L.A.'s Best Cocktails
PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEINAt Border Grill, the spicy, citrus-based house sangrita is just right mixed with tequila.
We have, I think, nearly come to agreement on what an essential restaurant might be in Los Angeles, a place that may have transcendent food or occupy a niche in the social ecosystem, but explains something to us about ourselves. Our ideas on the subject are firm. The nature of an essential cocktail may be more subjective. To one man we know, 55 essential cocktails means 55 glasses of Chivas, because that's all he'll ever drink. To us, an essential cocktail says something about L.A.
Essence has nothing to do with popularity, or even with provenance — Los Angeles was the birthplace of drinks that never should have been born, including the Harvey Wallbanger, the Rusty Nail and the White Russian. (Let us tip a cup, although perhaps not a glass, to the memory of Donato "Duke" Antone, inventor of all of the above.)
There is a pre-Prohibition-era drink called the Los Angeles Cocktail, a boozy flip of whiskey, lemon and egg you've probably never tasted (you can get one at Seven Grand): inessential. There is an entire school of delicious mezcal drinks named after Bricia Lopez, the spirit-loving Oaxacan-restaurant tzarina — too many to pick just one.
Three years into the cocktailian revolution, there remains little agreement about what an essential bar should be, but a rough consensus about how an essential bar should be run. At the best bars, be it the Varnish or the Tiki-Ti, syrups are fresh, juices are prepared daily, and the ice, whether chipped from a giant block or made by a $10,000 machine, is clear and cold. Even a novice can tell a great bar from a mediocre one by the sharpness of the report from the shakers.
A bartender of my acquaintance sometimes daydreams about the conversations he imagines must have unspooled at a bar run by Professor Jerry Thomas, the father of the American cocktail. Talk must have run to boxing, to fishing, to the many sins of President Buchanan. Patrons would have had to talk about the theater, argue about the merits of Wagner and of Brahms, and discover how to sharpen an adze. At his bar, he says, everyone talks about bitters.
But 55 essential cocktails? Why not 99? Why not 82? Why a number associated with that which Sammy Hagar cannot drive? Because I drive. Because I have a human liver. Because however much you may adore the saketini at that little place in Torrance, it is only essential if you happen to be eating a sliver of yellowtail sashimi there at the time.
Anybody who's blasted through Hollywood knows that a martini is what you get at the Musso & Frank Grill: a properly stirred slug of gin served in a tiny glass flagon, which at least theoretically keeps the drink cold for the amount of time it takes to consume an avocado cocktail. You mete it out sip by chilled sip into your glass. I've probably had a hundred of these over the years — actually Gibsons, which are martinis garnished with pickled onions instead of olives. You would be surprised how well they go with chicken potpie. Were these the martinis that nourished William Faulkner during his years as a script doctor for Howard Hawks? Perhaps. But I prefer to imagine him luxuriating in what I have come to think of as a Faulkner's Breakfast: flannel cakes, a side of bacon and a Ramos gin fizz, taken at the civilized hour of 2:30 in the afternoon. He deserved no less. 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 467-7788.
Watcher in the Woods
The bar at the front of Drago Centro, which is a splendid, high-drama place to stop for stuzzichini, Italian snacks, after work or before an evening at the opera, is best known for Jaymee Mandeville's classic Italian cocktails: crisply made Bellinis, Negronis and the occasional Spritz. But Watcher in the Woods is an odd cocktail by anybody's standards, a barbed-wire cage of spun sugar anchoring a complex, bitter roundelay of pine, lavender and mint, like gin bewitched by forest sprites. You may loathe it — many people do — but the shades of green flavor will haunt you for days. 525 S. Flower St., dwntwn. (213) 228-8998.
Might your idea of a cocktail be expansive enough to include a beer float? Because if you are open-minded about these things, it can be mind-blowing, a marriage of cold creaminess and explosive fizz, innocent sweetness and a blast of pungent, hoppy bitterness. As served at Golden State, most famous for its gooey cheeseburgers, the beer float is practically a sacrament, a scoop of brown-bread ice cream from the cult ice cream parlor Scoops moistened gently with Old Rasputin Imperial Stout — caramelized intensity playing against caramelized intensity, brown against brown, rich against richer. The beer float has become almost a standard since Golden State introduced it to Los Angeles, but this is still where you will find it at its best. 426 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. (323) 782-8331.
