Perhaps such disappointments stem from the nature of the nightclub business, an often hectic trade in which bartenders must sometimes focus on how fast they can make drinks -- as opposed to how well they can make them. Throw in sound systems (and neighbors who complain about them), lights, DJs, security, promoters, and coat check -- and maybe VIP rooms, after-hours permits, go-go dancers, and club-style video projections -- and what you've got is a whole bunch of issues. You've got ventilation issues, smoking issues, bathroom issues, drug use issues. If you're doing food, you've got a whole new set of issues: chefs, waiters, bussers, dishwashers, health codes, and kitchen equipment, not to mention the need to deal with all of these issues adequately enough to keep people coming back.
All of which brings us to Sno-drift, a ski-lodge-themed, after-hours nightclub/restaurant with relatively modest culinary aspirations -- a 12-item, New American-esque menu, one dessert, and a forearm's worth of ski-themed drinks. The food prices are fairly low, the portions pleasantly large, and the flavor -- well, it's in there. In fact, just about everything we tried fit within a range from pretty good to undeniably tasty. Figure in the $15 cover charge that my friends Amy, Samantha, and I each avoided by eating dinner, and a pre-ass-shaking nosh at Sno-drift might be one of the best deals in town.
We arrived at 8:30, when things were already picking up steam. In the front room -- a cozy little faux ski lodge complete with an open fireplace, a fake deer, and mountains of crushed ice behind the tony bar -- a young, after-work crowd was hoisting libations and making noise as young after-workers often do. Meanwhile, in the back room on what would later become the dance floor, a dozen or so tables adorned with candles and fresh flowers sat empty, while the cushy, high-backed booths lining the walls were just about packed. We slid into one of the latter. Given the menu prices ($6-16), we didn't expect the flawless, professional service that normally accompanies higher-end dining -- nor did we get it, or even miss it. For example, after we ordered the first round of drinks, our waitress had to check the cocktail list to be sure she got our order right.
"Cool!" she said, and was off.
Sometimes people ask me why, when reviewing restaurants, I often prefer to drink cocktails instead of wine. So I tell them: It's because I often prefer to drink cocktails instead of wine, and because while San Francisco is definitely a wine town, heaven help me if it isn't also a liquor town, where you can get wasabi Bloody Marys, blood orange Cosmopolitans, Depth Bombs, Frozen Bellinis, and even Flaming Manhattans. Putting together a good wine list speaks well of a place, but so does a drink list given the creativity, skill, and (above all) quality ingredients necessary for superior mixology. Sno-drift offers 10 wines and 11 (slightly overpriced) cocktails. Thus, we focused on the latter, trying seven among the three of us over the course of four hours. For your convenience, I've rated them from worst to best below:
Lake Tahoe Iced Tea, $9: A Long Island Iced Tea with way too much blue curaçao
Sno-bunny, $7: Raspberry vodka, cranberry, lime juice; tasted like cough syrup
Chilly Willy, $8: Good, but also known as a Maker's Mark Manhattan
Creamsicle, $8: Had the cream, but not enough "sicle"
Sno-cone, $7: A heap of crushed ice in a cocktail glass, plus vodka and vanilla flavoring, and topped with a cherry; as "girlie" as it gets, yet pleasantly sweet
Eskimo Kiss, $8: "Yummy!" Like a Mudslide with crème de menthe
Klondike, $8: Stoli Vanilla and white crème de cacao, straight up; bracing, sippable, with a smooth vanilla finish
As for the food: We ate at Sno-drift twice, and the biggest disappointment came when, between the first visit and the second, the menu changed. That means you can no longer get two of our favorite dishes, a dark, rich, braised pork stew, and the house-made curried lamb sausage with braised cabbage and applewood smoked bacon. We suffered another disappointment with the ever-present bar snack -- calamari -- in this case a heap of floury, soggy, deep-fried squid served with a thick, lifeless, supposedly "spicy" aioli and a soy-wasabi sauce we never did locate. Also, I suppose the candied walnuts in our duck confit salad were a bit too sweet, but the tender, slow-cooked duck with spiky frisée, dates, creamy blue cheese, and a whisper-light champagne vinaigrette resulted in a resounding, overall satisfaction.
The cheapest dish -- grilled artichoke -- offered a user-friendly take on that most prickly and labor-intensive of vegetables. The artichoke was halved, then suffused with heat until it took on a subtle smokiness, allowing us to peel off the delicate inner leaves and dip them in a velvety roasted garlic aioli. Our fillet of grilled salmon came with a piquant green olive tapenade, a small salad, and brilliantly silky garlic mashed potatoes, while a more Eastern take on the same fish -- smoked salmon over crisp wonton chips -- was elevated immeasurably by a dab of avocado sauce and a sprinkling of flying fish roe.
Then came spaetzle, chewy little pillows of noodle served with tender, sweet red cabbage braised with bacon and an expertly grilled chicken breast, the skin of which veritably crackled on contact, giving way to firm, juicy, undeniably delectable flesh. It was the kind of dish that made us realize kitchens don't have to get fancy to deliver; they just have to deliver. Our final selection, fish and chips, drove the point home by combining a crisp cornflake batter with burstingly moist fish, rosemary-dusted shoestring potatoes, spicy red cabbage coleslaw, and -- the kicker -- a bright, zesty tartar sauce laced with capers. The lone dessert, Dirty Sno-balls, was simple, cheap, and big enough to feed six people. Three fist-sized scoops of ice cream -- smooth vanilla bean, light pistachio, and decadent chocolate -- came rolled in toasted coconut, drizzled with chocolate syrup, then topped with fresh whipped cream.
As we finished our meal, squads of staff members began breaking down the tables on the dance floor. A few salsa tracks and, oddly, a waltz came over the sound system, followed by the deep, burbling, house-music-style bass lines that have so many heinies shaking the world over. Our waitress closed the check, a cocktail waitress took over, and, hoping for a final treat, I ordered a port, and received an entire wineglass (as opposed to the customary smaller sherry glass) of an unidentified but fairly good ruby. That kind of faux pas doesn't happen in high-end restaurants, either, but then again, twice the porto for my buck is the kind of phenomenon I will never argue with.