Update: Daniel Hyatt has left Roka Akor as of mid-August 2013. His cocktail menu has been replaced.
Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
"This place is over the top," says bar manager Daniel Hyatt (formerly of The Alembic) of his new downstairs bar at Roka Akor in San Francisco's Jackson Square. "I have a machine that makes 600 pounds of ice at a time, and in the bar, the ice blocks are lit from underneath" with lights that gradually change color. He gestures around the room: "It's an extremely sexy place—there are lots of fun spaces here to just get lost in."
Hyatt says, "For years, what's been going on in the San Francisco cocktail scene has been essentially conservative. [Roka Bar] has the potential to be something else. It's not a Prohibition-era cocktail bar, it's more Playboy, with a 70s steakhouse vibe." He continues, saying he'd like to see more bars with "classic hospitality...Like when you went to a nice restaurant with your parents growing up and they ordered martinis at the bar. It seemed so glamorous."
Roka Akor specializes in charcoal-cooked Japanese fare. But are the cocktails Hyatt designed Japanese-inspired? "I'm not Japanese and I'm not going to pretend I'm Japanese, but I appreciate the food, the spirits, the beer, and the culture of Japan," he says. He's gathered an extensive sake list, and is experimenting with infused shochus—including one with white sesame and ginger, and another with fresh pandan leaf—which are displayed on a wall of open shelving in the bar. "We are essentially a steakhouse. My question was, what would a steakhouse bar look like in Japan?" One facet is an easy-to-read menu: "The menus here are very legible. What you see is what you get in the glass: there's an economy to it, kind of like haiku."
Hyatt is interested in combining flavors that heighten the essential facets of his ingredients. "It may sound silly," he says, "but I'm kind of obsessed right now with richly concentrated colors and flavors—thinking about what an orange tastes like, and what something orange-flavored tastes like. There's a difference. How do you make something that's more watermelon than watermelon? How do you bring out the flavor if it's subtle?"
"When you make drinks or when you cook, you take an ingredient apart and put it back together." In his Desert Rose cocktail, Hyatt infuses gin with dehydrated strawberries. "Dried fruits infuse a lot better than fresh," he says, "With fresh fruit, the water gets in the way." He uses curaçao to bolster the sweetness and acidity of the infusion, and adds a floral side with French vermouth. "All of a sudden," says Hyatt, "it kind of tastes like a strawberry."
Check out the slideshow for a peek at Daniel Hyatt's cocktails at Roka Bar—plus a look behind the scenes (chainsaw included.)