Tequila With Sangrita
In Jalisco state, a shot of tequila is almost impossible to conceive without an accompanying sip of sangrita, a chaser of mixed juices, often dyed with a bit of pomegranate the color of blood, and dosed with chile heat. The lime-and-salt thing is for beginners. It is sangrita, whose bracing tartness does so much to intensify the smoky agave dancing around your mouth, that does justice to the glass of Don Julio before you. At Border Grill, whose cocktails are fine in so many ways, the spicy, citrus-based house sangrita is just right. 1445 4th St., Santa Monica. (310) 451-1655; 445 S. Figueroa St., dwntwn. (213) 486-5171.
Flaming Honey Bowl (for two)
In the 1960s, every L.A. neighborhood had at least one tiki bar, influenced by '30s Hollywood institutions like Don the Beachcomber but built to quench the tropical thirsts of men who had served in the far Pacific Theater of World War II. Lengthy drink menus described, in florid pre-AA prose, exactly how a Suffering Bastard or a Head Shrinker would anesthetize your date. Bahooka, in a forgotten corner of Rosemead, is among the last of these institutions, all rusted nautical gear, fish tanks and wood scarred with generations of graffiti. What's in a Flaming Honey Bowl? Who knows: Rum, apricot and a splash of Coke, says the menu, and who are we to argue? But it's served in a wooden salad bowl, the straws are as long as your arm, and it comes with flaming croutons. Will it be cirrhosis or diabetes tonight, sir? Both. 4501 N. Rosemead Blvd., Rosemead. (626) 285-1241.
Red Medicine, it is well known, is a proto-Vietnamese restaurant where the rules of Euclidian geometry no longer apply, where rugged bánh mì suddenly turn into elegant foie gras canapés, meats are planted in savory soils and the hairy root ends of vegetables — normally trimmed off and discarded — wave in the air like so many resplendent rat tails. So it makes sense that old #38, which seems at first like a tart riff on an old-fashioned, violet-scented Aviation, is flavored with orange, blanketed with coconut foam and garnished with a transparent slice of Meyer lemon, pushing it toward the realm of lemon meringue pie. 8400 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 651-5500.
In New Orleans, the famous cocktail is the Sazerac; the most enduring cocktail from New York may be the Manhattan; but the great Los Angeles cocktail is probably the Moscow Mule — a combination of vodka, lime and strong ginger beer first mixed at the old Cock 'N Bull on the Sunset Strip. It's the cocktail credited with popularizing vodka in the United States. The Cock 'N Bull, gone for a couple of decades now, served its Moscow Mules in heavy copper mugs. At the Tam O' Shanter Inn, a 1920s-era restaurant that channels Scotland through the medium of Disney set design, the Moscow Mule comes in a pewter mug instead but is otherwise identical to the original: spicy, not too sweet and sneakily alcoholic, with the odd, velvety fizzing sensation that happens when carbonation encounters soft metal. The Moscow Mule has lately become popular among cocktailians, but at the Tam, you can experience it in its purest original form. 2980 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Feliz. (323) 664-0228.
If you have ever been to Singapore, undoubtedly you have made a pilgrimage to the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel, marveled at the elaborate network of ceiling fans and pulleys, a steampunk wet dream, and sucked down a nasty, sweet punch called a Singapore Sling — a concoction of gin, Benedictine, cherry Heering and pineapple juice, which I'm pretty sure wasn't shot out of a gun when Somerset Maugham used to drink them in the 1930s. The drink was, of course, a staple in 1970s singles bars, many of which also tried to mimic the décor of the Long Bar. Perhaps the most authentic version here should be served in Marina del Rey and properly savored while wearing a leisure suit. But Lukshon, Sang Yoon's new small-plates restaurant, is at its best when re-envisioning Western versions of Asian food through classically trained Asian eyes, and the Singapore Sling here, pared to its bittersweet tropical essentials, is a revelation. Maugham, I suspect, would approve. 3239 Helms Ave., Culver City. (310) 202-6808.
Probably the most influential drink to come out of New York's cocktailian renaissance, Penicillin is a carefully balanced blend of blended bar scotch and smoky Laphroiag, lemon and honeyed ginger, which Sam Ross concocted for Milk & Honey on the Lower East Side and introduced at Comme Ça, David Myers' West Hollywood brasserie, when he formulated the drinks menu there. A properly made Penicillin has the complexity, the ghostly resonances of the great pre-Prohibition cocktails but with the modern, spicy snap of candied fresh ginger. 8479 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. (323) 782-1104.
