Bartenders, Help Me Out: Why is My Damn Martini Never Dirty?!

One of life’s great pleasures is having a “signature” drink.  A reliable fallback that you can order almost anywhere, one that evokes the same sensations on your tongue every single time such that, over the years, those tongue sensations begin to automatically evoke reactions in your mind. “The day is over,” the liquid says to your tastebuds say to your cerebral cortex, “It’s time to take a deep breath and relax.”

Ok, it’s possible I sound like a bit of an alcoholic.  But admit it, I’m right.

It took me until I was about 27 to find that drink.  I tried everything – beer (too bitter for an entry-level evening drink), red wine (usually awful at bars), champagne (a close second, but more often than not flat and disappointing) and a variety of cocktails.  As a cocktail snob, I first gravitated towards the complex.  But just like how the food at your local molecular gastronomy palace doesn’t really comfort the soul, a lavender-infused aviation with hibiscus bitters isn’t what gets an evening going.

As many of you know, I settled on the greatest drink of them all: the Dirty Gin Martini.  Preferably made with local craft gin (thought beefeater will do in a pinch), straight up, blue cheese olives and a healthy splash of that ambrosial salt water.

Before you decide to snob at me about how it’s not a real cocktail – just shush.  I’ve already written that essay, and anyone who think I’m a rube can go to hell.

I’ve had thousands of them.  I know the best bars at which to order them and the ones that will give me a glass of something that tastes like Windex with olives floating in it.  I know the restaurants that make surprisingly strong ones (Hello Uncommon Ground!) and the craft cocktail bars that serve them in adorable vintage glasses … that just happen to only hold about an ounce and a half for $13.  I’m looking at you, Watershed. 

espite my vast experience (or, perhaps, because of it) I have one common thread running through my dirty martini experience: My order fails at least 50% of the time.  

Fails! 

By fails, of course, I mean the bar serves me a straight, "clean" martini.  Occasionally, even a straight "clean" vodka martini, which is a true sin.

When I explain this to people, they look at me with shock and disbelief.  That can’t be true, they seem to say. You must just be picky. 

Nope.  Half the time it comes back, clear as water, missing 1/3 of the ingredients.  I can see it coming from all the way across the dining room, a shimmering mirage of impending embarrassment as I have to say to the waiter “actually, that’s not what I ordered.”  Half the time I just drink the damn thing. The rest of the time, they bring me a side of juice, which is just sad. From time to time, they take the drink back, and I always cringe, knowing that, rather than remaking it, they’re going to add olive juice and RESHAKE IT, which means I’ll be getting a glass of water instead of a cocktail.

Imagine, by way of understanding my pain, if your favorite manhattan came back as straight whiskey or your margarita as lime juice mixed with tequila.  Except, wait, these would never happen because only the dirty drinkers are cursed.  And then imagine if, instead of remaking the drink, they brought you a little sidecar of triple sec to make it better. People would faint with horror.

My partner in crime (who also loves the drink) and I have developed a series of strategies.  We subtly (or not so much) repeat the word “dirty” 5-6 times during an order.   “I’d like a dirty gin martini, straight up, dirty, with olives, dirty, gin, no ice.  Oh, and by the way, dirty.”  But that still doesn’t work.   We each order the same drink, but with slightly different wording in hopes that it sinks in, but then, often, we get different drinks! The biggest indicator of trouble: When the server or bartender responds with “oh, do you want olives in that?” Sometimes it makes me want to cry a little bit.

So bartenders, I ask you: What am I doing wrong?  Is it that I talk to fast? That I look so sophisticated that the restaurant personnel just assume I must not mean that I want a drink of tourists and amateur imbibers? That the waitstaff keys it in wrong? That the bartender hates the drink, and so decides to substitute another in hopes of raising the level of my drinking?

Should I develop a series of hand signals? Flash cards?  Perhaps make my server sign a form – “I hereby attest that I understand that Anthony wants his cocktail with all the requisite ingredients.”  Is there a secret code word known to insiders?  At this point, I’m willing to try anything short of getting behind the bar and making it myself.  

Help me, mixers – you are my only hope. 

A Space-Age Dreamer in the Body of a Chef: Some Thoughts on Homaro Cantu

I am a jaded journalist, used to “shocking!” news passing through my Tweetdeck; affairs, betrayal, death, birth and lawsuits, all from inside the world of restaurants. But the death of Homaro Cantu, the chef at moto and a frequent subject of stories of mine threw me for an absolute loop.

