There’s nothing quite like a martini. It’s classic yet contemporary, and making one is certainly an art, not a science.
When I hear a bartender working a shaker at a bar, I think of one thing: my first trip to the famous Piccola Venezia restaurant in Astoria. I had just returned from Boston after graduating college there, determined to fall in love with New York City again. While waiting at the bar for a table, my friend Amanda told me that the bartender made some dynamite dirty martinis.
“Dirty martini?” I asked innocently, never having tried one before. “Yes,” she said, and proceeded to order two of them, extra dirty, three olives. Needless to say, my love for the martini (shaken, not stirred) was born that night in Astoria. Today, my martini addiction continues, spending many an evening testing out new bar stools, and searching for old- and new-school bartenders who know how to make it just right.
I have come across many ambitious mixologists who attempt to elevate the martini in unique ways. (Think Pure Food and Wine’s Master Cleanse Tini made with lemon, maple syrup, a dash of cayenne pepper, and sake, or the ever popular Lychee Martini, often found in Asian Fusion restaurants.)
While these options can be great, for our purposes, let’s be martini purists.
My Bougie Pick:
The Ritz-Carlton Central Park, Star Lounge
50 Central Park South
For one who wants to hobnob with high-net-worth individuals, writers, and Wall Street movers and shakers, there is no better place than the bar at the Ritz-Carlton Central Park. But beyond the scene, you can find arguably the best martini in New York City made by none other than Norman Bukfozer, a legendary bartender who has been at the helm of this bar for over 10 years. Norman is a career mixologist who has seen it all over his three decades in the business, and has forgotten more about cocktails than some of these new young guns would care to learn.
It was only a year ago that I was asked to meet a friend for a martini at the bar. I naturally obliged, given it’s my favorite way to end a day. Before my guest got there, I skimmed the menu and stopped in my tracks when I saw the price tag: a whopping $20 for one cocktail. I knew there was a high probability that I would be picking up the check, so I mentally planned to nurse my one drink.
As I waited, Norman began his charming banter. I asked him if he made a good martini, to which he didn’t reply. He just asked if I wanted dirty. “Yes, three olives please. Extra Dirty,” I quipped. A few minutes later he placed one of the largest martinis I had ever seen in front of me. When the vodka (and yes, I choose vodka over gin — a personal choice every martini drinker must make) hit my lips, I had a religious experience. It was perfectly balanced with the right amount of olive juice.
Norman seemed overjoyed by my reaction. He tried to offer me another one of his famous concoctions (he makes a hell of a Manhattan, I hear), but I simply shook my head. The martini was all I needed.
My Budget Pick:
Holiday Cocktail Lounge
75 St. Marks Place
Price: $10 (happy hour price) or $14 (regular price)
Holiday Cocktail Lounge, the iconic haunt for rockers, poets, intellectuals, and so on, has finally reopened its doors after a three-year hiatus. The martinis, my friends, are back in business. The new and improved bar program is led by Michael Neff (formerly of Ward III and The Rum House) alongside his brother, Danny Neff (previously at Extra Fancy and The Bar Room). The real budget option will be its soon-to-be-launched happy hour martini for $10. Regularly, they cost about $14, which is quite standard for New York City options and my favorite budget option.
While speaking with Michael about what makes a martini special, he shared with me the recipe for “Dirty Sue’s Martini”: 1-1/2 oz. gin or vodka, Dirty Sue Artisanal Olive Juice, dash of Xi’an Famous Foods hot sauce, and a house-cured olive. Perfection!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that $5 lychee martinis at various Asian fusion restaurants exist throughout town on many happy hour menus, but none of them are up to snuff. In my humble opinion, the least expensive option for a superb martini is $10. If you go much lower, so will the quality of the drink.