Dry Rye Manhattan
There are connoisseurs who claim that a dry Manhattan is an abomination, that the drink, properly constituted, includes only bitters, bourbon and a sweet vermouth. Perhaps they're right: A well-made Manhattan is biting, chilly and sweet. But it always feels like a privilege to be sitting at the Campanile bar when Nick Vinyaratn is pouring — he's not a mixologist, not a student of Batavia Arrack, just an old-fashioned bartender, at the restaurant since it opened in 1989, who acts as if he were born in a vest and tie. Does he suggest a dry Manhattan? It's not bad; a whisper of aromatics amplifying a clear, cold glassful of bourbon. 624 S. La Brea Ave., L.A. (323) 938-1447.
The Derby is a classic track restaurant, a scant furlong from Santa Anita, founded in 1922 by the jockey who rode Seabiscuit, and teeming on race days with customers who include both big-spending big shots and smallish men well acquainted with rocketing horseflesh. Cheese bread is still an automatic order, as is, probably, the bacon-wrapped filet. The bar these days may not be as classic as one might prefer — they have discovered pomegranate martinis, Key lime martinis with whipped cream, and elderflower liqueur — but it is still thrilling when the waitress asks if you'll be having a regular-sized drink, or want to upgrade to the Daily Double. Steak and whiskey was the correct call in 1938, and steak and whiskey is the correct call here today. 233 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia. (626) 447-2430.
Tapping the Admiral
The best way to enjoy La Descarga is probably to find a seat on the patio, buy a hand-rolled stogie if you're so inclined, and spend an hour contemplating a snifter of the oldest, deepest rum you can afford. You'll miss out on the rhumba band, the burlesque dancer who struts along the bar, and the yelling, close-packed crowd, but you will have experienced the rum bar at its best. Of course, you also will be missing out on the rum drinks designed by Pablo Moix, the most profound of which is Tapping the Admiral, an amber, caramel-y concoction of 13-year-old rum, cherry Heering, vermouth and a healthy dash of bitters, a drink demonstrating that old rum can be as serious as old scotch. Tapping the Admiral is named for the old legend about the famous Admiral Nelson, who died at sea and was shipped back to England embalmed in a barrel of rum, which was supposedly siphoned off sip by sip by a thirsty crew. Snopes reports that he was pickled in brandy instead of rum, and that the barrel arrived full to the brim. Still, a boy can dream. 1159 Western Ave., Hlywd. (323) 466-1324.
There is no shortage of tequila bars in Los Angeles at the moment, and even some pretty ordinary Mexican restaurants feature 100 or so bottles on their lists. If you have the money to spend — the best bottles are no cheaper than fine cognac — you may agree that we are living in tequila's golden age. But tequila-heads, the demanding ones anyway, are beginning to shift their allegiances to mezcal, which is similarly distilled from agave plants but tends to be smaller-batch, more artisanal than the produce of the giant Jalisco tequila mills. Mezcal is like Burgundy to tequila's Bordeaux. Las Perlas, led by bartender Raul Yrastorza, is in fact a tequila bar, on the same patch of East 6th Street that is also home to Cole's, the Association and the Varnish. Here, too, you will find dozens of tequilas to choose from. But Yrastorza's indelible creation may be the Puro, a kind of mezcal-based old-fashioned with sugar, mole bitters and a hint of grapefruit, a drink that lets the smoky, almost meaty flavors of the mezcal shine through. 107 E. 6th St., dwntwn. (213) 988-8355.
Julian Cox, who seems to pop up wherever there are cocktails to be made, is creative perhaps to a fault. His most popular drinks at Rivera, John Sedlar's sleek, Latin restaurant near Staples Center, are probably a chile-infused rye cocktail called Blood Sugar Sex Magic (I can never quite bring myself to order it) and a chipotle-muddled tequila thing garnished with a slab of beef jerky and served in a glass rimmed with powdered maguey worms. Yet the Donaji, which sings with citrus, is sweetened with agave, carries maximum mezcal funkiness and is served in a glass dipped into grasshopper salt, turns out to come from a traditional Oaxacan formula, designed to make the best of mezcals that don't happen to cost $90 a bottle. It's a thing. And it's also disarmingly good. You may find yourself idly considering the culinary possibilities of the green things hopping across your lawn. 1050 S. Flower St., dwntwn. (213) 749-1460.
