Zany colors. Wacky flavors! And somewhere, the perfect martini.
Thursday, June 20, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Photo: Not Fakin'' Shaken-Bond was wasting his breath-real martinis are always shaken, never stirred.
Ah, the martini. The quintessential American drink, the libation of movie stars and Manhattanites. It says Hollywood chic in a way that Bud never could. Bette Davis clutched one as she stumbled down the stairs in All About Eve. Bogart lifted one to Bergman in Casablanca. And Bond wouldn''t be Bond without it.
The first martini was mixed somewhere in northern California around 1870, probably in the town of Martinez-hence the name. One source claims that first recipe called for four parts sweet red vermouth to one part gin, a sickly sweet combo only slightly relieved by a few drops of aromatic bitters. Later in the century the gin-to-vermouth ratio evened out at 50-50, with a cherry plopped into the glass.
The martini fell from favor during the 1960s and ''70s, then made a comeback, along with making money, in the 1990s. The newly loaded crowded into martini bars on both coasts, demanding the drinks their parents drank, only updated. Sweeter, fruitier, more complex, more rare! Blue, green, fuschia, violet!
Today, almost any gin- or vodka-based cocktail can get away with calling itself a martini. But the true martini is made from gin. Pure, ice-cold gin. One can use vodka, but that makes it a vodkatini, a perfectly legitimate drink invented some 50 to 70 years after the martini. But if I wanted vodka, I''d drink a Bloody Mary.
The traditional martini is three parts gin to one part dry vermouth. The less vermouth, the drier the martini. Some people drip a little vermouth on top of their ice cubes, swish it around and pour it off before adding the gin, so just a hint remains. Others forego the vermouth entirely. If the gin''s good enough-and it should be-why muddy the issue? Pop in an olive, and voila! Juniper perfection.
"I''m pretty much old school," confesses Greg, who''s been bartending for 17 years at the Whaling Station on Cannery Row. "A martini is a martini and a cocktail is a cocktail. In those martini bars, they call anything that comes in a glass a martini, but a martini is just gin or vodka."
Greg is shaking up a couple of ounces of Bombay as he speaks. He''s put a few ice cubes in his silver shaker, and by the time he''s done shaking and pours it out, the drink is laced with tiny ice crystals, just enough so the gin stays chilled for as long as it takes a reasonable person to down it.
Which in my case is about three minutes. We''re a party of four, martini lovers all, out for a night on the town to compare martini mixing and pick up a few pointers. There''s myself, a gin sipper from way back. And George, who prefers his martinis bone-dry, no vermouth at all. "I show it the bottle," he says. And Carrie, who says she "grew up in martini land." Connecticut? "No, San Mateo," she clarifies. "My house was martini land." Rounding out the party is Katie, who has no particular martini credentials, but impeccable taste.
Speaking of impeccable taste, a martini is always, always shaken. Never stirred.
Greg says he mixes up more martinis than anything else at the Whaling Station. His customers like it straight. "This is a steakhouse," he notes. "You don''t get many people asking for those martini cocktails." He prefers to leave out the vermouth, explaining that the olive "pretty much kills the taste of it anyway."
Greg serves us what is basically a hefty glass of straight chilled gin. George, who is a bit of an epicure, extols the virtues of Bombay. "I like the juniper, the floral qualities," he says. One sip and I''m a convert. My Tanqueray days are over. If only George wouldn''t Gibson it up with that dang onion.
Carrie and Katie have an Appletini going in the corner, a bright chartreuse concoction of Gordon''s vodka, Apple Pucker schnapps and a touch of Triple Sec. I''m opposed to green drinks on principle, and I''m kind of peeved at Greg, the soi-disant purist, for coming up with such a thing, but the women are falling off their stools with pleasure. "You have to taste this," they urge.
I obey. It''s delicious. Even George likes it. "It''s not too sweet-it has a kick," he approves.
Maybe martinis are in vogue at Greg''s bar, but they''re somewhat passe at the La Playa in Carmel. For years La Playa offered an extensive martini menu, 13 different drinks "from the originals to the New Look." The menu used to lie out on the tables, but now there''s just one copy and it''s up on the bar hidden behind the cash register. Noe the bartender will still mix up any of the drinks on it, but you have to know to ask for them.
Why the secrecy? He shrugs. After 24 years behind the bar at La Playa, he''s seen drink trends come and go. People are ordering "lots of martinis," he says, but he doesn''t get much call anymore for the fancy variety. "They mostly want the high-end vodkas-Ketel, Belvedere, Grey Goose," he says.
But I loved that martini menu and I persuade the group to try four of my favorites. Katie goes for broke with the Cajun Martini, a spicy brew built around Stolichnaya Pepper Vodka. It arrives with a sodden asparagus spear leaning over the rim of the glass. Katie looks askance, but takes a sip. Whoa!
"I love the asparagus, but don''t like the drink," she pronounces. George gives it a try and winces. "It has the heat going, but I don''t like the pepper vodka straight," he opines. "But it''s good with the chicken."
I order-unbelievably-another bright green drink, the Melon Martini: Absolut vodka, Midori and a lemon twist. "Ooh, it''s good," proclaims Carrie. "Smooth," George agrees.
But the winner is the Cointreau Martini, a delightful blend of vodka, Cointreau, lemon and a squeeze of orange juice. Katie calls it "a lady''s drink" and proclaims it her favorite. "It''s a sipper," she announces. "Oh, you''re supposed to sip it?" Carrie asks worriedly.
The last stop of the night is Lallapalooza in downtown Monterey. This joint bills itself as a martini bar, and the extensive drinks menu bears out that boast. They offer 16 different martinis, from the Classic (gin or vodka; shaken, not stirred) through the entirely respectable Cosmopolitan and on to libations that have no business calling themselves martinis.
Or do they?
We order four different martini cocktails, and we receive a color-coordinated rainbow: teal blue, fuschia, lemon yellow and heather violet. It looks too pretty to drink, but somehow we manage. I''ve selected the Purple Haze, after an evening''s worth of listening to Carrie and Katie tell me it''s the best drink in town (they''re Lallapalooza regulars, apparently). It''s made of Absolute Citron vodka, sweet-and-sour mix and a splash of raspberry liqueur-sweet, but delicious. "If I could only have one alcoholic drink for the rest of my life, this would be it," Katie says.
Katie insists she''s enjoying her Ruby Martini, but I find the soft Skyy vodka doesn''t hold up against the fresh grapefruit juice. Maybe something less smooth would fare better, like Stoli.
Carrie''s bright blue Blue Thunder-vodka, rum, Blue Curacao, sweet-and-sour and pineapple juice-reminds me strangely of a Pina Colada. It conjures up happy childhood memories of growing up in Tahiti... or was that New Jersey?
The evening''s verdict? La Playa has the best happy hour food deal, especially on Friday when they lay on the serious spread. Their martinis could use a little more ice, but they''ve got a nice selection.
Lallapalooza has the most variety, and the boldest, hippest concoctions. They''re not afraid to sacrifice style for something that just plain tastes good, and I have to admire them for that.
But Greg''s Bombay Classic, shaken in that ice-filled shaker and served up straight and cold, was stunning. Elegant and pure. I could see Bette Davis smiling.
The La Playa Hotel is on Camino Real between 8th and 9th in Carmel, 624-6476; Happy Hour is between 4:30 and 6:30 on weekdays. The Whaling Station is at 763 Wave St in New Monterey, 373-3778. Lallapalooza is at 474 Alvarado St. in Monterey, 645-9036.