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Why? Because Cantu was one of the most exuberant, alive people I’ve ever met, and now he’s gone far too soon.

Many chefs (heck, most chefs) are vague dreamers, filled with random plans of future concepts, dishes and plates that may never come to be.  Cantu, on the other hand, was a futurist in the purest sense of the word, a man who actually believed that he could affect the future of the human race and predict and influence the way that people would relate to their food for decades to come. And ok, sometimes this means we didn't QUITE take him seriously, at least not 100%.

But more importantly, at least to me? He was a generous, caring man who was happy to talk to anyone who showed genuine curiosity about his work.  

I was a baby blogger the first time I did a story on this strange, complicated man, who shot lasers into wine and dropped dough into liquid nitrogen.  Years before that first nascent blog entry, I’d had my first foray into “molecular gastronomy” at moto.  So, there was more than a little hero worship going into that first story. At that point in my career, not many chefs would have given me the time of day, as I barely had a byline and had nothing, really, to offer them. 

For Omar, that didn’t matter.  I had curiosity, and a willingness to listen, and that was enough.   He’d talk for hours if his publicist would let him, about shooting food into space, about helping cancer patients, about how his food was unlike anything that had been done before.


That first story led to dozens of stories, from every angle.  Omar was one of the first to create a computerized restaurant. Omar became enamored with a berry he was convinced would save the world.  Omar created an entirely new cuisine that changed things forever. He was the subject of an exhibit in the Museum of Science and Industry, for god’s sake.

But seriously, though. We food writers weren’t so sure.  In fact, sometimes, expressing enthusiasm for his gimmicky brand of food would evoke disdain and scoffing from the fooderati who knew better than to trust those fireworks.

And let’s be honest, even in our eulogizing of him. Some of his food wasn’t very good.

But some of his food changed our lives forever.

That’s why I always sent people to moto instead of to Alinea.  “Look,” I would say in what was, after almost a decade, a well-practiced speech. “At Alinea, everything will be perfect.  But at moto, you’ll get 10 courses. Of those, 4 will be straight-up inedible and you’ll want to spit them out. 3 will be pretty good. And 3 will completely, forever, utterly blow your mind.”

I remember dishes at moto I ate almost ten years ago, over many visits.  I remember a visit to the basement where lasers were shot through powder into wine, I remember a melting tequila snowman, complete with nose and buttons, and I remember a perfect simalcrum of a Cuban cigar I ate right before my fiancé was leaving for six months in Cuba. He had never had a fine-dining multi-course meal before, and texted me when he heard Omar died, his memories right in the forefront. 

I also remember a revolting mess of a meal at iNG I sat through when Omar was trying to become a YouTube star.  I remember a strange, tasteless waffle thing that was supposed to taste better when on the miracle berry (it didn’t). I remember an ill-conceived dish that involved liquefied lettuce that tasted like it had rotted in a refrigerator.

But despite that, what I will remember is him talking to me about the future. About how he wanted to help people live without sugar because he hated how people were suffering from diabetes. About how his indoor, hydroponic farm might be a model for restaurants everywhere to create zero-mileage produce.  About his new laser toy and how he could carve food into new and impossible shapes.  About how the most important things he’d ever done were to help cancer patients with the miracle berry and to honor the legacy of his teacher, chef Charlie Trotter.  

I’m sure there were tragedies in his life, and perhaps mistakes.  I don’t mean to lionize the man – he was a chef, not a saint. The last time I interviewed him, he wasn’t particularly coherent. He seemed depressed and wandering, and I ended up interviewing someone else for the piece. 

Homaro Cantu was not just a chef.  He was a visionary.  And like many visionaries, he wasn’t simple.  He wasn’t good or bad.  There was, to put it mildly, a lot going on within the man.  But I will never forget him, and I was proud to know him.

One thing I can say for certain: he changed forever the way I look at what food can be.  For a chef, I can’t imagine a better eulogy.   

Godspeed, Chef.  I hope you find happiness and love, and that right this second, you’re teaching God himself the joys of the laser and the anti-griddle.  

 

What I Ate (and Thought, and Did) in 2014

Ha! I tricked you with that headline.  It's not just Buzzfeed that can play clickbait - even my little website can pull it off. Ok, I didn't totally trick you. I'm going to mention a few great bites that I had this year. But before that, you'll have to bear with a few paragraphs of maudlin.'  Ready? Let's go.

 Matt's five-year anniversary card - the first in our new home. 

