For Chefs in S.F., Making a Root Beer Float Involves More Than Popping a Can

Categories: Brody, Sweet Beat

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Special enough for a birthday: The root beer float (with cookies) at Michael Mina.
​Even if you knew that today is National Root Beer Float Day -- a fact we learned from Three Olives Vodka, which just released a root beer-flavored vodka to a nation happily unaware of what it's been missing -- you might not know there are San Francisco chefs and brewers who take their root beer floats very seriously.

At Chenery Park (683 Chenery at Diamond), which will celebrate its ninth anniversary in October, pastry chef Chet Wryly told SFoodie the root beer float ($5) has been on the menu since the place opened. Wryly uses Thomas Kemper root beer and Café Classico gelato. "We offer vanilla or chocolate," he said. Most diners want vanilla.

Magnolia Pub & Brewery (1398 Haight at Masonic) makes its own root beer three times a month, in 35-gallon batches. "We use extract for the base, with unwashed turbinado sugar and good vanilla," said brewmaster Ben Spencer. The restaurant has cycled a root beer float on and off the dessert menu for the past 11 years. Alas, this is one of those times it's off -- but you could always get a foamy glass to go ($3), and combine it with your own ice cream at home.

Chef Charlie Kleinman, late of Fish & Farm and Fifth Floor, creates both the savory and sweet dishes at Wexler's (568 Sacramento at Montgomery), the haute barbecue place in the FiDi. He told us his Inside-Out Root Beer Float ($6) is something he's been thinking about for a long time. In a reversal of the usual formula, Kleinman pours vanilla soda over root beer ice cream. "I think that classic flavors work really well, but I like to have fun with them," he said. "Humphry Slocombe makes a root beer ice cream specifically for us -- they use root beer syrup, but add botanicals and ginger to amp up the flavor so it doesn't get lost in the soda. We make the vanilla soda ourselves, with Bourbon vanilla. And we top it with house-made whipped cream and brandied cherries."

An elegant artisanal root beer float has been one of Michael Mina's signature desserts since he was chef at Aqua. It's still on the menu at Michael Mina in the Westin Saint Francis (335 Powell at Post) priced at $14 ($12 in the lounge). Executive pastry chef Bill Corbett, who's worked at New York's experimental WD-50, tweaked Mina's house-made sassafras ice cream recipe just a bit.

"They used to use sassafras powder, but I use bark for a stronger flavor, which we infuse in milk and cream with a little bit of vanilla in it," Corbett said. "We also make a root beer sorbet in house. We use IBC root beer, and each float gets a couple of scoops of ice cream and sorbet. We garnish it with two thin chocolate cigars that look like straws, and a white-and-dark striped chocolate disk, and serve two warm chocolate chip cookies on the side, made with Swiss chocolate cubes from Esprit des Alpes, and toasted pecans, for their nutty caramel flavor. It's Michael's recipe," Corbett added, "and they're one of the best chocolate chip cookies I've ever had."

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