Saf far, Saf good?

Picture of Saf's bar taken through window

In an earlier post, I mentioned how my first taste of the Aviation cocktail was in the unlikely setting of the raw food restaurant, Saf. It not only adhered to the original recipe but to the criteria of my favourite style of drinks: short, strong and tart. Altogether it was so impressive an experience I decided to gather a posse for a return bout.

My previous visits were about a year ago when it first opened, and were all on quiet Monday nights (coinciding with a life-drawing class I was attending nearby). To give it a tougher workout, a Friday night visit was ordained. Admittedly, expecting a restaurant bar to deliver quality drinks on the busiest night of the week  is bit demanding but the bar staff had told me they considered themselves a destination for drinks not just food – fighting talk if ever I’ve heard it.

After our sweet Irish waitress organised seating at the crowded bar, there was a protracted wait for our first round. Apparently we had arrived in the midst of a flurry of cocktail ordering and staff were frantically catching up. Our drinks turned out to be a mixed bag which can probably be attributed to the unfamiliarity with the menu of our first bar tender. However, we cut him a bit of slack, mainly because of his resemblance to Anthony Michael Hall; after all, this year is the 25th anniversary of the Breakfast Club.

As it had inspired our visit, my first order was an Aviation. This came with a nice if unnecessary dried cherry garnish and was slightly watery, a flaw that marred most of the first round. ‘A’ had a 20th Century (gin, Lillet, creme de cacao, lemon) which none of us could imagine what should taste like and yet were all disappointed with how it did. ‘R’ chose a sticky, sweet and slightly unseasonal Mince-Pie-Carhinia (Cachaca infused with mince-pie fruits and spices, candied peel syrup, lime) which was quite a winner if you like sweet drinks, and ‘M’ a Dirtiest Martini (Basil infused gin, chipotle-infused cachaca, Martini Dry, olives) that tasted suitable filthy if lacking in smoking hotness or basil flavour – a fault of the infusions perhaps rather than the bartender as I could taste both the gin and the cachaca.

‘R’ was still wading through her Caipirinha mash-up, so the rest of us rang the bell for round two.  This was served by another genial chap, dubbed by ‘M’ as ‘Jarvis Rocker’ for obvious reasons, whose drinks were a great improvement. ‘M’ once again picked the winner, his Holland House (Genever, maraschino, lemon, vermouth) hit the spot my Aviation missed, being a balanced but potent mix. My choice could have been a contender if the Holland House hadn’t been so perfect, being an autumnal sounding Barbershop Bourbon (Cinnamon-infused Woodford Reserve, fresh pressed apple, scorched rosemary caramel, bitters). Here every flavour came through and its mellow fruitfulness would make it a perfect after-dinner option. ‘A’ plumped for a Pear and thyme Collins (gin, pear juice, cane sugar syrup, lemon, soda) which was very light on the pear and thyme until the end when A deemed it a ‘bit woody’. I found it like a delicious lemonade which is my idea of a good collins – ideal for thirst quenching and sunny days.

Saf’s menu is ambitious, riddled with historical reference, updated classics, unusual flavours and organic produce. Which is no surprise given it is overseen by award-winning Joe McCanta. But no matter how carefully created a menu is, it still relies on the person making the drinks to carry it off and performance on a Friday night proved seriously erratic. And at the premium price they charge (even veering towards luxury) there should be no margin for error.

In spite of our warm welcome from the staff and total lack of pressure to eat, there was not enough dedicated drinking space to justify the ‘drinks destination’ tag.  As such, Saf would probably work better on an earlier week night or before the dinner rush starts when you are far more likely to receive the quality drinks that they aspire to.

Overall, a promising youngster, but punching slightly above its weight.

Ambience: 6/10
Drinks: 7/10 and 8.5/10 for first and second round respectively
Service: 9/10
Value: 6.5/10

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