Shad Roe and a Bombay Martini
In early March, when our East Coast friends are reduced to turnips, storage apples and the odd ramp or two, we in Los Angeles are already on to asparagus, pea tendrils and surprisingly decent strawberries. The glory of the seasons tends to be fairly abstract around here. So it is always a pleasure to greet the fleeting pleasures of shad roe, a dish, pulled out of Eastern rivers, that really is available for only a couple of weeks in March. Musky, briny, with an unmistakable wallop of iodine, shad roe is a real taste of spring. Michael's, which makes a specialty of the roe, sautées the sacs gently in butter to a ruddy, oozy medium rare, serves them in a mustard sauce with cubes of crisp bacon, and recommends that you enjoy it with a martini or two. The combination is as natural, as perfect, as cookies and milk. 1147 3rd St., Santa Monica. (310) 451-0843.
When we paw through old stacks of menus in 20 years, trying to remember the flavors of our youth in an era probably dominated by Monsanto-branded steaks from test tubes, nothing will signify 2011 quite as keenly as the current taste for spherification, a process that encapsulates liquids or purees inside delicate sacs of gel. Spherification is yet another gift from the kitchens of Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. At Providence, whose Michael Cimarusti was probably the first chef in Los Angeles to treat his bar as respectfully as he did his wine list, bartender Zahra Bates uses all the tricks of the modern kitchen to prepare her cocktails and infusions. And if you should experience a tasting menu at the restaurant — something we recommend — you will undoubtedly encounter a course of "cocktails": three spoons; three spheres: a mojito, a greyhound and a gin and tonic willed into quivering, alcoholic three-dimensionality. 5955 Melrose Ave., L.A. (323) 460-4170.
Hemingway was known to inhale a dozen daiquiris in a sitting. JFK drank daiquiris to ease the pain. A daiquiri, although it may be basically a whiskey sour in drag, is one of the world's great drinks: a simple concordance of rum, sugar and fresh lime juice that combines into something vaster and more mysterious than any of the above. Yet such violence has been done to this gentle drink — including, it is said, by Hemingway himself, who was no stranger to the sugary, juicy horrors of the frozen daiquiris at El Floridita, his favorite Havana bar. Allan Katz at Caña, a nominally private rum bar with a membership fee less than what you may have paid for parking at nearby Staples Center, regards the daiquiri with something approaching reverence, and you will find a caressing chill, an elusive tartness and two ounces of sweet, terrible clarity that includes within it the seeds of its own obliteration. 714 W. Olympic Blvd., dwntwn. (213) 745-7090.
An old-fashioned is about as rudimentary as a cocktail can be: bourbon, sugar, bitters and ice. It is still one of the few mixed drinks you can expect the bartender at a beer-and-shot bar to make. If you want to get fancy with the whiskey, substituting perhaps a pungent Rittenhouse rye, that's fine, although even a bottom-shelf bourbon works here. If you want to toss in a dash or two of fancy orange bitters instead of the customary Angostura, that's OK, too. But there are scarcely words to describe the crimes committed in the name of the Old-Fashioned: groves of citrus mashed to a swampy pulp in the bottom of the glass, geysers of soda water and skewers of fruit that would be better off garnishing a suckling pig. But the splendid bartenders at Cole's, a revivified French dip parlor in business since 1908, have a sure hand with workingman's cocktails: the Rob Roys, Sazeracs and syrupy Ginger Rogerses you might have expected to find at a decent Los Angeles bar in 1953. The Old-Fashioneds I have consumed by the tankerload here are perhaps the best of my whiskey-soaked life. 118 E. 6th St., dwntwn. (213) 622-4090.
Corpse Reviver No. 2
When people think about the Westside Tavern at all, it is probably as that restaurant beneath the Landmark Theatres in the Westside Pavilion, the place you drop into when you don't want to wait at Houston's but Tavern is a bit too much. Yet every time I end up there, I am always surprised at the quality of the American grill cooking, which is just a tick below what you find at the restaurants that make it into national magazines. And while Westside Tavern may not be the most obvious place to find a decent Corpse Reviver No. 2 — the baroque concoction of gin, Cointreau, absinthe, lemon and Lillet that first inspired Ted Haigh, one of the prime movers behind the cocktailian revival — the bar is as competent as the kitchen. Corpse Reviver No. 2 was designed as a hangover remedy. Still: "Four of these taken in straight succession will unrevive the corpse again," says Harry Craddock, the drink's inventor, in his great 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. Don't say you weren't warned. 10850 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A. (310)470-1539.
