Shaken and Stirred
The martini, it could be argued, is the most versatile drink of the cocktail world. Sure, anyone who has seen a James Bond flick or power-lunched in the '80s will tell you that a martini should contain gin or vodka, vermouth, olives or onions, should be shaken or stirred, and served cold in a martini glass. And that formula and its variations certainly do result in a classic-yet-trendy, complex-yet-simple drink that, done properly, tastes as good as it looks.
And yet, drink lists at clubs throughout the metro area give the impression that the working definition of "martini" is much more flexible than originally believed. Martinis seem to be cross-pollinating with other cocktails, kind of like apples, tomatoes, and other food crops. A cosmotini, then, would be a cosmopolitan-inspired martini, and a margarini would be a margarita-inspired martini. These hybrids often substitute a flavored liqueur such as Chambord or Midori or a splash of fruit juice for the vermouth, but the drink's most important ingredient remains quality gin or vodka.
Of course the definition gets stretched even further by any number of Easter-egg-colored drinks usually named something clever and double-entendre-ish and ending in "ini." And while you may feel silly ordering a screamin' orgas-ini, what usually arrives is a mixed drink that is sweet enough to cover the burn of the alcohol for those who care for the kick, but not the taste, of strong drinks.
Whatever; I digress. Mostly, truly, it's hard not to feel sexy sipping from the conical-shaped glass. Isn't that the spirit of the martini? I say it is, and in that spirit, what follows is a roundup of some fun Twin Cities martini destinations, in all of kinds of forms and mutations.
MOSCOW ON THE HILL
With a gigantic vodka list containing choice selections from Ukraine, France, England, Italy, Finland, and of course, Russia, Moscow on the Hill is the obvious choice for martini sampling in St. Paul. It's an institution with a certain reputation to maintain, so you won't find any martinis of the mixed-drink variety. But that just means these cocktails are served up the way the Old World intended: cold and strong enough to knock you on your ass if you gulp rather than sip, as Moscow's menu encourages.
On this list, the best martinis are the ones that sound the strongest, such as the dirty martini (vodka, vermouth, and a splash of olive juice right out of the jar), or the Russian roulette (pepper and dry vodkas with a touch of vermouth). For newbies there are a couple of smooth, sweet selections such as Mikhail's martini (coffee and vanilla vodkas with a bit of Amaretto and a couple of coffee beans). It's important to note that while martinis are served strong here, they're not harsh. Most of the selections I have sampled go down clean and cool, but will warm you from within.
This is hardly a hipster destination (clientele are generally nicely dressed and middle-aged), and the decor is a bit lacking, but the lighting is dark enough that you can overlook it (tables have booths reminiscent of Perkins, with peasant shirts stuck to the wall). Moscow on the Hill still manages to shake up a great drink. And in a world of poorly mixed drinks, that can't be underestimated. MOSCOW ON THE HILL; 371 Selby Ave., St. Paul, 651.291.1236, www.moscowonthehill.com
JITTERS MARTINI BAR AND CABARET
Jitters is located in the basement of the Times, and given the ambience--metallic silver walls, plush burlesque-style velvet couches, and stained-glass hanging lamps that look like bauble earrings from the '70s--it could easily double as a super-secret alien lair in an old-school Star Trek movie. So what else could this place serve up but a great-looking martini? These folks are known for their second-generation martinis: sweet, pastel, girly-girl concoctions ideal for any My Little Pony on a bender. Names are whimsical, and some even bubble with a top layer of champagne. Of the drinks I tried, I recommend the Key lime martini (an alien-green drink reminiscent of a lime Jelly Belly) and the French kiss (a Barbie-pink elixir for the girl ready to step up from her usual vodka cranberry).
