By MARK FANTINO
I tell anyone who will listen that the best cocktails in the city can be narrowed down to a list of five: the Kona cocktail at Smugglers Cove, the Dolores Park Swizzle at Beretta, Bar Agricole’s Singapore Sling (not on the menu, so you have to ask for it), the authentic Mai Tai at the Kona Club near the actual tombstone of Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron — and, sitting at the very top of the list, the inimitable Peony cocktail at our very own Dosa at Fillmore and Post.
Dosa’s signature Spice Route cocktail list is the most innovative in the city. South Indian cuisine historically must have been innocent of cocktails, which makes creating a list of this caliber much more challenging. Dosa carefully and consciously chose to focus on India’s colonial ties with gin, while so many bartenders and mixologists turn from this otherwise sleepy spirit and look the other way.
I remember one afternoon expressing to the bartender my then-genuine ignorance of gin. He gave me a crash course on its history, lining up thimble-like tastes of gin through the ages — starting with examples of Holland’s “jenever” (sometimes “genever,” both a reference to the dominant flavor of juniper) prevalent in 16th century Holland; followed by Old Tom gin, popular in the 18th century; on to Plymouth and London Dry gins, which many of us have had without quite knowing it. It was a valuable yet dizzying education.
On another occasion, the bartender was spotlighting a drink made with Indian Jaggery. I had only ever heard of jaggery when reading about one of Gandhi’s famous fastings when he only had water and jaggery. Jaggery is a unique sugar that Dosa imports from India. The bartender, inspired by my enthusiastic curiosity, disappeared to the kitchen and re-emerged holding a three-pound lump of this prized sugar wrapped in aluminum foil. He pried off a small piece for me to try; it’s pliable and soft, reminiscent of sugary dates. You can try it, too, in Dosa’s Ginger Ante cocktail.
Because of Dosa’s location on Fillmore Street, it has been a common stop for me before concerts at The Fillmore, or a film at the Kabuki, and as a way to while away the wait at State Bird Provisions. However, my favorite time and excuse to sit at Dosa is during midafternoon when the sun is slung down on an angle in the west and the light filters in and bathes the mother of pearl bartop, embedded with chunks of amber and turquoise, and lights it up like a giant bar of glowing nougat.
Dosa’s cocktail list is clearly hitting above its weight — and there is certainly one for every kind of person or mood: the Wry Rajah and Emerald Monk are two that should also be considered.
But to me, the Peony is a transcendent experience. It is a complicated yet thoughtful combination of kaffir lime leaves, bird’s eye chili and Dosa’s own hibiscus masala nectar ignited with warming spices such as cumin and coriander, coconut milk and Plymouth gin shaken with a lot of ice. The result served up is an elegantly smooth and luscious cocktail with a lullaby of gently warming spice, a triumphant top note of fragrant and spellbinding kaffir lime, an undertow of coconut whispering a mantra — all ghostly and enveloped in the silhouette of botanical gin.
Sitting at Dosa in mid-afternoon with the sun splashing in on the nougat-like bar with a Peony cocktail and a small plate of transparently thin and crisp pappadum, plus a sampler of homemade chutneys to dip into, is a perfect thing about to happen.