"Toro! Toro! Toro!," chant the boys along the bar at the Tiki Ti, watching the tequila splash from a bull's head–capped bottle held high. A dozen sets of fingers thump the bar in the rhythm of animal hooves; a dozen voices join in a final "Toro-o-o-o!" The bartender hands you a drink served in a goblet big enough to marinate a basketball. You can barely see across the room — a wrinkle in the law makes this perhaps the only bar in Los Angeles where smoking is legal, and the customers are taking full advantage — but it is difficult to order a Blood and Sand here without attracting eyeballs. You take your first sip. And despite everything you've heard about the Tiki Ti, about its freshly squeezed juices, complex syrups and formulae kept secret from anybody not a direct descendent of the late Ray Buhlen — who founded the bar in the early 1960s — the drink is just awful. There may be 85 drinks on the menu, available online, on a flashing screen in the corner and on a roulette wheel occasionally spun by patrons who can't make up their minds, but what you really want is the Ray's Mistake, a wholly proprietary blend of fruit juices, strong liquors and something with a lingering taste of almond, a cocktail as refreshing as a tickling breeze on the muggiest day of the year. Better people than you or I have tried to reverse-engineer the Ray's Mistake, but Mike Buhlen's hands are deft as Houdini's. 4427 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake. (323) 669-9381.
The Penicillin, though a new classic, is a New York import. The local equivalent is probably the Medicina Latina, which has a similar ginger kick but substitutes mezcal-kissed tequila for the combination of blended scotch and peaty single malt, for a distinctly different intensity of smokiness and a subversive Mexican twist. Which drink is better? Whichever one is in front of me at the time. Medicina Latina, the invention of the peripatetic bartender Marcos Tello, follows him around like a faithful pup. It has been sighted at the Edison, at the Varnish, and is permanently installed at both Malo and Mas Malo. But the cocktail seems to be at its most potent where Tello's tracks are the freshest, which means for the moment, you should be seeking your Medicina Latina at 1886, the sleek new cocktail bar tucked into the rear of the Raymond Restaurant. If it was the year 1886, when the restaurant was built as an outbuilding for the glamorous Hotel Raymond at the top of the hill — which burned down in 1895 — I suspect they wouldn't have allowed the Medicina Latina onto the grounds. 1250 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena. (626) 441-3136.
Yee Mee Loo
In the 1970s and 1980s, the fragrant old bar Yee Mee Loo, attached to perhaps the worst restaurant in Chinatown, was famous for its cocktail called the Tidy Bowl, a raw solution of vodka and blue Curacao that was equally vile to sip and behold but did resemble the pale-blue liquid that resided in chemically refreshed toilet tanks and had a get-drunk-quick quality that could not be denied. When the place closed in the late '80s, its elaborate carved bar was moved to a restaurant fitted into an old Bekins Storage building (the bar is still stored upstairs, over what became Palate), and the blue drink flitted all over town. Where can you find a Tidy Bowl now? You kind of can't, actually. But the Good Luck Bar in Silver Lake, a Chinese-themed bar designed as an homage to the old place, has on its menu an azure cocktail called the Yee Mee Loo: surely no triumph of the bartender's art but at least an improvement over the original. Think blue, I guess. 1514 Hillhurst Ave., Silver Lake. (323) 666-3524.
Were we talking about blue drinks? Sorry — must have been thinking about something else. Anyway, Damon's Steak House, an old Glendale restaurant that went tiki in a decade when all the other bars in town were tearing the outriggers off their ceilings and replacing them with fake Tiffany lamps and ferns, serves a version that: 1. is blue; and 2. tastes exactly like bubble gum. Say hi to Elvis for me. 317 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. (818) 507-1510.
