Summary: Excellent drinks, great food, moderate prices, friendly people. Its our new go-to spot for a drink in Oakland - The Grand Tavern
Rest of Post: What do you get when some serious foodies with locavore tendencies hire mixological heart-throb Jennifer Colliau* to train their bar staff and design their cocktail list? You get the place where you'll be seeing us and our friends - The Grand Tavern on Grand Avenue in Oakland.
These folks shake long and hard. (Why does that sound like part of a dirty joke?)
Then Jasmin, our wait-person, told us they use Small Hand syrups in all the drinks and we threw caution to the wind and ordered a Mai Tai. I'm sure you've had any number of sickly sweet Mai Tai's. This was not one of them - delightfully dry - excellent nose - there is good rum in this drink - OK, the sprig of fresh mint may not be orthodox - but it was nice, and it was listed on the menu.
We also had an Old Cuban - rum, mint, lime juice, organic gum syrup, sparkling wine served in a flute with mint.
That is a fine drink. I could just breathe that one. Sharp, balanced, crisp.
Jasmin stopped by to ask about the drinks, and immediately we got technical. They make their own simple syrup (smart) and their own ginger syrup for their Dark & Stormys, and she told us about Jennifer leading them through gin tastings on the first day of their training. We also found out its a family affair - Mom is the chef, her brother Temoor is the owner, she (Jasmine) runs the floor, her boyfriend is behind the bar.
We had originally been on our way to Barney's in Piedmont for a burger - but the line was out the door, and the other two places we tried were closed on Sunday. So I had the Grand Tavern burger - organic beef - provolone - it was excellent and it came with their Social Skin Fries - which are homemade potato chips - slightly thick sliced - dusted with a very mild paprika.
Oceana had the fried Cornish hen - deep fried - the oil must have been quite hot - the breading was cooked dark brown and the flesh was not oily at all.
We were enjoying ourselves so much that Temoor, the owner, sent us over a house speciality - his invention - "The Smokey Wall" . Without spoiling any secrets I will say it was a unique taste, complex, well balanced and tasty! We had a lot of fun guessing what was in it - we only made one major miss.
We didn't really want dessert, but how do you say "no" to blackberry & blueberry reduction sauce over premium vanilla ice cream on top of pound cake.
We were there on a Sunday evening, it wasn't crowded and the service was prompt. There is an outdoor patio and two indoor rooms in addition to the bar itself. There is a happy hour - 4? to 7? (better check on that) when cocktails are $2 off their normal $12 price. Parking is easy - lots on Grand Avenue and they have their own lot.
I think $10-$12 is becoming pretty standard for a first rate cocktail - we certainly didn't mind getting the happy hour discount.
Downsides? Well, this is a pretty small point. They've got one of those Kold-Draft machines and they've clearly been drinking the Kold-Draft Kool-Aide, and like every Kold-Draft owner, they've got to talk about it. Those very very cold square cubes certainly don't hurt anything, and given the good training, high standards (measure every ingredient, every time), good ingredients, good recipes - the drinks at the Grand Tavern are going to turn out very well no matter what ice they use. And I remain skeptical of the value of an eight thousand dollar ice making system.
*OK, I confess. I've never met Jennifer, and aside from her numerous professional skills and her willingness to work really really really hard I don't know anything about her. But I've had her Orgeat Syrup, and it doesn't get any better than that.