Verbena reflects its name inside the glass and on the plate 

click to enlarge Anthony Keels
  • JUAN PARDO/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Bar manager Anthony Keels says Verbena, which includes fresh produce in cocktails, is "super farm-to-table and pasture-to-fork."
Verbena is a genus of semi-woody flowering plants, so it’s fitting that fine wood plays a prominent role in the design of the bar and restaurant named after the flora. The Spanish doors are a holdover from previous uses of this upper Polk Street space, and the interior features a black walnut bar with a natural “live edge,” high ceilings, an illuminated wooden pickle wall and art panels made from farm soil. Custom pottery and diffuse, hanging lanterns round out the earthy, warm feeling of the space, which opened in mid-December.

Originally from the hills above Santa Cruz, bar manager Anthony Keels got his start in the restaurant business working at a dinner theater in Ben Lomond that featured a trapeze and stripper poles. He began his relationship with the Verbena team five years ago, when he started working his way up from a busboy position at their Berkeley restaurant, Gather.

Verbena follows Gather’s mold in terms of catering to the locavore movement. What can you say about your food sources? It’s an amazing coincidence that our partner farm, Lindencroft, happens to be just 4 miles from where I was born. They have heirloom vegetables and seeds you can’t find at any farmers market, grown exclusively for us.

Heirloom tomatoes seem to be a big deal lately. Are they around yet, or are they hanging back? And do you use heirloom tomatoes in your bloody marys? Tomato season hasn’t hit yet. It’s gonna be the end of spring or the beginning of summer before you see those heirlooms. However, we do have a bloody mary on our brunch menu that’s made with organic tomato juice, organic carrot juice and our own house-aged fish sauce.

You seem to use a lot of food items in your cocktails. What can you tell us about your drinks? These are all original recipes created by my lead bartender, Ross Katzenberg, and me. For our Thymes Cure, we take the wild thyme from our farm, torch the sashays and then extinguish in grapefruit juice. We use tonic syrup from Small Hand Foods in Berkeley to make that into a burnt thyme grapefruit tonic, and we add vodka and Aperol. Another fun drink we have is the Rocket and Rose, which is based on an arugula-and-black-pepper syrup that we make. To that, we add Cascade strawberries, gin, lemon and genepy.

We’ve talked a lot about your vegetables. Is it safe to assume your meat is local and sustainable? Yes, we’re super farm-to-table and pasture-to-fork. We even do whole-animal butchering in-house.

How would you describe your bar crowd? It’s kind of a dining bar, so we get a lot of destination diners; I don’t want to call them foodies. And of course we get a lot of local neighborhood people.

How do you spend your time when you’re not bartending? I’m a musician. I play a style of music called Gypsy jazz. Its most famous proponent was a guy named Django Reinhardt, from the 1930s. That’s what I spend most of my money on — recording equipment and instruments.

IF YOU GO

Verbena

2323 Polk St.

(415) 441-2323

verbenarestaurant.com

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