Making the Rounds (III)

Part III of reports on visits to LCL bartenders in SF.


Last Wednesday Scott and I headed over to visit with Duggan McDonnell at Cantina. After our last failed attempt to drop in (see the end of Part II) I exchanged a couple of emails with the man himself and determined a prime time when drinks could be had along with some conversation.

When I arrived (before Scott), the bar was already pretty hopping with nary a seat to be had but it was certainly not packed to the brim. I had the distinct impression that many of the folks here were semi-regulars, in for a post-work libation (or two or three). But then, after watching Duggan in action for a while, I became less certain of this. What I saw was that Duggan, working the well at the front of the bar, greeted each and every patron as they arrived, making them feel immediately welcome. (Though I could imagine this not happening if the bar became very croweded.) Duggan also made it a point to learn the names of the people for whom he was making drinks and then took it all a bit further by introducing adjacent patrons to each other. (The success of this “trick” was certainly aided and abetted by everyone having shared a few of his delicious cocktails.) In fact, of all the LCL bars visited thus far Cantina felt the most like a neighborhood watering hole – and something of a secret one at that with little signage out front. Here, I thought, was an example of how important a component is hospitality to a good bar and a great cocktail drinking experience. This should not be underestimated.

After Scott arrived and we settled in, we got down to business which was to try Duggan’s drinks from Left Coast Libations, both of which were on the cocktail menu. (Oh, and I should mention for folks not familiar with Cantina, this place is 100% cocktails and no food). As Duggan started to mix, I noticed two things right away.

First, there were the dishes of chopped ginger and sliced serrano chiles which play a supporting role in several of the Cantina cocktails. Duggan had made a point of submitting two cocktails each of which used some of the same ingredients so that (and I quote him here) “one’s mise-en-place could be minimalized.” Sage advise from a hard working bartender.

Second, Duggan was using Barritt’s Ginger Beer, an exotic import from Bermuda. When I first read through Duggan’s recipe for The Laughing Buddha I saw that the drink called for ginger beer but as ginger beer fanatics will tell you, these vary greatly in taste and quality. So I had Ted make an inquiry (I had not yet made Duggan’s acquaintance) and learned of Duggan’s preference for Barritt’s. Well, that took me on quite a journey! Even in today’s brand-crazed market Barritt’s was not readily found. Finally I just stumbled upon it at a very nice wine and liquor store called Beltramo’s in Atherton, down on the peninsula, about 20 miles south of San Francisco. (Well worth the trip, especially if you fancy unusual single malts.) Anyway, Duggan told me they had a wholesaler in SF keeping them supplied with Barritt’s. Handy.

After we enjoyed (all to fast) both The Laughing Buddha and The Misdemeanor, it was time to explore the rest of the menu. Of particular note was the Sommelier’s Sidecar, made with late-harvest riesling brandy, homegrown Meyer lemon, Cointreau and Sauternes (Carmes de Rieussec). Yum! I must confess that cocktails made with dessert wine to add sweetness are a new favorite of mine. But it was the brandy which really put this over the top. This had been made by Lance Winters at Hangar One. Cantina had purchased an entire barrel, though I guess that was a while ago. We didn’t ask but I’d hazard a guess that when this stock is gone, this drink will be off the menu.

By this point it was getting late, Duggan was off entertaining and mixing for other customers and we were getting hungry. (Remember I said there was no food?) Scott and I said our good byes and went off to put something in our bellies besides cocktails.

[CODA: I suppose I shouldn’t even mention our lack luster visit to B&B later than evening after we had some food. However, I feel somewhat compelled to do so. It seems that every time we go we wind up having a highly average experience. (And what’s up with offering an Aviation w/o Creme de Violette anyway?) If there’s someone out there feels they can help us manifest an exemplar evening at the place, do give us a shout.]

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