To understand ABV’s approach to food, you first have to understand their approach to cocktails. To understand that, it helps to understand the people. ABV (Alcohol By Volume) is a relatively new bar run by four partners with enviable San Francisco bar and restaurant pedigrees: Ryan Fitzgerald is well known to San Francisco drinkers; his smooth cocktails and easy charm elevated Beretta to one of the City’s most desirable watering holes. Eric Reichborn-Kjennerud is the man who took the overlooked back room at his nearby dive bar Dalva and transformed it into the specialty cocktail bar, Hideout. Todd Smith tended bar at Hideout, having perfected his craft at the famed tenderloin speakeasy, Bourbon and Branch.
ABV features a well-edited collection of whiskeys (Ardbeg, Springbank's Campbeltown Collection), thoughtful gins (Leopold Bros., Averell), and a fine anthology of tequilas and mezcal. Most seem to have been selected for their distinct and assertive flavors, around which ABV has crafted a modest offering of impeccably balanced cocktails. My current favorite is the Whiskey in Church, a combination of fortified sherry, maple, and smoked pear bitters stirred around a healthy pour of smoky scotch (in this instance Ardbeg, though it's also been made for me with Laphroaig and a Bowmore distilled 18 year A.D. Rattray). It is a sublimely subtle sip.
Their exquisitely refreshing Kentucky Mule is made with their own ginger syrup and served in a highball glass beaten with sprigs of fresh mint. The bracing Tarragon Collins proves they’re unafraid to improve on the classics. When we walked in on this particular Tuesday afternoon, Boris, the bartender, was rejecting a large bowl of freshly cut limes. They were the wrong size and the wrong shape, he explained, both would effect the taste. Here the large, optically-clear ice cubes and unique (chilled) glasses for each concoction don't ooze the same pretense as they do elsewhere; they're simply tools of the trade. No wonder that bartenders from four different bars stopped by during our visit.
And then there's the food.
Former St. Vincent sous chef Kevin Cimino has come into his own in ABV's kitchen. Following stints at A16, Commonwealth, and Tartine (where he worked with burger guru Chris Kronner) the 28-year-old Zagat-rated '30 under 30' chef has brilliantly reinvented bar food. Served exclusively on small plates and sans utensils, his dishes are playfully organized around accessible themes and relatable formats. Tartine toast with sweet house made butter, fresh peas, and mint. Kimchi fritters with shaved bonito. Two-bite peanut butter and jelly ice cream sandwiches. A pimento cheese burger.
Oh, the pimento cheese burger.
Like everything else at ABV, the burger is built around a few, bold flavors. The deceptively small looking quarter pound patty is made from grass fed Marin Sun Farms beef. The meat is about 80% lean muscle which they grind fresh daily. The other 20% is 28-day dry aged fat. Unlike Umami Burger which adds ground fish heads to its patty to achieve its namesake flavor, Cimino lets the natural decomposition of the meat release its glutamate-rich amino acids. The combination of the fresh grind and mellowed fat yields a patty of unparalleled depth and flavor. The garnishes are succinct: crisp, house-brined pickles and a grill sweetened red onion balance the burger and each other perfectly. A modest portion of melted pimento cheese completes the ensemble. Inspired by his North Carolina upbringing, Cimino’s spread is made from sharp cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, roasted red peppers, Worcestershire sauce, and molasses. In an inspired, Southern twist, the soft but durable buns bare baked fresh from a puree of caramelized sweet potatoes and brushed with butter before serving.
It is an immensely satisfying, engaging, and somewhat playful burger, and easily one of the top two or three in the City.
The Creative Lesson
Coming off a creative week in which any departure from aethetic ‘norms’ was met with resistence and fear, ABV’s burger was the ideal antidote. At the risk of sounding like a lunatic, I felt intellectually engaged by the burger. It adheres to—and advocates—a philosophy. Decoding its principles is part of the enjoyment.
That, I think, is a lesson for all of us: Everything is a philosophy. The things we make and how we make them—no matter how seemingly insignificant—are a philosophy about ourselves. They declare our values, our ethics, and our aesthetics. The more conscious we are of that, the more responsibility we take for it, the better and more meaningful our work will be.