In late September Brett and I took a trip to California. I had visited the state twice before. The first time was a brief excursion to Los Angeles with a couple friends after college graduation. We stayed in a hotel that had an empty black and yellow library and a cabana where we could order sixteen-dollar martinis from our actress waitress and where I felt my breasts were under constant attack.
Then I went for my thirtieth birthday with some close work friends. We spent most of our time in Healdsburg visiting wineries seemingly curated for thirtysomethings who are unimpressed by big Napa cabs and feel a deep gravitational pull to stop and eat sandwiches at a dusty general store. My breasts felt much more at home, although they were tipsy most of the time.
This trip Brett and I split our time evenly between San Francisco and Wine Country. In Sonoma we overheard a Californian complaining about the muggy weather on a sunny 79-degree day with 60-percent humidity. It was then that I decided I loved California and could probably live in one of those mid-century modern houses with floor to ceiling windows if I was less neurotic and not so preoccupied with The Big One.
One afternoon, we arrived to a wine tasting at Outland in downtown Napa to find that it was not yet open, despite their advertised hours suggesting otherwise. When someone finally arrived, I was won with generous—one might say too generous—pours and became convinced, at least for a little while, that California was the land of the carefree.
A notion that has since been extinguished with the recent fires there.
The whole world seems to be on fire these days and writing about food has felt like both a welcome distraction and also utterly inconsequential. I thought about scrapping this post all together, but the recent events do not change that we were treated beyond hospitably on our trip and saying so seemed okay, necessary even.
Our first night, we stayed at an inn in the Mission District in San Francisco. It had a rooftop view of the city and free apertifs in the parlor, stored in glass bottles with silver port and sherry nametags. Still on East Coast time, I was up at 6 a.m. and witness to the most ornate complimentary breakfast the world has ever seen. Lit silver candlesticks sat on a corner piano surrounded by hardcover books and sepia photos. Cured meats were rolled and arranged like a wagon wheel. And there was soft salty butter the size of baseballs to be knifed and spread on banana bread.
Another morning we ate chilaquiles at El Molino Central, which is the only thing they serve before 11 a.m. This was a happy accident. The avocado, sour cream, and beans that accompanied the crispy bits were so creamy and fresh and we ate at picnic tables with umbrellas that shielded us from that awful California 70-something degree sun.
On our last night in San Francisco, we had a pizza that I will now judge all other pizzas by. It came studded with small salami slices with just the right amount of oil pooled in their circular centers. We also split an order of roasted cauliflower with a vibrant vadouvan spinach sauce and ended with a buttery chocolate panettone that our waitress assured was better than their raisin counterpart.
But the most tangible memory I took home was a blueprint for an Italian Greyhound from a bar called Trick Dog. What you need to know about the place—aside from its recent win of World’s Best Cocktail Menu—is that it has friendly bartenders and a wide-open bar at 3 p.m., which is now my favorite time to drink because I am getting older and can actually hear my companion at this hour. They refresh their menu every six months and currently have a purchasable version written in the style of a children’s book. The proceeds go to McSweeney’s, one of my favorite publishers and the host of this perennial classic.
As we sat, I watched the bartender pour three fingers worth of Punt e Mes into a highball. The cocktail has all of four ingredients, including accoutrements for the rim—which is a necessity—plus ice cubes. This brevity meant it was a drink I could easily make. And if you can procure the Italian aperitif and grapefruit soda you can too.
It is slightly bitter—both the amaro-leaning spirit and the grapefruit ensure that. But it is also sweet and bubbly, plus a little salty, and this is the kind of drink I am after these days. The cocktail is low in alcohol too, which is a refreshing option to ensure one is not easily anesthetized into drunkenness. This is not the time for that.
This is the time to feel alive.
- Sea salt (for the rim)
- Lime or lemon juice (for the rim)
- 2 ounces Punt e Mes
- 4 ounces grapefruit soda (see note)
- 2 to 3 ice cubes
Select a highball glass (be sure the one you select holds about 10 ounces).
Pour about a tablespoon or two of salt on a small plate (you won’t use it all, but you’ll need a generous portion so it easily sticks to the glass).
On another small plate, pour a little lime or lemon juice (again about a tablespoon or so). Hold your glass at a 45-degree angle and dip it so that the outer edge gets wet, turning it as you go until you are back where you started. Repeat the process with the salt. (This is a good guide.)
Add the ice cubes and your liquids. Mix with a cocktail spoon (flatware will also work in a pinch).
Makes 1 drink