As of this week Russian Hill has a new spot for thoughtful cocktails built on hard-to-find spirits, including vodka distilled from Japanese white rice and gin infused with Japanese citrus. Iris, the sister cocktail bar to chef David Yoshimura’s fine dining tasting menu restaurant Nisei, celebrates its grand opening on Thursday, October 14 with a tight menu of six drinks created by bar manager and beverage industry vet Ilya Romanov. The bar is located on Polk Street, right next door to Nisei, and the menu centers on three “very playful takes” highball-style drinks, Romanov says.
Apologies, however, to fans of a classic whiskey highball; there isn’t one on the menu. Instead Romanov is using the tall, fizzy, and refreshing format as a jumping off point for creations like the Wildcard, a rich combo of house-infused elderberry sochu and two types of amari all washed in coconut. There’s also the Middlechild, a gin and tonic that’s taken a spin through East Asia. At its base there’s Nikka Coffey Gin, which gets its citrus notes from yuzu, kabosu, amanatsu, and shikuwasa, and its botanical body from sansho pepper and apples alongside traditional flavors like juniper, coriander, and lemon peel.
Even the options that sound familiar are intended to surprise. Take, for example, the bar’s riff on a milk punch: yes, the Linda Linda is clarified and clear, but it’s also loaded with floral notes from violets and blushes slightly pink. And the Okinawa — served in a tall goblet over nugget ice — might look like a magenta-hued pina colada, but don’t be fooled. It stars Japanese rum — “which was hell on earth to find,” Romanov says — alongside purple yams, and it subs coconut milk for oat milk and pineapple for sour-sweet calamansi. Even the well drinks are unexpectedly high-end, featuring those rare Japanese spirits and sporting a remarkably affordable $10 price tag.
Yoshimura, who crafts nine-course tasting menus inspired by his Japanese-American heritage at Nisei, offers a handful of bar snacks to pair with Iris’ drinks. The plates are “modern takes of Japanese izakaya fare,” Romanov says, including furikake-topped popcorn, Japanese potato salad, and rice chips served with a bowl of smoked American unagi dip.
As for the space, there are eight seats at the bar and another 15 or so in the indoor lounge, where vintage upholstered chairs and stylish wingbacks give the space a “really retro modern” vibe, Romanov says. The parklet, however, is “gigantic” with space for an additional 45 guests. And while there aren’t any of those ubiquitous propane-fueled space heaters, the staff have taken measures to keep the cold at bay. “We have heated seats,” Romanov says with a laugh. “So if you pull up in your luxury sedan with heated seats your booty doesn't have to stay cold for long.”
The cocktail mastermind, who previously managed at Michelin-starred Niku Steakhouse and spent time behind the stick at the Beehive on Valencia, says he designed both the space and menu for flawless execution despite Iris’ small staff and approximately 70 seats. He drew up the blueprints for the two-well bar himself. “It’s extremely rare to have a bar built by a bartender-slash-bar-professional but it makes a really big difference,” he says. Still, for now, he’s keeping the signature cocktail list intentionally concise. “The cocktail menu will constantly evolve,” he adds. “Once I have more people on staff, I’ll feel comfortable giving them more things to remember. I don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot.”
Iris celebrates its grand opening on Thursday, October 14 and will be open Wednesday through Friday from 5 p.m. to midnight and Saturday and Sunday from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m.