Searching for a hearth, any hearth, in front of which to warm my toes on this cold, cold night, I headed to Blackbird Bar, a lower Castro haunt that I find myself at more often than not when I'm in the area, for this week's picks and drinks. In a city rumored to tip the scales at more than 800 bars, opportunities to be pretentious about your cocktail selection lurk, suspender clad, around every corner, and I've always noticed Blackbird to be refreshingly casual and comfortable considering the breadth of their selection.
I soon learned that the air of comfort and unpretentious quality of the bar are pleasantly reflected in its owner Shawn Vergara, the "Grand Phoenix and Founder" or the tongue-in-cheek "Most Ancient Order of Beak and Booze" and my guide for this evening's pairings. Attentive, unhurried and always game for conversation, Shawn admitted that, like most people these days, he does most of his movie watching at home. Maybe one of these picks will convince him to head out to the theater? Though he doesn't bartend as much as he did when he took over the then-flagging establishment nearly 3 years ago, you'll still catch Shawn stepping behind the bar if you show up on the right night. Check out his pairings for this week's flicks:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
One of two return engagements of Oscar nominated indies to appear in Bay Area theaters this weekend is SFFS-backed director Benh Zeitlin's precocious but satisfying debut film, based in part on the realities of living in hurricane-decimated wards New Orleans. Awash in booze and song for nearly all of its full hour and thirty minute running time, Beasts flies in the face of the long-held notion that film should be digestible as a series of signifiers, and triumphs, by sheer force of personality at just being. Central to its appeal is its heroine, a mesmerizing 6-year old girl named Hushpuppy who lives rough with her fearsome father in a small community called The Bathtub. When disaster inevitably does strike, it's a doozy–ice melts, waters rise, ancient beasts called aurochs roam hungrily–but it's the film's (and Hushpuppy's) wide-eyed and often magical response of hope and humanity that create the biggest spectacle. Plays at Landmark Embarcadero Cinema, One Embarcadero Center, 415-352-0835.
Shawn recommends "The Poached Pear"
Pear-infused gin, the namesake of this concoction, pours forth into my glass from a bottle surprisingly similar to the omnipresent blank vessels of moonshine that crop up in nearly every shot of Beasts. The tiny champagne flute is then finished with honey, lemon, and a precious amount of Lambrusco, an Italian red sparkling wine and the surprise for which Shawn chose the drink. Like Hushpuppy, it's a deceptively simple tipple imbued with a touch of the unexpected. At first sip, it twinkles for a moment with robust flavor, then swiftly dries, the sediment leaving a residue on the glass like the water lines on a flooded pier.
Searching for Sugarman
Where Beasts has for some time now enjoyed a charmed existence garnering accolade after highly visible accolade, another returning Oscar nom has been building quietly in the background–and appropriately so, considering the trajectory of its subject: Musician Sixto Rodriguez, the titular "Sugarman." Long forgotten in the United States as a promising but unfulfilled folk rocker along the lines of Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens, Rodriguez lived on in myth in South Africa, where a massive following hung on his every word, but presumed him dead. In the present, director Bendjelloul follows two of his greatest fans as they detail the search for their hero and, employing a particularly prudent bit of sleight-of-hand, all but disappears, leaving the audience to enjoy the rare sensation of a story so good it tells itself. Plays at Landmark Opera Plaza Cinemas, 601 Van Ness, 415-267-4893.
Sean recommends "The Santa Maria"
Much like Sugarman, the base of the Santa Maria (Pedro Jimenez sherry) has been serially under-appreciated until recently. In the last few months it's been rediscovered by the mixologist community in SF–as a barometer, Shawn mentions that the cocktail haven 15 Romolo recently devoted an entire menu to it. The bright, boozy Santa Maria makes the most of the main ingredient, dressing it up with a wash of Anisette, a splash of the artichoke-derived bitter Cynar and apricot liqueur. Given Rodriguez's predilection for manual labor and unvarnished appearances, I can't imagine him drinking it but its of understated flair is something that he'd surely appreciate.
This Guillermo del Toro produced horror is likely getting a release this weekend thanks to its star, of-the-moment talent Jessica Chastain, who's presently (and rightfully) basking in the glow of her Herculean performance in Zero Dark Thirty. The story goes like this: A young couple finds two feral children in the woods years after their mother's death, but they're not really "alone." You get the picture. Ticking all requisite boxes with a surplus of panache–a shocking accident, chilling environs, big scares and spooky kids are all there–this flick is definitely on par, if not better. While it's not mind-blowing, it delivers a solid story along the lines of the underrated Kevin Bacon vehicle Stir of Echoes, boasting effective thrills despite some weird CGI moments. In short, it's a godsend if you need your horror fix. Plays at AMC Metreon 16, 135 Fourth St, 415-369-6201.
Shawn recommends "The Kneeslapper"
Sensing the tenor had changed (and also, likely that I was a bit tipsy at this point), Shawn went appropriately kooky on this one, assigning the film this appropriately "spirit-based" cocktail: A blood-red mixture of cheap-but-not-chintzy ingredients: Four Roses Burbon, Old Overholt Rye, Averna, Creme de Cacau, bitters and a bit of maple syrup. True to its name, the drink packed quite a punch. Those who like to take it a bit harder, look no further.