I haven't been to Cyrus yet, so can't say. I felt the drinks were well done and the bartenders have to do a lot of work just to create the special drinks, so a lot of details go into, which is why I was impressed. But hey, after a few drinks they're all good. ;-)

Foodhoe, PE, black truffle popcorn always sound enticing, no? PE, if you have a truffle hanging around at home, more power to you! :)