The worlds of food buzz and drinks buzz are different, and that's the only reason we were able to easily get a good seat and fast service at the official opening of Jasper's Corner Tap last night. Foodinistas perhaps looked at menu previews and thought, "bar food."
However, at every barstool we've occupied this month, every time we got to talking to the barkeep, Jasper's came up, not least because the place was raiding area bars for talent. "Have you heard about their specialty beer cocktails?" a barkeep would say. Or the wine list, unusually serious for a pub. Or that Jasper's is making its own sausage.
We expected to see a mob, and if Jasper's were smaller, the crowd, which reached at least 75 people at peak, might have seemed like it. But the space, formerly Ponzu, is huge, with a dining area in the back that's like a separate (and less interesting) facility. So while bar business was brisk, it never felt hectic -- and if the staff can pull that off on a first night, it bodes well for the future.
Lou Bustamante snuck in to preview the drinks for us yesterday, so we wanted to concentrate on the food. But we don't go to a bar and not drink, so we ordered A Harlot's Progress (Bols Genever, honey, peaches, lemon, St. George absinthe) because it sounded good and because we believe in harlots bettering themselves.
The drink arrived with a beautiful garnish of three fresh kumquats. It was stronger than we expected initially -- we didn't taste any peaches -- and took some time for the ice to melt enough to get the subtler honey and kumquat notes.
We ordered a mini burger ($3), served with a mini crumble of Shropshire blue cheese on a pretzel bun. it's medium-well but juicy and savory, and perhaps the perfect bar snack, given its three-bite size (you could do it in two, but we wanted to prolong it) and the price. It comes with two very tart pickles which are palate wake-up calls.
Looking around the place, we love the bar design. Bar seats line a ceiling-high window along O'Farrell Street, entertaining folks on both sides of the glass in this hotel-to-Tenderloin transitional neighborhood. The bar itself is rather small; 20 people would be a crowd. But we easily find a seat at a 12-seat communal table in front of it, and that gives us a better view. The whole front of the huge space is like one large bar, even the few tables for four. When Jasper's gets satellite TV hooked up, this will be a great place to watch Carlos Beltran hit homers for the Giants.
Our Washington mussels ($11) arrive, but the dish is a misfire. The chorizo is sliced thin like salami, not integrating with the dish, and the fennel-cider broth isn't all that interesting. We're happier with a side of lentil ragout ($6) with small chunks of feta adding creaminess to a very slightly spicy, hearty dish. If it were bigger, it would be an unusually healthy pub meal.
We don't expect to attract much attention by taking photos of our food because the elderly woman next to us is so much stranger. She brings in her own bottle of Vitamin Water and mixes it with her glass of white wine. Then she orders a bowl of spicy nuts ($4), tastes one, and gets a to-go box. We've been going to bars for years and have never seen anyone get a bowl of nuts to go.
But one of the owners comes over and we introduce ourselves, because we're not the anonymous restaurant critic. He says we should try the riblettes ($11), so we do, and they're good -- meaty and tender, with lots of chopped garlic on top. They might be a date-killer, but perhaps not for the kind of date you can take to a pub.
We have a second cocktail, the Wiessen Sour ($11). To be honest, we wouldn't order a beer cocktail if we weren't working, but everybody has to make sacrifices in their jobs. It's like a whiskey sour of Buffalo Trace Bourbon with lemon, orange marmalade, and house orange bitters topped with a head of Hoegaarden white beer. It's a multilevel experience: drink through the straw, and it's a whiskey sour; sip the top, and it's a beer. As the drink levels down because we're such a diligent worker, the two eventually mix and the beer adds an extra, interesting level of sourness to the citrusy base.
Executive chef Adam Carpenter comes over to introduce himself. He previously worked at Grand Café and was executive chef at Blackhawk Grille in Danville. We ask what he's most proud of on the menu, and he says the sausage.
"I've been making sausage for years," he says. "You have to own it. It feels like 40 hours a week, just making sausage." (Editor's note -- so does journalism.)
Carpenter sends over his favorite bar snack, five sausage bites ($5). They're made with Anchor Steam beer and served with a strip of housemade mustard. The slices are small but warm and slightly spicy, and while we don't think they're as good a value as the mini burgers, we like them a lot and can see how they'd be great with beer.
In addition to sausage, Jasper's is making a lot of food items in house: pretzels, sauerkraut, pretzel doughnuts, and even ice cream. Carpenter sends over his favorite dessert, the "black and tan" ($8) -- milk chocolate fudge and peanut butter mousse topped with big sea salt crystals, with Guinness whipped cream on the side. It's way too rich for us, though we like the cream. We nibble at the small bowl of ballpark corn ($4) because it's caramel corn and we prefer popcorn salty.
Our night ends with the Bay Bridge Buck ($11), a very gingery combination of Hangar One Buddha's Hand Vodka with strawberries, orgeat, lime, and ginger beer, garnished with a slice of candied ginger. Jasper's Pub has dessert cocktails, but we like the refreshing bite of this one after the heavier items at the end.
To the end, we're very impressed with how smoothly everything is running on the second night. Carpenter being out of the kitchen wasting time on us doesn't seem to affect the orders of anyone around us. When we got there, the crowd was dominated by men in suits and women sitting on barstools talking to men in suits. But the longer we stayed, the younger and more diverse it got. We can see why, and we understand the hype in the drinks community.
This is a pub, true, and it's pub food. But it's good and interesting pub food, and SF Weekly has now had two drinks writers stay interested through multiple drinks without ordering a single beer, which is Jasper's specialty.
All it needs is the Giants games.
Jasper's Corner Tap, 401 Taylor (at O'Farrell), 775-7979