Clean and beautiful
Smokey, Perfect, or Dirty: The Martini
February 7, 2006

I spit out my first martini in Boston.

It was a momentous occasion for many reasons. Earlier that day, I had an interview at Houghton-Mifflin for an Editorial Assistant position. I thought it was a very successful interview, so I convinced Mathra (then my boyfriend) to meet me at The Hill -- a swanked-up sports pub on the edge of my Beacon Hill neighborhood -- to bear witness to my entrance into martinihood. You see, to me? Martinis were terribly literary. I firmly believed all book editors had the wettest of dry martini lunches, and since I was teetering on the edge of joining the underpaid ranks of editors on the bottom-most rung, I made up my mind that I was going to learn how to drink the cocktail I had so romanticized.

I was no cocktail virgin, mind you, but my previous tippling experience had included Brandy Alexanders, Sidecars, Between the Sheets, and a few other concoctions that the genius bartender shook up at The Maypole in Cambridge, England. Some time later, I discovered a deep and dangerous love for Manhattans, but only after Nate stirred up some serious ones in the North End apartment. Basically, all the cocktails I loved were, while still on the classic, Auntie Mame side, highly charged with various flavors that usually had the effect of overpowering the alcohol. I mean, who wants to taste the actual alcohol right?

So, I ordered my martini "very dry" at The Hill. I took a sip. I couldn't bring myself to swallow. I gasped for air. Mathra got me a glass of ice water. I dumped my martini in the glass of ice water. Mathra finished the excessively diluted martini. I ordered a beer. My reaction could have had something to do with the fact that I didn't know to ask for a "top shelf" gin in my martini and therefore probably ended up with crappy "well" stuff. Like Boodles. I swore off martinis then and there and made peace with the fact that no matter how many times I watched Nick and Nora Charles swilling them, they just weren't for me, like Brussels sprouts. However, just like Brussels sprouts, a craving in California would lead me to try again and fall in love.

My full conversion to the intensely smooth and fabulous side happened at Sugar just a few weeks ago. I was paying a visit to this new Hayes Valley cocktail lounge in the name of Bay Area Bites, and I decided to bring along a cocktail expert. McCheese used to bartend at the Gin Joint before the dot com crash closed their SOMA doors and she is a serious gin expert. It is also quite possible that she has the most refined palate I have ever run into.

It was at McCheese's urging that I sampled Sugar's 009 Martini made with a locally-stilled brand of gin called Gin 209. Wow. If I had been Bugs Bunny, my eyes would have shot out of my head. But in a good way. This martini was ridiculously smooth and easy to drink. Now, I don't mean I could have chugged it like water, no. It was... sippable. Yeah, sippable might be the best way to explain it. Long, slow, sophisticated sips.

A few weeks later, McCheese and I went back to Sugar and brought Mathra along. He was tired of listening to me go on and on about the Best. Martini. Ever. and wanted to try it for himself. To experience the full range of flavors gin can put out, McCheese suggested we each order a different martini. And by "different martini[s]" I don't mean that each of us ordered an Appletini or a Grapetini or a Vomitini any other 'tini'd drink that isn't actually a martini and just has gotten that suffix because of forces like Sex and the City and *shudder* Sandra Lee. Although, on that last one, I refuse to believe that the Wal-Martha Stewart can really inspire something that has that far-reaching of an effect. In fact, the only far-reaching effect she inspires is projectile vomiting. Anyway, what I mean is that Mathra got a 009 Martini with Gin 209, McCheese got a Tanqueray Ten martini, and I got a Hendrick's martini.

We sat in the secret back room, and McCheese proceeded to hold forth on the wonders of gin. She pointed out that the Tanqueray Ten was a lot more aromatic than the other two. When sipped, you could taste the juniper above anything else -- a fine shade that I completely missed when I drank the Tanq Ten in a gin and tonic some years ago. As I already mentioned, the Gin 209 was impossibly smooth and also, according to McCheese, quite floral. McCheese pointed out an elusive fragrance of the lightest of lavender which, once realized, was unmistakable. Hendrick's from Scotland is the newest "It Gin" to spank cocktail enthusiasts. It is also quite floral and has tones of cucumber and rose swirled in.

Tasting these three gins side-by-side-by-side was quite educating and made me realize that I'm a bit behind the times with my beloved blue bottle of Bombay Sapphire. It's all right in gin and tonics with a seasonal Meyer lemon squeezed in, but I don't think I'll be happy with any martini that isn't made with 209, Tanq Ten, or Hendrick's. One of these days I have to get around to tasting Junípero (which is distilled by San Francisco's own Anchor Steam Brewing Company) and Van Gogh (a true Dutch gin) and see if they can get added to my favorites list.

I've also been inspired by Alton Brown's "Raising the Bar" to experiment with making my own martinis. I mean, criminy -- Mathra and I got a beautiful glass martini pitcher when we got married, but I can't think it's been used for anything more stimulating than flowers. Also, it will give me the opportunity to say, "Stir, never shake. Bruises the gin." I guess it's time to go shopping for vermouth, olives, and cocktail onions. I wonder if anyone in California bottles organic artisanal cocktail onions and olives...I kid! I kid! Although, if it ever were to be done, it'd be done around here.

By the way, I have to call attention to one of the coolest sites on the net. This guy seems to have followed our progression from one Cambridge to the next in the exact opposite order. What is awesome is that he has this huge repository of scanned menus from both places. I love going through his site and looking at the menus from all the places I frequented in both Cambridge, UK and Cambridge, MA. Bless you, Samuel Lipoff. Bless you.

In other news...

Bay Area Bites and Peashoots:

Seeking to satisfy a very recent craving, I grabbed a few containers of fresh pea shoots at my corner organic store and tried my hand at them. My husband told me that the few slivers of garlic that I threw in at the end of the quick saute made all the difference in the still emerald green shoots. According to his expert opinion as a professional eater, my pea shoots were better than Isa and Ton Kiang because they were more tender and flavorful. High praise indeed. Do you know why I trust my husband's opinion? Because he leaned over a plate of pea shoots at Abacus and said, "Even considering yours, these are the best yet."

Bay Area Bites and Rancho Gordo Beans:

After a bit of time in their tepid bath, they start to prune and look utterly horrific. Not long later, the wrinkles begin disappear as the beans plump, soften, and fill out -- just like Melanie Griffith after her hourly botoxing. Anyway, I like to bake my Cannellinis in an Apilco dish and slather them up with a tangy herbed vinaigrette. After a night's complete marination in the fridge, the beans are melting and creamy on the tongue.

Strange Horizons and Cooking Without a Replicator:

Fromage blanc is a nice step up from cream cheese and it also assimilates flavors very well. It's a Borg cheese. Furthermore, to make it truly "tongue searing" and "eye watering," I think using diced habañeros rather than ordinary bell peppers is in order. According to Neelix and the Encyclopedia, hasperat is a burrito-type thing, so the cheese mixture should be spread on tortillas and rolled up.

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