Since the first time I walked past its dining room, a picture of turn-of-the-[last]-century design, I’ve been mildly obsessed with trying Comstock Saloon. I say “mildly” because the obsession wasn’t with me always; it presented itself whenever I walked through North Beach (which is often), whenever I read a piece online about Comstock (fairly often), or whenever conversation veered to throwback culinary trends (infrequent). You might argue that “obsession” is the wrong choice of words, but I’d politely disagree. Despite my conscious brain’s diverted awareness, my unconscious brain never faltered in its desire for Comstock’s food and drink. And now that I’ve been there, I can say that I’m rightly obsessed with the saloon.
Monday, I met E. after work for cocktails and snacks. She’d grabbed a table outside the bar, just to the right of the door, in a cozy space that felt just separate enough from the sidewalk’s traffic. E. began the evening with punch (a daily special), while I went with a lemon drop, my favorite of recent days. Such a judgment may be premature, considering the number of venues I have yet to visit, but I’d like to say that Comstock has the best lemon drop in North Beach. Larger than Tosca’s, less sweet (and sticky) than Vesuvio’s, the drop was cold and stronger than average, rimmed with ultrafine sugar and garnished with a curlicue of lemon peel.
By the time E. and I had finished our first drinks, we were well into Dinner Terrain. Both of us were hungry; we ordered cheddar crackers with pepper jelly and a dish of green olives. Pepper jelly has long been on my To-Try list, and this batch didn’t disappoint. Served in an oblong dish, the jelly was accompanied by a fluffy white scoop of goat cheese and a small stack of crackers, thin and golden and slightly concave — all the better for scooping, my dear.
Pepper jelly is one of the rare foods about which I’ve been curious, but never curious enough to try — until now. I’d seen it sold at many stores; I’d wondered how it might taste, but I’d never mustered the motivation to buy a jar. I thought it would be spicier than it was; Comstock’s version is slightly sweet, the red pepper bits suspended in a viscous base. Paired with tangy goat cheese and contrasted with the crisp bite of the cracker, the pepper jelly was a treat.
Though the jelly was delightful (E. and I removed almost every smear of it from the surface of the plate), the cheddar crackers were only OK. Cheddar crackers, aside from Cheez-Its (which aren’t billed as “cheddar crackers,” anyway), have never been my cup of tea. Strange, given my True Love of Cheese. These were no different. The crackers weren’t greasy, but the cheddar flavor came across more as a mustiness, an earthiness. I’ll stick to whole grain and/or rice crackers.
The snacks were awesome, but E. and I were still hungry after we’d polished off the crackers, jelly, cheese, and olives. Fortunately, Comstock’s menu is diverse; our most difficult decision was determining what we wanted to try the most. My interest was piqued by the fried beans (favas fried and dehydrated to give them extra crispness), the beef shank and bone marrow pot pie, and the picnic plate: ham, pickles, preserves, bean salad, and a “butcher’s treat.” (Note: When given the chance to order a chef’s choice or any sort of “surprise,” I will. You know I will.)
Briefly considering the pros/cons of each dish, E. and I ordered the tater boats with cheese curds and (at our waitress’ urging) gravy. The dish was essentially a fancified version of Poutine — not that I was complaining. More along the lines of steak fries than tater skins, the “boats” were crisp on the outside, hot and flaky on the inside. The curds (unbreaded) became molten on the fries’ sizzling surface, and the gravy added a saltiness and a richness to the dish that surely was not needed but was much appreciated. I never tried Poutine when I was in Montreal, but I’m glad I sampled this American take on it.
The evening wore. The air grew cold and a live band started up inside. The hearty meal and the late hour contributed to my fatigue; before I headed home, I ordered the Barkeep’s Whimsy, a concoction tart, rum-based, and ice cold. What was it? That you’ll have to find out for yourself. Your Whimsy won’t be the same as mine — that much is statistically improbable — but it will be equally refreshing and well-mixed.