The waitress slid the martini in front of us with the grace of a blindfolded, 300 lb linebacker. Much of it didn’t survive the 10-foot journey from the bar to our table, and as we looked down at the half-empty martini, it was hard to remain optimistic about the cocktail we ordered. With hesitation we slowly brought the drink to our lips. Why did we select a martini as our cocktail of choice at the Steak and Lube in the Pittsburgh Airport? It may have been desperation that sets in when you have a two-hour flight delay on a Friday night. Unfortunately, the foreshadowing was a good indicator of what was about to come. The warm liquid coated our mouth with a sweetness that screamed too much vermouth. The vodka was harsh and the olives…well, mushy is the best we can describe them. If a martini is such a basic cocktail then why is it so difficult to get a great one? We can’t blame this solely on Pittsburgh, as the Steak and Lube is probably not a fair representation of the city’s potential. But even in New York, there is so much martini-deviation from place to place. This week New York Magazine did a piece with Jean-Luc Le Du, to find the best gin Martinis in the city. While their selections represented a great cross section of cocktail bars in the city – after all Employees Only, Angel's Share and Milk & Honey are some of New York’s staples, we did a little research of our own, to seek out the best vodka martinis – unfortunately the Steak and Lube didn’t make the cut.
Carlyle Hotel, 35 E 76th Street
If the saying practice makes perfect holds any truth, then Tommy, the bartender at the Caryle Hotel makes the best damn martini in the city. With 47 years of practice under his belt and an honorary degree in psychology (just ask the regulars) – Tommy mixes with the precision of a seasoned athlete. Our martini, made with Belevedre vodka and a single olive was served ice cold and perfectly balanced. The homemade salty potato chips we nibbled as we sipped our martini provided the perfect accompaniment to this crisp clean cocktail.
Olives, the W Union Square, 201 Park Ave.
Ok, so this may be an obvious choice but when it comes to consistent, great martinis, you have to give credit where credit’s due. We ordered the dirty martini with Ketel One and just like the times before, we were brought a great cocktail. The dirty martini is often more difficult to perfect then the standard martini, but as the Mixologist at Olives said, “the key to a great dirty martini is not too much olive juice. It’s best when it’s in balance.” All it took was one sip for us to be convinced that she knew what she was talking about.
Blue Ribbon, 97 Sullivan St.
There are many reasons to visit Blue Ribbon on Sullivan - the bone marrow appetizer, the boisterous atmosphere, the attractive wait staff – just to name a few. It’s not like they need another highlight to attract new visitors. So why must they make their martini so ridiculously delicious? We ordered ours with the burger and fries – yep, life doesn’t get much better then that.
Pegu Club, 77 Houston
New York Magazine voted Pegu Club in third place for best martini in the city, and we have to concur with their assessment. We ordered the vodka martini with a twist and it was smooth, balanced and perfectly crisp. We sipped, scratch that, gulped this martini rather quickly – good thing for us, it was served with a little extra on the side.
Pravda, 281 Lafayette St
It would be almost wrong to talk about the best vodka martinis in New York without mentioning this Soho establishment. With so many vodkas to choose from, selection can be as difficult as trying to pronounce many of the Russian specialties on the menu. We opted for a martini made with Stoli Gold, our vodka of choice. This vodka added an elegance that we didn’t see in many of the other martinis we had drank. The temperature of the cocktail was perfect – so cold it practically numbed our lips, and each sip went down smoother then the last. A perfect martini in our book.
There’s a saying that a martini should be filled so high that you should be nervous to take the first sip. It some cases our glass overflowed and others it may have been half empty, but at the end of our journey we learned that a great martini is comprised of three elements – balance, temperature and an experienced bartender. The first two are flexible; the latter makes all the difference.