Never has one cocktail inspired so many people to produce so many memorably bad quotes (not to mention urban myths).
I'm talking about the martini, of course. You know, quotes like those slung around by Barnaby Conrad III, author of The Martini: An Illustrated History of an American Classic. In a recent Cigar Aficionado article, he proclaimed the martini to be "distilled from the wink of a platinum blonde, the sweat of a polo horse, the blast of an ocean liner's horn, the Chrysler building at sunset, a lost Cole Porter tune and the after-shave of quipping detectives in natty double-breasted suits."
See what I mean?
With the rage for Rat Pack retro still going strong, the martini has, for several years now, held the honor of being the symbol of institutionalized High Cool. In its most recent reincarnation, it's even spawned an entire industry built on martini-related accoutrements: gold-flecked glasses, reproduction cocktail shakers from the '20s and '30s (available at your nearest Restoration Hardware), ice buckets in the shape of a penguin, sterling olive picks and silver stirrers (this despite the James Bondian admonition that a martini must be shaken, not stirred), coasters sure to be tomorrow's collectibles, and napkins emblazoned with martini glasses and cute sayings in '50s-style typeface. There's even a purse-sized atomizer for dispensing a filmy fog of dry vermouth into your drink, lest you dare to add more than the tiniest drop and despoil liquid nirvana.
For the hard-core purist, a martini is -- always has been and always will be -- made by mixing gin with dry vermouth, crowned by an olive or lemon-twist garnish (if a pearl onion is used, it's a Gibson).
But, according to an informal poll I conducted among a number of Valley bartenders and martini-swilling friends, the classic gin martini is as dead as Ol' Blue Eyes himself. It's the premium vodka martini, in a dizzying array of permutations, that's taken its place. Only very mature gentlemen who remember martinis from the first time around seem to order the real thing anymore, or so I've been told on more than one occasion. And they usually ask for Bombay Sapphire or Boodles.
Let me be blunt -- most of the time, those Ketel One, Skyy or Pearl martinis are unadulterated vodka, with no, or virtually no, vermouth in them. And in the world of the premium vodka martini (technically, not a martini, but a vodkatini), only protocol, presentation and ambiance seem to separate the men from the boys.
Like the carefully orchestrated steps in a Japanese tea ceremony, martini ritual matters. The properly chilled glass, the quality of the garnish, steps taken to keep one's drink icy to the last drop -- all are critical to the perfect vodka martini.
With this in mind, I adopted a sort of Olympics scoring approach to a totally arbitrary and capricious cross section of Valley vodkatinis, with a 10 being a perfect score.
Orbit Cafe at Central and Camelback would get only a 5.6 from this judge. Though my vodka martini was perfectly passable, it should have been garnished with earplugs instead of olives. The jazz ensemble playing the night I was there was so loud as to preclude the mandatory witty repartee that goes with sipping a martini. I'm sure Dorothy Parker never used sign language to say, "What fresh hell is this?"
A view gets you extra points in my scoring system. The Thirsty Camel, the Phoenician's outdoor patio lounge, with its city panorama ringed by distant mountains and spindly palms poking through a smoky sky, rates a 9.4. It's the ideal place to have a slightly citrusy Grey Goose vodkatini, tiny shards of ice ensuring that your drink remains chilled. It also earns points for creative olive-garnish selection; choose from fat pimento-stuffed Sevilles, or those stuffed with blue cheese, tomato, jalapeño or anchovy.
However, even the spectacular, twinkling-lights view from a craggy hillside outcropping couldn't save the outdoor patio bar of Different Pointe of View at Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs resort from a low score. I ordered a Ketel One martini, straight up, two olives. If my drink was made with Ketel One, I'm a kettle drum. I suspect they inadvertently used their well vodka, Smirnoff, instead of the silky, specially distilled Dutch import cherished by serious vodka drinkers.
Ketel One, which one knowledgeable friend says "goes down like buttah, or like chilled spring water," does not produce the sensation of drinking nail-polish remover and definitely doesn't singe, then numb, as it hits your lips, tongue, uvula and throat. After my martini there, I could have had a Gortex lip implant without benefit of additional anesthesia. This different point of view gets a 3.6.
The Merc Bar, which features martinis in soda-pop flavors (apple, green melon, watermelon and a "French martini" with raspberry-flavored Chambord liqueur and pineapple juice) lost points for snotty attitude. When asked whether any dry vermouth was put in the Merc's vodka martinis, Amy, our snippy serving wench, spat back condescendingly: "Vermouth is only used to cover up bad vodka." What do you expect from a place that serves margaritas in martini glasses? This judge says 2.0.
If you want a consistently great, professionally made and served-as-ordered vodka martini sans the bad attitude, walk across the way to Houston's. Friendly servers quickly deliver a correctly chilled, expertly made drink, capped with several plump olives that have been soaked in dry vermouth. When insanity doesn't reign there, I've often had a server come by mid-drink with a freshly chilled glass into which my remaining martini is cheerfully poured. Score this one 9.6.
Cowboy Ciao, with its undulating bar of liquor bottles and chic, opalescent Italian down lighting, also makes the cut. Skyy is Cowboy's well vodka (and, no, there is no basis to the apocryphal claim floating around that Skyy's quadruple-step distillation process makes it hangover-free). Cowboy offers a vodka martini offshoot: the Iced Vodka Flight. For $8, we were able to sample Pearl, Skyy and Belvedere served in small, space-age flutes that look more like test tubes. This one rates an 8.8.
Hands down, the cocktail lounge of Harris' Restaurant on Camelback scores highest in all of my completely quixotic categories. A wry, film-version barkeep served a very dry, very cold drink in a fine, thin-stemmed crystal martini glass. Carved Mexican Tarascan columns, large bar mirrors reflecting huge, wrought-iron chandeliers and vintage Vince Garaldi quietly played by a tuxedoed piano player served as a backdrop. The balance of my generous martini was kept in a crystal carafe buried in ice filling a miniature wooden barrel. This one scores a perfect 10.
"Don't tell me you're working on a school project," Harris' bartender threw out in response to my repeated questioning.
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"Yeah, for bartending school," I quipped back, sounding like something out of a bad Dashiell Hammett novel.
All I needed was a hat with a face net, a blond mink stole and seamed silk stockings.
Contact Kathleen Vanesian at her online address: email@example.com