Hungry Cat was perhaps the first produce-driven cocktail bar in Los Angeles, deeply co-dependent on the Hollywood Farmers Market around the corner, and owned by chefs, Suzanne Goin and David Lentz, with the pull to acquire the most fragrant basil and the sweetest Cara Cara oranges in town. It may be a seafood restaurant, but what you smell when you walk into the place is neither crab cakes nor grilled fish but citrus and fresh herbs. This makes it odd, I guess, that the cocktail Hungry Cat is most famous for is not a formula calling for exotic ingredients or painstaking preparation but its Proper Greyhound, a basic mixture of gin and grapefruit juice that may have been something you slapped together in the parking lot of your hometown 7-Eleven, with a carton of Minute Maid and a half-pint of Gilbey's you bought on your older brother's ID. The grapefruit juice is squeezed to order, of course, no doubt from an Oro or other hard-to-find breed, and the gin is piney Plymouth. It flies a tail fin of candied grapefruit peel. But other than that, I have no idea why the Greyhound tastes so much better than anything you may have encountered. You'll have to order one and see for yourself. 1535 N. Vine St., Hlywd. (323) 462-2155.
If you're searching for the most aesthetically pleasing Irish coffee in Los Angeles, you're probably going to end up at Casey's up on Grand, with 36 Irish whiskeys on its list, Bushmills older than your grandmother and long pints of Guinness guaranteed not to evoke memories of the La Brea Tar Pits. Cedd Moses, who owns an alarming percentage of the best cocktail bars in town, is an overachiever that way — even the Irish Car Bomb, a revolting shotgun marriage of Bailey's, Jameson and Guinness, seems artisanal here. But for Irish coffee the old-fashioned way, which is to say lined up in advance five deep down the bar, powered by something like high-test office coffee and both handy and delicious, Tom Bergin's Tavern, catering to sentimental drunks since 1936, is exactly what you need. The bar serves 5,000 Irish coffees on St. Patrick's Day alone. If you get lost, just look for the giant shamrock reading "House of Irish Coffee." 840 S. Fairfax Ave., L.A. (323) 936-7151.
One week you're spending hours on absinthe websites, purchasing tiny flasks of pre-ban Pernod from London collectors and hanging out at a restaurant where the bartender is surreptitiously pushing shots of homemade absinthe that he has fashioned from homegrown wormwood. The next week, when it turns out that absinthe was never illegal in the first place, bars flow with the stuff, and you find yourself engaged in endless conversations about louching and extract. Never has a food culture leapt from connoisseurship to douchebaggery to flameout quite so fast. Are there still exquisite absinthe fountains in the better cocktail establishments? Probably, although they may well be shoved back into a corner behind a case of mezcal. But absinthe is still a fascinating liquor, flavored as profoundly with tragic history as it is with anise. For matters of wormwood these days, it's probably best to retire to Ivan Kane's Café Was. The absinthe bar in the mezzanine is custom-fashioned for washing away the pain in the manner of Baudelaire. 1521 Vine St., Hlywd. (323) 466-5400.
Beer After Branca
You are in Marina del Rey. You are at Vu. You are looking at sailboats. A waitress brings out a bottle of Fever Tree ginger beer and a small glass half-filled with a lukewarm, oil-thick sludge of ginger liqueur with Fernet-Branca. Your experiences with Fernet-Branca have not been happy ones, and you think of James Hamilton-Paterson's novel Cooking With Fernet-Branca, where the unpleasantness of the bitter digestive is a factor in nearly every scene. You are not sure whether to pour the Fernet into the ginger beer or the ginger beer into the Fernet, and your waitress has to ask four people before you discover that you are supposed to alternate sips, Fernet-ginger-Fernet-ginger-Fernet-ginger. This is the kind of thing they do in San Francisco, you think, where shots of Fernet-Branca are thought to be as necessary to the manhood of a chef as the obligatory jagged-knife tattoo. The drink is all gone. You are alarmed to discover that the chef's specialty, chicken-fried watermelon, is pretty much as charming as it sounds. 14160 Palawan Way, Marina del Rey. (310) 439-3032.
Ice, as the Varnish's Eric Alperin is fond of saying, is the bartender's flame. And the two most important factors in any drink are chill and proper dilution. If the chill and dilution are right, even a stirred slug of vodka can be delicious. Naked stirred vodka is, in fact, what most people consider a dry vodka martini. If your bartender is good, the differences between Tito's or Belvedere or Stolichnaya are slight, not worth arguing about really. If he's barely rinsing the glass with vermouth, or adding the vermouth with an eyedropper, or softly whispering the word vermouth as he stirs your drink, the provenance of the vermouth doesn't matter, either. But the ice has to be cold. And the glass has to be chilled. And while we understand that a proper martini is at least one-third vermouth, maybe half, we know that it doesn't usually happen that way, at least outside the kinds of places where the bartenders wear sleeve garters and vests and exhibit the kind of attitude you might expect from a man who formulates his own bitters. A great vodka martini depends on the chill and the dilution, and on the steak you're planning to eat, and on the $5,000 suits worn by the other people in the room. Where else but the Grill on the Alley. 9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 276-0615.
