All the hateful wintry weather is finally gone, but that also means a crush of visitors from foreign countries like Montana. So I turn to my liquid calm: the martini. Served in dark places where people are often too elderly or too refined to get excited, it's the perfect drink for me and my fellow misanthropes. So in that spirit, I went out, willingly wrecked my liver, and set out to find the best martini in all of New York City.
Flatiron Lounge: I started my quest at the classic Flatiron Lounge in the not-so-racy neighborhood of Midtown. The interior brings to mind a flamboyant Frenchman with impeccable taste in 1979 -- an elegant subway tunnel leads into a dim room lined with chintzy, etched-glass lights and a handful of tables. The vibe is a bit like taking a Zoloft -- it all feels very nice, but there's no edge. But we all know that's not always a bad thing.
The Martini: The martini here was my control -- a simple, classic martini. I asked the barman, who clearly considered this job a career (and not a conduit for auditioning) to make me his idea of a classic martini. What I got was a martini made with Plymouth gin and a half-jigger of dry vermouth. The ice was cracked the traditional way -- ice in hand, cracked with a metal spoon, and then stirred so expertly his hands were a-blur. It was truly the classic gin martini -- perfectly cold, juicy, junipery in the mouth, and hazardously easy.
37 W 19th St.; 212-727-7741
Ilili: Most people pass this place up, thinking it's a poorly located nightclub. Which is a shame because the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food here is amazing. The soaring interior feels a little like a Middle Eastern harem, and a lot like a David Barton Gym (just imagine a hot, wraith-like staff and floor-to-ceiling gold curtains). So grab a skin-tight black dress and some gym shorts and get on it, boys and girls!
The Martini: It's shaken, not stirred, and served up by an angular Ford Model with a glint in his eye. The Not-So-Bloody Martini is a mind-trip. It's a cloudy, colorless concoction that tastes as good as, and disappears just as fast as a Bloody Mary. But it's not a Bloody Mary; it's a martini. So watch out! Made with Heavy Water vodka (whatever that is), a tomato consommé, celery bitters, horseradish juice, and garnished with celery and jalapeno, it's smooth, savory, spicy and burns on the lips for hours. We say yum.
236 5th Ave.; 212-683-2929
Bemelmans Bar @ the Carlyle Hotel: Something about the breathtaking interior and the diamond-studded hush tells me that the only black eyes given at this bar are at the hands of unwitting barstools. The perfectly aloof bartenders are fitted in red bellhop jackets and armed with salty repartee, and every wall is covered with the elegant, whimsical murals of Ludwig Bemelmans, the beloved children's storybook artist. If I thought I had any chance of going to heaven, I would go somewhere like this to sip my Shirley Temples.
The Martini: The Vesper Martini is their little secret here. You have to request it from the bartender -- they'll know, don't worry. It's one part vodka, three parts gin, a splash of white Lillet and a lemon twist. If this were a fancy dinner party, gin would be the eccentric professor who's tipped one too many back, vodka his waifish lover smoothing things out, and white Lillet (sweet, citrusy) the lovely fat lady who tries to crack jokes to lift the mood. The effect is a tortured, effervescent drink that will get you smashed and make you talk about Proust.
35 E 76th St.; 212-744-1600
Hotel Delmano: I left the prim streets of the UWS and took the Catwalk-Express to this speakeasy in Williamsburg. It's barely whispered on the street -- no sign, no clear entrance. The exterior looks like a closed drugstore, but inside you will find the the bearded counts and willowy duchesses of hipster royalty. The space is done in a handsome "Melville Chic" -- purposefully cracked walls, smoky mirrors, photos of old dudes with giant beards all over the wall. This all feels like the Brooklyn Epcot Center but hey, everyone here is gorgeous, hip and the cocktails here are stronger, and more fun to slurp on, than Moby Dick.
The Martini: They call it the "Deep-Sea Diver." Which is more than a little raunchy. And delicious. It's basically a spin-off of the Vesper Martini, with a few ingenious twists: just Plymouth gin (no vodka), Cocchi standing in for the white Lillet and a sparkling Cava float. Let's put it this way. Cocci provides the sweet, soft walls around the gin, and the Cava float is that delicate little touch on top which, if done just right, lights the whole thing up. By the time I was done with my cocktail I was inexplicably shouting "YES! YES!" And kind of felt like I needed a cigarette...
82 Berry St., Brooklyn; 718-387-1945
Henry Public: By this point in my quest, a Jager-bowl would probably have struck me as a fine cocktail, but I tried my best to be discerning. Perhaps it was the tipple, but the decor here was especially striking. Old gaslamp light fixtures, a zinc bar, dark bookshelves, the handsome man dressed up in a koala costume (I might have imagined that last bit) -- the overall effect is a pure time warp. No trying-too-hard mustaches, no carefully sanded furniture. You feel like you are actually in someone's living room in 1850, instead of feeling like you're in a bar that's trying to feel like it used to be someone's living room from the 1850's. Are you lost? Yeah, me too.
The Martini: There's not much to say, except that it's pure simplicity here. Old tom gin -- a rare, sweeter, gin -- dry vermouth, and a splash of orange bitters. The effect is sweet, slightly bitter and tastes like juice. The good kind of juice, of course.
329 Henry St., Brooklyn; 718-852-8630
And the winner is ... Bemelmans Bar! If it weren't for the lack of cigarette smoke and institutional misogyny floating in the air, this bar would be straight out of a set for "Mad Men." The drinks are $20 a pop, but it's worth it, because this place has stayed the same for so long that it's cycled all the way back into being fashionable again. Or maybe it is cool, always was cool, and always will be cool. Amen.