Sunday, January 23, 2011

Redwood Room at the Clift Hotel

San Francisco has many historic and landmark institutions, and one of them among the cocktail scene is the Redwood Room in the downtown Clift Hotel.

Partly being historic just means something’s been around for a very long time. The Clift Hotel was built in 1915, a few years after the great earthquake. Then in 1934, the Redwood Room was added by G. Albert Lansburgh, the designer of the War Memorial Opera House.

Ten years ago, the Redwood Room was refurbished by Philippe Starck-Ian Schrager for $50 million. And while the lodge-gentlemen’s club vibe created lots of buzz, I never got a chance to check it out myself.

But last week I was invited to a cocktail tasting party hosted by the Clift Hotel to mark the 10 years since the Starck-Schrager renovations. So I went with my friend Kim, who lives in the neighborhood and also like me had not stepped foot into this historic bar.

The space, of course, gets its name from the redwood used all over, from the walls to the floors (or at least that's the story we were told). It provides a rich and luxurious feel, accented by the large yellow-illuminated bar shelves.

Once Kim and I sat down, along with a few other food bloggers, the parade of cocktails came to the table, all from the Redwood Room’s signature cocktail menu. There was the Huck’s Fizz (Right Gin, huckleberry shrub, thai basil, lemon juice) that I found very refreshing, and the Mandarin Lemongrass Martini (Hanger One Mandarin blossom vodka, lemongrass infused syrup, lime juice) that Kim thought was the best of the night. All were balanced and didn’t have a strong liquor flavor, but subtle in taste. (The cocktails go for a wallet-busting $15 on the regular menu.)

To keep us from getting drunk from all the cocktails, there were also passed h’or douevres such as the perfect breakfast bite – a crostini of truffled scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. There were also duck liver pate, wagu beef on crispy polenta cakes, crispy Brussels sprouts (Kim tried that for me) and squash soup.

All of the h’or douevres are available on the regular bar menu, but the Redwood Room was also trying to showcase the adjacent Velvet Room, the hotel restaurant that was revamped a few months ago from the former Asia de Cuba to a farm-fresh, California seasonal menu created by Executive Chef Ewart Wardhaugh.

Chef Wardhaugh chatted with us briefly, and this engaging Scottish chef (he was named “Young Scottish Chef of the Year” when he was 20) talked about cooking in kitchens from Singapore to Las Vegas.

On this weeknight, the new Velvet Room was like a ghost town compared to the lively Redwood Room. Kim and I took a peek at Chef Wardhaugh’s menu, and while it had some interesting dishes (I was intrigued by the sweet carrot risotto), we agreed the prices for the entrees ($28-plus) were too steep for us to just drop in for an everyday dinner. It's more a place for a special occasion meal.

The Redwood Room and its sister Velvet Room have that old world charm with trendy urban glamour that makes them a unique place in the city. If you live in the Bay Area, you should visit the Redwood Room at least once in your lifetime.

The Redwood Room, inside the Clift Hotel, 495 Geary St., San Francisco. Open daily from 5 p.m. (4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday) until 2 a.m.

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