When the clock inches past midnight, and the tables begin to empty, and you are a regular in a bar like the Varnish, where the bartenders have postdoctoral skills, it is usually OK to ask for something like a flip: a drink made with sugar, liquor and egg white that's as smooth as velvet and as cool as polished marble, and that takes a heroic amount of muscling the shaker to achieve a texture finer than the sorry head on a Starbucks cappuccino. A well-made flip is the most miraculous of drinks. So if you're at the Varnish, and you've asked for a flip, it is sensible to let the bartender decide what he or she wants to put into the flip. You might end up with an Eagle's Nest, scented with violet, a Port Flip, or what Chris Bostick shook up the other evening — a Valentine's-pink Chanticleer, flavored with a single fresh raspberry. Stunning. 118 E. 6th St., dwntwn. (213) 622-9999.
Is soju a cocktail? No, soju is not a cocktail, even the expensive stuff with herbs. Anyone who has tasted soju cocktails at ambitious but underlicensed lounges knows that it is not much of a mixer, either. The blandness and low alcohol level that make chilled soju a brilliant accompaniment for highly spiced Korean anju mean that it is just too diluted to assert itself anywhere where ice is involved. The only acceptable modification to soju, I believe, is the grandmother's trick of gouging out the bottom of a lemon with a bottle cap and trickling the liquor through the fruit — it may be the Korean equivalent of an apple bong. But I do appreciate the practice, at a favorite Koreatown pub that shall go nameless, of wordlessly emptying half-filled soju bottles into battered teakettles a few seconds before 2 a.m. Like any well-mixed cocktail, teakettle soju has the magical ability to suspend time.
Maybe I was hanging out in the wrong circles back then, but my introduction to the michelada came a few years ago at a gas station up north of Bakersfield, where a half-dozen canned variations on the drink, spiked with Clamato, lime, beef broth, whatever, shared shelf space with all the energy drinks. The can mixing Bud Light and Clamato was exactly as charming as it sounds. But in almost any city in Mexico, the micheladas are delicious, concoctions of fresh lime juice, ice cubes and frosty-cold beer perfect for taking the edge off a hot afternoon. And in Los Angeles, the micheladas are especially wonderful at Studio City's Lotería Grill, where they are treated as carefully as the $100 tequilas. If you're a thrill seeker, you can try the variation of michelada popular in Mexico City, seasoned with umami-rich dashes of Tapatio hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce and MSG-rich Maggi seasoning in addition to the lime juice, a combination that smells a bit like a barnyard but has a shimmering depth of flavor you would never expect from a marriage of commercial condiments. 12050 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 508-5300. Also at 6627 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 465-2500.
Fine dining in Los Angeles has been dominated by Italian cooking at least since the 1930s. The most popular casual dining has involved Mexican cooking for at least that long. So it makes an odd sort of sense that the most influential cocktail from Osteria Mozza, whose back bar is a virtual museum of amari (bitter Italian digestives), should be the Sculaccione, an Eric Alperin invention, which is more or less a margarita overlaid with Campari and bitters. A Sculaccione, whose sweet assault on the system lives up to its name, which translates to "spank," is a drink that would seem equally at home at a Milan cocktail bar or in a glossy Tlaquepaque cantina. And the food's not bad at Mozza, either. 6602 Melrose Ave., Hlywd. (323) 297-0100.
How do you make a J&B Mist? Glad you asked. You put some crushed ice in a tall glass, pour a jiggerful of J&B scotch over it, and garnish with a lemon twist if you're feeling sporty. If you were alive and drinking in 1957, you probably had a lot of these. Some might insist that a J&B Mist is not among the more demanding drinks in the bartender's repertoire, and they might be right, but the mother of a friend of ours insists on the superiority of the J&B Mists at Jar, and who are we to argue? Like almost everything else at Suzanne Tracht's neo-retro steak house, a J&B Mist here always feels right. 8225 W. Beverly Blvd., L.A. (323) 655-6566.
