Looking at his business card, Carlo Espinas dubs himself “grub slinger.” But everyday, he successfully navigates one of the most difficult culinary jobs—making great food with all the techniques of a restaurant at an establishment best known for its cocktails.
“It can be difficult at times because I understand that a lot of people come here (Comstock Saloon) just for drinks,” Espinas says. “I’ll overhear customers at times ask for something like fish and chips or other so-called pub grub, but I think we have developed into more than just a great place for cocktails. Our food can sit on an equal platform with our drinks.”
The menu Espinas has created is wide-ranging, serving those who are looking for a nice meal and those looking for a late-night snack to soak up some of the alcohol they have consumed.
“I think while it might not showcase the same techniques as a fine dining restaurant, we make do by creating a very customer-friendly menu with plenty of different options and tons of locally sourced, fresh ingredients that we’re able to highlight through each passing season,” Espinas says.
The menu, which Espinas changes periodically, might include simple items like pretzels and mashed potato fritters or more involved items rabbit three-ways, roasted chicken or gnocchi.
Here are the recipes for two of Espina’s standoutsm, one a mainstay on the menu and another an off the menu special.
Mashed Potato Fritters
1 lb. potatoes – washed, peeled and quartered
½ c. water
4 tbsp. butter
½ c. flour
2 eggs – cracked into a bowl
Salt and pepper
Serves 2 – 4
Boil the potatoes in heavily salted water. Cook as you would mashed potatoes. When done, pull them from the pot and let them rest on an un-crowded pan or plate to let steam off. If you have an oven already on, put them in there for 5 minutes to dry out. When dried out, mash the potatoes as you normally would. My preference is to use a mill so the potatoes are evenly broken up without overworking them. Ricers are great too.
While the potatoes are cooking, combine the ½ c. water, butter, and a small pinch of salt and pepper into a sauce pot and bring to a boil. Have a whisk and wooden spoon handy. When it comes to a boil, turn down the heat and slowly add the flour with one hand and use the whisk with your other to break up the clumps. When the mix begins to thicken, switch to the wooden spoon and continue to stir the batter over the low heat. Stir until the batter becomes pulls off the sides of the pan and becomes 1 homogenous lump. Turn off the heat. Add 1 egg to the pot and stir vigorously to incorporate. When fully combined, add the second egg and stir until incorporated. This batter is also known as pate choux. Learning this technique opens a world of delicious sweet and savory recipes in your future.
When the potatoes and batter are both done, combine thoroughly. This can be done ahead of time, even the night before.
When you’re ready to fry: warm up a pot of oil or a home fryer to 350 degrees. Using a spoon or an ice cream scoop; carefully drop small portions of the potato mix into the fryer. Fry until golden. When done, pull them out and let drain on a paper towel. Lightly salt.
These guys are delicious and you’ll want to just grab them, but be careful because they are really hot. Since this is for a home, I scaled down this recipe, but it can easily be doubled, tripled, etc. for a larger group. Also, it’s pretty easy to customize this recipe by adding herbs, grated cheese, or truffle oil to the mix before frying.
Shepherd’s Pie (Off the menu)
In the English tradition, a cook uses leftover beef or lamb from last night’s roast to make this hearty casserole. In its most basic form, you sauté some fresh vegetables, then add in meat taken off the bone and then add any jus or gravy to thicken up the filling and make it a little saucy. Put this filling into an oven safe casserole dish, top it off with mashed potatoes, dot with butter and bake until the topping gets a nice roasted brown hue.
It’s a perfect way to use Thanksgiving leftovers because there is no set recipe. Your shepherd’s pie is based on what’s available in the fridge the morning after turkey day. Personally I like to go with very traditional flavors on Thanksgiving, and then go a little cross-cultural with the leftovers. So here is an Asian-inspired take on Shepherd’s pie.
For a 12 x 8” casserole dish
½ c. diced carrots
½ c. diced celery
½ c. diced onion
½ c. diced green onions
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 c. shitake mushrooms, sliced in half
1 c. shelled edamame
½ c dry white wine
1 lb. (at least) leftover turkey meat – off the bone and either pulled or chopped into fork-able pieces.
1 qt. gravy
⅛ c. Soy sauce
1 tbsp. Sesame oil
6 c. Mashed potatoes, – or to take the theme a little further, you can use mashed Japanese sweet potatoes or a combination of both for the topping.
Crumbled nori or toasted sesame seeds for garnish
Salt, pepper for seasoning. Olive oil for cooking. Optional dots of butter to assist in browning the top.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Lightly sauté all the vegetables together in a medium sized pot. You want to sweat the vegetables, meaning to gently cook them, but have them retain a slight bite. When done, add the wine to deglaze and cook until the alcohol smell wears off. Fold in the turkey meat. Add the gravy, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Taste the mixture for proper seasoning.
Spoon the filling into the casserole dish. Top it off with mashed potato (or sweet potato) and use a spatula to even it out on top. If you like to increase the amount of crispiness, drag a fork across the topping to create more grooves. The topping will get crispier with more diverse textures. Dot with butter if you like.
Bake for 30 minutes. If you have a convection oven, turn on the fan. If the top is not as brown as you like at the end of the 30 minutes, use the broiler option to get a good crust. Be careful not to burn it though.
Once you get it to a desired look, let it sit for at least 15 minutes before serving. This may be the hardest part because you’ll really want to eat it, but it will be piping burn-the-top-of-your-mouth hot. Trust me, I have tested this theory.
Comstock Saloon is definitely not just a cocktail hangout anymore, it’s got plenty of food chops as well. The restaurant is located at 155 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco.
Photo Credit (of Carlo): Comstock Saloon