The only drink sampled that I can't recommend would be the invisible martini, a drink that managed to actually taste...invisible. (A novel concept, but at $7 to $10 a drink, don't you want to taste what you're drinking?) It's made with a secret ingredient Jitters calls "Chemical X," which my friend and I suspect could be Country Time Lemonade. Once properly lubricated, feel free to get up on stage and scream "Like a Virgin" into the karaoke machine (Thursday nights) or dance at Hipshakers (Wednesday nights).JITTERS MARTINI BAR AND CABARET 205 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.617.1111, www.timesbardandcafe.com/htm/jitters.htm
Joe's Garage is a bar that manages to straddle the girly vs. James Bond martini dilemma in a novel way: It serves up playfully named martinis that are still strong enough to knock the front teeth out of any mixed-drink-martini fan. Tasty and intoxicating choices include the cosmotini, margarini, and the fortified (Absolut Kurrant, Port wine, and grenadine). They're reminiscent of the cocktail they are named after, but still retain their mostly martini nature--a very delicate line to walk. Since this is a great burger joint, when martinis are served you get to keep the shaker to pour out the leftover drink while dining, malted milk-style.
Joe's is a deceptively large place with a casual overall vibe (there are two levels to the restaurant--three in the summertime when the rooftop patio opens). A window seat on the second level or on the rooftop gazing at the Basilica are the choicest spots to sip your drink while waiting for your side of fries. JOE'S GARAGE 1610 Harmon Place, Minneapolis; 612.904.1163, www.joes-garage.com
JetSet is lined with museumlike benches that somehow seem to transform the fashionable clientele into art as they pose against the blank walls. Which is great, because for some the true allure of the martini is how glamorous you look holding one in a smashing new outfit. Hidden in what is probably the only quiet spot in the north Warehouse District, JetSet is easy to miss. But once inside, patrons find a cozy yet minimal setting buzzing with chatter and ambient tunes. Although JetSet is often billed as a gay bar, the crowd is generally mixed in age, gender, and sexual orientation, and actually manages to give a vibe that is both friendly and hip at the same time--a sort of Minnesota nice meets New York edgy.
Martinis are served cold and true to classic form. The adventurous can opt for one made with flavored vodka for a still strong yet tasty mix. Ask the bartender to mix up something fun ($7 to $9 a pop) and what you end up with is certainly colorful, but still strong enough to win the good fight against complete sobriety. The bar is closed Sundays and Mondays. JETSET; 115 N. First St., Minneapolis, 612.339.3933
MARTINI BLU AT THE GRAND HOTEL
The ambience here is consciously trendy: Dark woodwork throughout, brushed steel panels, dimly lit tables, and a bar nicely backlit with a soft glow. Blue, of course. Television screens to be found in every direction show snippets of movies ranging from It's a Wonderful Life to Requiem for a Dream, while a trip-hop DJ spins tunes, making "name that movie" an easy conversation-starter among the generally youngish trendster crowd. The martini list is varied, and includes drinks both strong and old-school as well as new wave.
Of the strong and straightforward variety, I would recommend the cheesy martini, a drink not as horrific as it sounds. It's a classic vodka martini served with plump blue cheese-stuffed olives, perfect when dining from the popular sushi menu. The wasabitini, with its wasabi-stuffed olive, also works splendidly, but be forewarned--it's hot. And there's the Cuban cowboy, vodka with fresh mint and lime juice--tart, refreshing, with a kick.
For the indulgent there is the Snickers bar martini--basically an alcoholic candy bar in a glass (my sweet-drink-loving friend swooned over it), or the mighty-but-sweet cosmotini: citrus vodka, Cointreau, cranberry juice, and lime. Martini Blu also occasionally offers a walk on the weird side. One night I was offered a special called the rose petal, a super-strong martini that oddly tasted exactly like a rose. MARTINI BLU AT THE GRAND HOTEL; 615 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.752.9595, www.martiniblu.com
NYE'S POLONAISE ROOM
If someone were to transport a cheap hotel bar from the mid-'70s to the present, you would probably end up with something like Nye's Polonaise Room. With its gold vinyl chairs, miscellaneous patches of red velvet, and a piano bar any lounge singer could call home, it's kitschy, but it's an earnest, unironic kitsch. Order up a chocolatini or orangini and you'll probably get a blank stare or a slap upside the head. None of those nonsense cocktails here. Drinks are served classically and generously strong, and the martinis are no exception. NYE'S POLONAISE ROOM; 112 East Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.379.2021, www.nyespolonaise.com
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