Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Perfect Martini For Some Enchanted Evenings

A perfectly-made martini is a thing of beauty. When it is done poorly, the disappointment can be severe. My brother Peter , a true artist with both a paintbrush and a cocktail shaker in his hands, makes a gorgeous martini and has certainly spoiled me in this department. I call him The Alchemist, for he is uncanny in his ability to create exquisite cocktails. He has been known to receive outrageously generous tips from discerning patrons who will declare his the best martini they've ever had, and I can understand their gratitude!

Since Peter no longer lives in New York and therefore doesn't make cocktails for me on a regular basis anymore, I am glad to know that I can still get a fabulous martini at Ouest , one of my favorite restaurants in my neighborhood. I used to be more of a vodka martini girl, but I truly love the gin-based Ouest Martini, with its smidgen of grated orange zest mixed in and garnished with onion-stuffed olives. My enjoyment of the drink is increased when the bartender on duty is Dan, who, like my brother, has a true talent for creating a beautifully balanced cocktail.

The only problem is that Ouest does not stay open late enough for my schedule, as they've usually done last call by the time I get there after a performance. This has often been the case lately, much to my dismay. I have had a number of concerts recently which were exciting enough to warrant a celebratory cocktail with friends afterwards, yet I found myself unable to have the martini I really wanted.

For example, I was delighted to be part of a benefit production of Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" at Studio 54 two weeks ago. Natasha Richardson, Christine Baranski and Victor Garber were all terrific, and it was a joy to play this wonderful score. it was particularly heartening when Stephen Sondheim himself came onstage afterwards to thank the musicians and take his bow to thunderous applause from the audience.

But it was really Vanessa Redgrave who really set us all aquiver with her incredible presence and graciousness. She was kind enough to take a few photos with the violin section on one of our rehearsal breaks, and we were all very excited! The occasion definitely called for basking in the glow of the evening with an excellent martini afterwards. Yet it was very late by the time we extricated ourselves from Studio 54, and Ouest had already shut its doors for the night.

This happened to me again several days ago after a sizzling concert headlined by Paulo Szot, our dashing Emile DeBecque at "South Pacific". Our delicious evening of samba, bassa nova, and some musical theater classics was part of the American Songbook Series at Jazz At Lincoln Center, and Paulo was sensational. I was thrilled to be the violinist in the smoking-hot 10-piece band which accompanied him before a wildly enthusiastic sold-out crowd.

I turned around in my chair during our sound check in The Allen Room to take a picture of the view directly behind me.  This view of Columbus Circle and the New York City skyline always takes my breath away, but at twilight it seemed particularly magical. Talk about some enchanted evening indeed!

It was a late concert, and the musicians all got to enjoy a lovely champagne toast together backstage. But by the time we packed up and took photos with everyone in the green room, it was too late for me to get uptown in time to have my favorite post-concert Ouest Martini.

As you can see, this missed-martini was sadly becoming a recurring theme, so I realized it was time to take matters into my own hands. Over the course of this January, my kitchen has been home to an ongoing series of martini experiments, some more successful than others. I may not be quite the instinctive alchemist that my brother is, but after much tweaking and experimenting, I am genuinely satisfied with my version of a gin martini.

I like a very dry martini, one in which the ice cubes in the cocktail shaker are rinsed with the merest splash of dry vermouth. And as a nod to the Ouest Martini, I throw in a few shards of grated orange zest, which play beautifully off the botanicals in the gin, and occasionally I'll add a dash or two of orange bitters to heighten this interplay. (Some martini purists may raise their eyebrows, but I will stand by this creation quite proudly!)

Everyone has their particular favorite gin. I'm partial to martinis made with either Hendricks and Junipero gin, though Bombay Sapphire is always reliable. In my gin-related experiments this month, I was very happy to discover Juniper Green Organic Gin, an relatively new award-winning boutique London Dry Gin. It is complex and yet vibrant with organic juniper, coriander, savory and angelica. As a bonus, it is rather reasonable, around $27 for a liter, and it also happens to be gluten free, for those who might need to take that into consideration.

I've always made my vodka martinis "shaken, not stirred," just as James Bond always ordered his, and I give the cocktail a vigorous 30 shakes exactly. But my brother eventually convinced me that I should not emulate James Bond in my gin martini-making. He explained that by shaking it, too much air is introduced into the mix and the ice dissolves into the vermouth. This "bruises" the gin, making it taste too sharp and interfering with the delicate flavors of the gin. I always defer to Peter in these situations, and after trying this both shaken and stirred, I am now convinced that stirring this gin martini for 30 seconds is the way to go.

I wish you much success and pleasure in your martini-making endeavors. Life is too short to drink a bad martini, especially when it has the potential to taste like this!

Louise's Perfect Martini
Inspired by the house specialty martini at Ouest, New York City

For 1 dry martini:
A splash of dry vermouth
2-1/2 ounces dry gin
A few slivers of grated orange zest
Dash of orange angostura bitters (optional)
Pitted green olives, threaded onto a toothpick for garnish

Chill a martini glass by filling it with ice cubes and water. Set it aside as you prepare your martini.

Fill a cocktail shaker with several ice cubes. Add just a splash of dry vermouth, swishing it around to coat the ice cubes, and pouring off any excess vermouth. Pour in the gin. Holding an orange over the cocktail shaker, grate a few slivers of orange zest into the cocktail shaker so that the oils from the orange peel are also released into the shaker. Add the optional dash of bitters, if using. Using a long-handled bar spoon, stir the contents of the shaker continuously for about 30 seconds or until very cold.

Discard the ice water from the martini glass, taking care to only hold it by the stem so that you don't disturb the now-chilled surface of the glass. Strain the martini into the chilled glass, getting every last drop of the gorgeous gin mixture out, and garnish with olives. Prepare to be transported and delighted as you sip.

No comments: