At one point toward the middle of our interview with Joshua James — he was leaning against a stool, arms crossed, calmly answering question after question about the specs on this or that ingredient — we went in for a sip of Clever Koi's House Dirty Martini. Crisp, briny, evoking low tide at the coastline. And complex, too, for a martini. Prior to this we had more conceptual questions to ask — then, suddenly, didn't; the answers were in the glass. “Don’t know what else to ask,” we said. “It just makes sense.”
The Clever Koi co-owner and head-of-bar has a knack for getting across simple revelations like this.
The concept is remarkably simple — the dirty martini is a simple drink, after all: gin, dry vermouth, and a saline-something to replace the ubiquitous olive and its briny juices. A noble cause, as how many dirty martinis wind up tasting like a jar of Mezzetta-brand olive juice?
But the dirty martini has the potential to be so much more fun than it's ever been given credit for. There are slews of increasingly interesting gins to reach for; ditto dry vermouth, and even for the vodka drinker the growing market for high-character, single-variety wheat vodka filtered only once is there — kinds that range from caramel to vanilla and fresh-baked bread. It should be noted and given credit for being one of the few drinks that has always embraced a savory element, thanks to olives and pickled onions, and welcomed salinity for flavor-enhancing qualities (many bartender/mixologists now keep droppers of salt-solutions on hand to season their drinks, right next to the bitters).
So, what did James do? He picked an interesting gin, Ford’s gin, for starters. He championed its mouthfeel and depth over that of City of London gin, which he’d been using prior, and its botanical-rich profile — ripe for twisting in nori, a seaweed, the ocean’s evergreen entity, and kombu, a kelp. Being the bar side of an Asian restaurant, James, it appears, enjoys swimming in the Asian foodscape, enjoying being boxed in by the ingredients available to him and thinking creatively about how they might manifest in a cocktail. The menu currently boasts a ginger shrub, a cashew gin, a grass tincture, sake, clove, lemongrass, and an oyster stout beer (it gets a shot of Becherovka thrown in) — not to mention the garnish on the dirty House Martini (we’re getting to that).
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The green note, at this point with the gin alone, is ample. Dry vermouth carries the drink a little further: “Straight gin martinis are great, but the dry vermouth,” James says, especially with his modified gin, “Is needed for body.” He stirs these two together with ice, to chill and dilute the mixture, opening up and unlocking some of the hidden botanicals.
This gets strained into a lacily patterned nick and nora glass — which is, then, when James pulls out a jar of house-brined water chestnuts (resourceful, as the water chestnuts are also used in one of the restaurant's beef dishes), that have soaked in a mixture of water, salt, vinegar and sugar. They are crunchy, jarringly brackish but acting to delicately season the drink around it.
“I’m surprised it’s doing so well,” James said at one point, acknowledging that nori and water chestnuts could prove too adventurous for the casual drinker.
But he shouldn’t be too surprised. The final product, an ocean-celebrating dirty martini, pulls you in like a swell. This drink is a direct trip to the shore.