655 West Broadway, Downtown San Diego
Best reason to come into Sora is Bek.
Bek Allen’s the mixologist imported from New York’s Pegu Club. Mixologist? Cocktail creator. Pegu? The Soho place Bek says has been named “best cocktail bar in the world” seven times by various cocktail and gastro publications.
So, okay, I’d never heard of it, either.
Of course, Sora being the swank joint that it is, I’ve come in strictly for happy hour. Thursdays and Fridays, you buy a drink, you get free food, such as pasta and pizzas and edamame. Guess the choice isn’t surprising, since Sora is all about fusing Italian and Japanese food. Turns out, chef Noriyoshi Teruya was tempted away from Nobu. In the sushi world, can’t do better than Nobu.
It’s twilight, around 5:30 p.m., as I step into this big square room of cream-and-pink walls with natural wood panels and metal highlights and explain to the welcome gal that I’ve come for happy hour.
“You have to go to the back,” she says.
Ho-kay… I make the long journey through tables, around the square bar, past where all the cool people are, to an alcove facing windows that look into the kitchen. On a high table they’ve set three smallish pizzas. Two are chestnut and romanesco (Italian broccoli); one is gorgonzola and tomato sauce. In between, there’re a couple of bowls of pasta and another of edamame.
Hey, this stuff is free, which makes the glass of wine or beer that you gotta buy to qualify for it seem more reasonable. Even though there are no happy-hour drink prices. They run maybe $7–$8.
But it’s kinda lonely back here. You feel like you’ve been told to go sit in the corner till you’re ready to pay full price.
Then Christina comes up and says, “Oh, you don’t have to stay here. You can sit at the bar if you like.”
So that’s what I do. And that’s where I meet Bek, the exotic-drink mixer. Bek Allen, floating like a butterfly, mixing stingers like a bee, heh-heh. You can see she knows her stuff. Says the big red Japanese symbol erected on some scaffolding in the middle of the bar means sora, which means “sky.” Also here: Nicolae, the wine guy. Oh, I recognize him. Nicolae Stefan. Used to be at Cafe Chloe in East Village. What he didn’t know about wine wasn’t worth knowing.
“Good choice,” he says when I randomly stab my finger on a red wine called Nero d’Avola ($8). “It’s from Sicily. A very ancient vine. Oldest in Italy. The grapes are so dark they look black. That’s why they call it ‘Nero.’”
I take a slurp of the inky-black stuff. Ooh... Yes. Kinda rough, earthy, but fruity. I like it. Then I head off for the food, grab a couple of slices of that chestnut-and-broccoli pie, two more of the gorgonzola. I add some pasta and a clutch of edamame, and, hey, I’ve got myself a meal.
The pizza has a nice crust that’s thin but not too thin. Not cracker-hard, but not doughy, either. That chestnut-broccoli combo is good, too. There’s no spectacular flavor-burst, but it is nice and savory.
“You might say I’m a classicist,” says Bek, as I chew. We’re talking about cocktails. “I believe in learning the classics in the cocktail world. Why ruin something that’s been perfected?”
She reckons San Diego is two years behind New York on this stuff. The difference? “New York’s cocktail world has technique, discipline.”
Bek knows of what she speaks.
I mean, OMG. She’s learned from, and served up cocktails to, Audrey Saunders and Dale DeGroff. Had I heard of them? No. Do they turn out to be gods of the hot-hot cocktail cult? You betcha. (I googled them on the spot.)
Bek worked for Audrey Saunders at Pegu Club for seven years, serving up such cocktail “classics” as the Gin-Gin Mule and Old Cuban.
Had I heard of them? No. Would I like to try them? You betcha, if you’re paying.
She says she had to be prepared to work. Like, squeezing fresh fruit rather than pouring syrup. Or mixing difficult cocktails, like the Ramos Gin Fizz. “For that, you mix gin, lemon juice, lime juice, egg white, sugar, cream, orange-flower water and soda water, and then shake for 20 minutes.”
As we talk, Bek’s making something that involves this kinda Art Nouveau bottle. Hmm…through the clear glass it looks yellow, but the bottle’s shape makes you think of absinthe.
Always wanted to know what those tortured artists of 19th-century Paris drowned their sorrows in.
This liqueur mix is from Paris, but it ain’t absinthe. Called St. Germain. Made from elderberry flowers. Smells of lychee.
“So,” Bek says, “I created this cocktail, Flower Drum Song, using St. Germain, sake, soju [a distilled Korean rice liquor that tastes a bit like vodka], and lemon. Like one?”
They cost $9. Lord. Right now, I’m just finishing up my Nero d’Avola. I’m already down ten bucks, adding tax. With this green devil drink, it’ll be up to $20.
But…heck. Flower Drum Song. Who can resist the name? Plus, interesting to see what Bek’s invented.
“Okay,” I say.
She shakes, stirs, pours, then lays a champagne glass full of this greeny, creamy mixture before me. I take a sip. Still get that lychee thing, but more lemony now, fizzy. Interesting, but not spectacular, especially once I figure out how much each gulp’s costing me. At least, now I know. Next time, I’ll have the St. Germain straight. And that tells you where I am on the totem pole of cocktail aficionados.
Whatever, I’m happy. And spinning a little. I come out of Sora feeling full, and glad I don’t have to drive anywhere. That green stuff…20 percent alcohol (and isn’t that low for a liqueur?). Or maybe it was just chowing free chow in that heady atmosphere. Either way, I float up Broadway to the stretch-limo stop on at least Cloud Eight.
Happy Hour Prices: Monday, $8 pizzas; Tuesday, 50 percent off tapas and cold appetizers; Wednesday, half off all prepared tapas and hot appetizers; Thursday–Friday, free appetizers with purchase of any alcoholic beverage
Happy Hour: 3:00–6:00 p.m., Monday–Friday
Restaurant Hours: 11:30 a.m.–4:00 p.m., lunch; 5:45–10:00 p.m. (till 11:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday), dinner
Buses: All downtown
Nearest Stop: American Plaza
Trolleys: Orange, Blue, Green Lines
Nearest Trolley Stops: American Plaza (Orange, Blue Lines); Santa Fe Depot (Green Line)