By Michael Bauer
March 31, 2013
“I asked my bartender friends where I should go for a drink,” said the rakish man sitting at the counter chatting with the tattooed bartender, “and all of them said Trick Dog.” He was nursing a cocktail and had just finished the Trick Dog, an ingenious hamburger in a hot dog bun.
“That’s great to hear,” the bartender replied, between shaking and stirring drinks with the precise cadence of a robot.
Looking around the room, it was clear others have gotten similar messages – even on a Wednesday night when it was still light outside, the two-level space was packed.
The mezzanine, where there are normally tables and chairs to seat 20, and well-trained waiters who are adept at answering questions and keeping the cocktails and food flowing, was closed for a private party hosted by Campari; downstairs, all 12 barstools were filled and it was standing room only. After several maneuvers, we carved out a corner of the bar to stand and have a bite.
The name Trick Dog comes from two scarred mechanical banks occupying a place of honor over the bar. More than two years in the making, it’s the result of an ambitious project from Jason Henton, Scott Baird and Josh Harris – a.k.a. the Bon Vivants. It’s the latest addition to the burgeoning artisan food neighborhood around 20th and Florida streets, joining Central Kitchen and Salumeria and an upcoming Sightglass Coffee cafe.
The owners have turned a warehouse space into an industrial wonder, courtesy of Wylie Price Design. They utilized the large-paned warehouse windows, and accented the interior with clear Edison lights hung between the wooden ceiling rafters, 1950s office-style metal and vinyl-upholstered chairs around the white-clothed mezzanine tables, and sconces created from vintage shade-cutters. The bannister leading upstairs was nabbed from the old Warfield.
Even before the first drinks were poured, the interior alone had garnered loads of publicity, including a full-page spread in The Chronicle’s Style section.
Based on the care given to the design – and the owners’ pedigree – it was almost a given the cocktails would be precisely crafted – which they are.
The selection is listed on a Pantone color wheel, with each drink named after the colors. Alligator Alley ($12) features olive oil-infused gin, vermouth quinquina (a bitter) and green Chartreuse. A tall, cool Straw Hat ($11) blends vermouth, Calvados, hard cider, chestnut honey and a hint of rosemary. The bartenders can make a pretty terrific margarita and Negroni, too.
The wine list features four selections, starting at $34, and beer veers from Erdinger Weissbier from Germany ($5) to Old Milwaukee ($3). While the choices are adequate, the soul of the business is the meticulous cocktails.
What was less clear when the place opened was how chef Chester Watson’s creations would play into the equation. He’s written a short menu that’s the food equivalent of the cocktails. Every ingredient has a purpose and every dish is designed to enhance or soak up the alcohol from the cocktails.
I learned just about all I needed to know when the radishes ($6) arrived, well scrubbed and chilled, their crunchy bitterness made for cocktails. They were served with the greens attached and were flanked by a dish of whipped butter flavored with dehydrated Campari on one side, and house-smoked Maldon sea salt on the other.
The kale salad ($9) is uncompromisingly bold, an enormous mound of chopped greens glazed with a dressing creamy from egg yolks, allowing the flavors to coat and cling to each ribbon of greens. Chunks of avocado, toasted pumpkin seeds and a dusting of Parmesan kept the dish interesting and continually revived the palate.
Watson also offers typical bar snacks, but has rethought and improved them, as in his beer nuts ($5) – Spanish peanuts candied in Miller High Life, orange zest and chiles.
He gives pimiento cheese spread ($5) a tang with Cheddar cheese and heat with Spanish cherry peppers reinforced with garlic and Carpano Antico sweet vermouth. Alongside are toasts, carrot coins, endive leaves and bite-size lengths of celery – the perfect pairing for that spread. The match might not be foie gras and Sauternes, but it’s a close second.
The chef has also created his version of Scotch eggs ($10), a soft-boiled egg wrapped in brandade and nestled in chopped beets with a swipe of creme fraiche and salmon roe off to one side.
On one visit, he served a ragout of peas and mushrooms ($8) with bacon, green garlic and Thai basil. On another visit, the menu included asparagus ($10) with a soft-cooked egg draped over the top.
The food mixes cultures, but it feels natural. For the Brawn Tacos ($10), soft corn tortillas are stuffed with headcheese and pickled vegetables. A rice plate ($12) tops a sticky rice cake with lemongrass pork, pickled carrots, shiitake mushrooms and mustard seed.
Every dish is robust and makes sense in a crowded bar setting. The elongated burger is made with sirloin, chuck and brisket; it’s cooked on a flat-top griddle and placed in a buttered and toasted sesame hot dog bun with mild cheddar cheese and a chow chow sauce.
Yet no matter which dish you choose, you have to order the thrice-cooked fries ($5) – Kennebec potatoes that are boiled, fried twice and served with that chow chow sauce and ketchup.
Dessert is an ice cream flavor that changes daily ($4); on one visit, it was curry and cried out for one of the sherries on the menu.
I’ve had lots of great cocktails around the Bay Area, but no food I’ve tasted is as symbiotic with the setting as what’s offered at Trick Dog. That’s why, despite the fact that it’s basically a bar, Trick Dog deserves a three-star review.
By Michael Bauer for the San Francisco Chronicle