Matt's five-year anniversary card - the first in our new home. 

I can say without hesitation that 2014 has been the most eventful year of my life.  When I began the year, I was a law student and the editor of Tasting Table Chicago. I'd barely heard of Chicago Market (and it was called Chicago Cooperative then), I probably had written a total of 5 magazine articles in my life and I planned to be renting until I was 40.

Somehow, on December 31st, I find myself engaged to the most amazing man on the planet, a regular writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and about three different magazines, a newly elected board member of Chicago Market, a really-for-real employed lawyer and, most recently, the owner of the most amazing stove in the city of Chicago (and the home that it is attached to).  Whew!

 

It's a cliche to say so, but none of it would have been possible without the amazing people in my life.  As some of you may know, behind my too-loud, fast-talking facade is a misanthropic recluse who hates everyone and prefers staring at my Xbox over interacting with anyone.  What this means is that my friends and colleagues often have to poke me a few times before I respond - and I'm incredibly thankful for their persistence, without which I would be a total mess.

This year was worse than most, given that I was so busy, but you stuck with me.  I'm endlessly grateful for the publicists who didn't kill me when I needed something in 10 minutes or less, the editors who didn't yell at me when I needed an extension, the chefs who picked up their phones, the colleagues who listened to me rant about the state of the world over IM and the friends who carried me along the whole time. I don't do New Years resolutions (never keep them and always feel bad about it, so bah!) but my only hope is to see even more of all of you in the new year. 

Enough!  On to the food.  I don't care about top 10 lists, and, frankly, everything amazing has been written about by someone. To paraphrase the oft-brilliant Mike Gebert, you don't need me to tell you how awesome 42 Grams or Parachute are. Instead, here is a random, haphazard list of seven of my favorite bites of 2014, along with the reason they are memorable. This is often personal, rather than culinary - for me, food is about the people, the memories and the feelings that are provoked, as much as the calories on the plate. They also aren't all new. I don't care.

1) Beef Tartare at Ardent.  I'm obsessed with tartare in general, and this is an innovative example - a riff on the flavors of beef tartare shaped into a kind of cannibal sandwich of a dish. Worth the trip to Milwaukee by itself. Memorable because: A late night dinner at a chef's counter with Matt and Chef Carlisle that I won't soon forget. 

2) Smoked Paprika Brownie at Honey Butter Fried Chicken.  Like anyone needs to be told that the chicken is good (but it is. it's amazing. eat it now) but people often overlook this simple little brown square of a dessert that will make your mouth light up. Memorable because: A group of 50 strangers turned into a group of friends at a Chicago Market event hosted by HBFC and massacred plates of them. 

3) A Dozen Hamma Hamma Oysters at Shaw's Crab House.  Anyone who follows me on Instagram (or, as I call it, Oystergram) is familiar with my obsession. It's an amazing value, the service is perfect, and they serve real cocktail sauce instead of a chef-driven mess. Memorable because: I go for oyster happy hour as often as my schedule allows, but this particular dozen was eaten along with a wedge salad and a gin martini on the night Matt and I closed on our new home.

4) A Ports of Call at Three Dots and a Dash.  As sad as I am to see Paul McGee leave (and I hope the place doesn't go to hell in his absence), I had some of the better drinks of my life bellied up to his frond-laden bar. This unassuming, ungarnished drink is an unlikely favorite for the eclectic spot, but it's complicated and dark, with a hint of bitter. Memorable because: This was the drink that convinced my now-obsessed father that cocktail bars were cool and that rum was worth drinking. 

5) A Juicy Lucy at Dusek's. I still maintain that this is one of the top five burgers in Chicago. the cheese is INSIDE THE BURGER, people. What's not to love? Memorable because: This is a hamburger that matt, formerly a vegetarian, always orders. It's also the hamburger eaten at my BFF Monica's graduation dinner. 

6) Smoked Salmon at Gather (for Brunch).  I could go on and on about Gather (and have, in multiple locations) but suffice it to say that this is the best smoked salmon plate in Chicago. Plus, deep-fried capers. Memorable because: I got the greatest Christmas present ever from Ina Pinkney while eating it.

7) House of Commons Punch at Journeyman Distillery.  Punch is a recent obsession of mine, while gin is a long-standing one. That makes this punch, made with Journeyman gin, earl grey tea and citrus, a perfectly tailored concoction.  Memorable because: You never forget your proposal punch.

Happy New Year, everyone! And here's to an amazing 2015.