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Rau Ram Bomb (inspired by Shiso Bomb at ASH-SF)

I must have tried over 200 drink recipes since 2010 from an expanding library of books. As time goes on, my goal has shifted. Consumption is hardly the focus. It’s Understanding.

It’s like making bread. It’s about flours, starters, water temperature, fermentation temperature, dough hydration. Books say a lot but knowledge is never yours until you do it, over and over again.

I give away most of what came out of the oven. But the knowledge and the joy of acquiring it, I keep to myself.

There are even more knobs to turn in cocktails. The pool of ingredients and their combination is infinite. Compare to the multi-day scheduling of bread-making, mixing drinks is instant gratification.

A full-time mom with a 3 and a half year old, I spent 6 years studying Computer Science and another 10 working in it. Absolutely zero experience behind a bar, but I want that knowledge. I want the joy of knowing.

When Chef Stout of Alexander’s Steakhouse, a Michelin-starred chef no less, said I could hang out at his San Francisco bar, it was a ‘O.M.G. He said WHAT?!” moment. The ‘pity factor’ gave me an edge for sure. Having a son of the same age, he understands how often a Mom does something entirely for herself.

No knowledge in mixing drinks can be transferred directly or indirectly to child-rearing, that I know of.

Variation of Hummingbird with Lavendar infused syrup

So I signed up extra hours for Hayden at school, got William to get off work early, drove 45 miles and paid $30 in parking (a Giant’s game day) and I was there to meet Casper, the bar manager at Alexander’s Steakhouse San Francisco, to be his ‘shadow’.

Over the years, I am used to playing the role of Customer. Watching a good bartender at work was like watching a beautifully choreographed dance: With their hands and arms working at lightening speed, out comes a parade of impeccably-looking drinks.

What my brain failed to register but now came into focus from a different vantage point is the non-drink-related part of bar-tending: Talking the food, ordering the food, place-setting the food, working the register, preparing the bill, taking the bill, clarifying orders with the wait staff, cleaning up … all those things PLUS executing drinks from memory.

Professional bartenders are fantastic multi-taskers. Tending a bar is hardly just crafting drinks. To provide a great bar experience, everything has to come together.

The second time I was there, it was all about the damn Grey Goose: Grey Goose Martini, Grey Goose Soda. When finally a smartly-dressed young lady asked for a martini with No. 209 gin, I perked up, prematurely: ‘Straight. No vermouth.’

Where are the cocktail drinkers?! Where are the people who appreciate the transcendent beauty that can only emerge out of an ensemble cast of spirits?!

One regular likes his drink really sweet. “Why?” I whispered to Casper and made no effort hiding my disdain. But he just shrugged.

Watching him executing each order with equal care and pride, I recall what I read from one of the books: “It’s Not about You!” It’s never about the bartender’s taste nor personal preference. Make the best damn Grey Goose martini, or the coolest No. 209 that goes down like a glacier spring, if that’s what people want.

Rye Sour, based on ASH-SF's bar menu

The show may happen in front of live audience, but just like cooking, it is, and always will be about ‘mise en place’. Even Jackson Pollock planned ahead his works.

Before service, both Casper and Fernando the barback, make sure all the juices, infusions, tinctures, jiggers, shakers, are in the right place, in the right order. Even when someone asks for a custom drink, creativity can only come about from years of experiences and a wide selection of infusions that have already been prepared in the kitchen. When the orders start flying in, a bartender can only do his dance if everything is in place, mind included.

One time, I used one jigger and forgot to put it back. I was observing Casper on a Hummingbird, one of his signature creation, and suddenly his left hand stopped in mid-air. It was like watching ‘Psycho’ and the power went out right when the shower curtain was pulled, then it came back on 3 seconds later. The rhythm was lost.

Even after that blunder, Casper still passed on his general drink recipe, that’s how generous of a teacher he is. I call it Casper’s Golden Ratio:

  • 1.5 oz primary spirit
  • 0.75 oz secondary spirit
  • 1 oz citrus juice
  • 0.5 oz sweetener

That amount of juice and sweetener combo is more than what I am accustomed to, but it does make for a lighter drink. For the style of food and clientele at Alexander’s, it is the right fit.

Smoke in My Eyes

The first night after 7 hours on my feet, I said to Casper: I want to be a Customer now. I walked over to the other side of the bar, sat down, massaged my sore calves, and with a long exhale I sank my teeth into one of the best preparations of seared foie gras I’ve ever had.

Behind the bar is truly hard work, but at the same time it sings a siren song.

Here are 3 drinks inpired by the bar at Alexander’s San Francisco. Thank you, Casper.

Honey Bee (based on Hummingbird by Casper Rice of Alexander’s Steakhouse San Francisco)

According to Casper, Hummingbird likes elderflowers hence the name. The original is ethereal where real dried elderflower infused syrup is used. I have no access to dried elderflower, but I do have tons of lavender bushes where honey bees are always buzzing around.

  • 1 ½ oz Tanquaray
  • ¾ oz Dolin Dry
  • 1 oz fresh grapefruit juice
  • ½ oz homemade lavender infused syrup
  • 1 dash of Angostura bitter
  • Grapefruit peel as garnish


Rau Ram Bomb (based on Shiso Bomb by Casper Rice of Alexander’s Steakhouse San Francisco)

In Casper’s Shiso Bomb, one of the most popular drinks at Alexander’s, he uses Hangar One’s Kaffir Lime vodka, which I adore. However, I find Shiso play second fiddle by the assertiveness of the kaffir lime. The herb I am absolutely in love with at the moment is Vietnamese cilantro or Rau Ram. The taste is unlike regular cilantro, but more like kaffir lime in the sense this herb cries to be the star. I got 2 of them going in my garden.

At the restaurant, Shiso Bomb is served with crushed ice and it’s beautiful. I, however, prefer keeping my drink away from any potential danger of dilution.

  • 1 ½ oz Ketel One Vodka
  • ¾ oz homemade ginger infused syrup
  • ¾ oz lime/grapefruit juices
  • 8 Rau Ram leaves, hand-torn into the mixing glass to release its aroma
  • 1 Rau Ram leaf top, as garnish

Smoke in My Eyes (inspired by Vida de San Luis del Rio)

Casper turned me onto Del Maguay’s Vida de San Luis del Rio, a mezcal. There’s something about a smoky drink that just evokes the primordial longing in me. It’s the base liquor in his Happy Hour Gossip. He humbly describes it as ‘basically a margarita”. It is and much more.

I find this mezal the most inspiring liquor, of the moment, next to Cynar. The smokiness can be overpowering so it’s cut with equal amount of reposado.

  • ½ oz Del Maguay’s Vida de San Luis del Rio mezcal
  • ½ oz Cazadores reposado
  • ¾ oz Cynar, for a brown drink in the Fall/Winter, or Aperol for a pink drink in the Spring/Summer.
  • ¾ oz lime juice
  • ½ oz Luxardo’s Maraschino
  • 1 dash of simple syrup
  • Grapefruit peel as garnish. You can discard it after squeezing. But I like my drink on the bitter side.

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