First there's the staff, who offhandedly look like a bunch of punks but really keep the Alembic feeling down to earth, especially when you see how fancy the food and drinks are when they start rolling out. (You can get an idea of their sense of humor when you walk by and look at the chalkboard outside, which usually has something funny scrawled on it. In this case, it was "America, F*@& Yeah!" in honor of Independence Day.) And the staff is good: I watched a waitress—who sported choppy spiky hair, black and pink striped pants, a giant studded belt with a boombox-shaped belt buckle, and a black and white striped top—gently respond to the neighboring table's adamant requests not to get blue cheese on the cheese plate without a hint of attitude.
And while it's best known for its delicious cocktails, the food that's coming out of the kitchen is unique and surprising. To find a bar with food this good and creative is rare.
Recently, they started serving a prix fixe menu for $35. It's a pretty sweet deal. In this case, it began with slices of hiramasa sashimi, rolled up, topped with papery pieces of sweet pickled watermelon rind, cubes of "compressed" watermelon, yuzu kosho (Japanese citrus and pepper sauce), and tiny buds of shiso. Another appetizer, a skewer of jerk-spiced grilled duck hearts served on thin slices of pineapple, tasted like meaty sausage nuggets.
An unexpected surf and turf: roasted prawns (head on, but with the body shelled) served with crispy, salty sweetbreads. Under the prawns was a pile of fresh shelling peas, bright, crunchy, and sweet, with tiny bits of serrano ham. The whole thing was covered in bright coppery orange shrimp emulsion that spiked the dish with briny flavor. Another main dish we tried was duck confit, which had been picked from the bones and pressed into cubes, then fried, and served on quinoa with cold pickled cherries.
The bone marrow is my favorite dish in San Francisco. Big statement, but I’m serious. The bones, sliced lengthwise and roasted, filled with that hot meat-butter and a sprinkle of chopped shallots, roasted garlic, capers, and herbs, make the most satisfying meal.
Many of the garnishes, like the fresh chopped stevia sprinkled on top of a little slab of olive oil cake with passionfruit mousse and chocolate, are grown out behind the kitchen, in half wine barrels that are stocked with herbs and decorative flowers. There’s also a raspberry patch, a few citrus trees, and even hop vines.
It’s a place where there is usually something new to discover, scrawled on one of the chalkboards above the bar as a special or buried in the menu. On this visit, it was Sutton Cellars Brown Label Vermouth on draft, an eight-ounce carafe for $12. I’ve never seen vermouth on draft, but I would spring for it again if I did. This particular one was dry, with a warm spice smell, bit of herbalness, and long cream soda–tasting finish. It paired well with Queen’s "Bohemian Rhapsody," which was turned way up.