Gin and Tonic
Tasting Kitchen, the ultrachill bar/dining room on Abbot Kinney, relies on inscrutability the way that other restaurants rely on salt. Butter is an appetizer. If you can identify more than half of the wines on its mostly Italian list, you probably are qualified to take the Masters of Wine exam. The website warns: "If you ask for a 'Dealer's Choice' with vodka, we may make you a gin drink and not tell you." Although the recent addition of John Coltharp, late of Cana, may have changed things, this is a bar that relies heavily on things like damiana syrup and the teeth-coating Austrian stone-pine liqueur Zerbenz. So it will surprise you neither that the bar crafts its own tonic water from cinchona bark, nor that the herby, potent cocktail, crawling with 37 different intensities of bitterness, will probably be the best G&T you've ever tasted. In Venice, veined with the swampy shallows of the canals, you need all the antimalarial action you can get. 1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. (310) 392-6644.
Canton Ginger Kick
Canton Ginger, a Chinese-inspired French liqueur, is not universally loved by the spirits cognoscenti. The syrupy sweetness, they can deal with; the almost cartoonishly exaggerated candied ginger overtones far less so; the packaging — it comes in a bottle that looks like something Gwyneth Paltrow might repurpose as an evening bag — not at all. But the Canton Ginger Kick at Susan Feniger's Street, in which the liqueur is pounded with fresh ginger, powdered ginger and candied ginger, is just completely over the top, like a liquid equivalent of a Barry McGee drawing. It's probably best to stay away from this one if you are even the least ambivalent about ginger. 742 N. Highland Ave., Hlywd. (323) 203-0500.
The bistro Church & State has been in existence exactly as long as the cocktail boom here and seems to have turned over bartenders as often as it has chefs — some brilliant, others just very, very good. It was perhaps the first bar to develop an ice fetish, dove headfirst into absinthe the second it became legal, and was early on the herbal infusion thing. The menu went from tourist French to Michelin-star French to not all that French. Yet through all of it, the bistro has always been a great place to nurse a Champagne Cocktail — the classic version, just a sugar cube, bitters and a flute of chilled Champagne, sort of the house beverage of Decadence 101. 1850 Industrial St., dwntwn. (213) 405-1434.
The Sazerac is one of the touchstones of the cocktailian movement, a drink that took on the glow of authenticity when its ingredients — absinthe, Peychaud's bitters and really good rye whiskey — finally became readily available in their original form. The flavors of a Sazerac are sophisticated and complex. The drink is a connoisseur's call. But a Sazerac is also one of the most basic cocktails imaginable, basically a rye old-fashioned served in a glass rinsed with absinthe or Herbsaint. And in New Orleans, the drink has always been a staple of even the meanest of restaurant bars, something to have two or three of with your eggplant sticks and sea trout amandine. So while there are undoubtedly better Sazeracs in town, made with decades-old rye whiskey, homemade bitters and handcrafted absinthe, the version at Little Dom's strikes precisely the right note, less an exquisite pour than a beverage whose steely anise snap locks right into the flavors of the Creole-Italian food. 2128 Hillhurst Ave., Los Feliz. (323) 661-0055.
If you've never had a Picon Punch, which is more or less the official tipple of Basque Bakersfield, it can seem a little like a girlie drink: a cocktail of brandy, maraschino syrup and a healthy slug of a bitter Basque liqueur called Amer Picon — or rather of an imitation of Amer Picon, since the original is no longer imported to the United States. If you get the right bartender, it even comes with a cherry in it. But if you linger at the Pyrenees Café long enough, rest assured: You will see a burly oil worker thrust out his gut, snarling, "Gimme Pi-cahhhn.'' Picon Punch goes down smoothly but gnaws at your brain for hours. 601 Sumner St., Bakersfield. (661) 323-0053.
The mojito, I like to believe, began its life as a campesino's drink, the marriage between a bottle of cheap rum and the produce that happened to be growing out back by where the chickens pecked in the yard. There is fresh spearmint, of course (practically a weed), and a couple of limes from the tree, and a grassy bit of sweetness squeezed from a length of sugarcane. Was there a seltzer siphon lying around? Fine. As presently constituted, the mass-made, oversweetened mojito has nearly supplanted the Cosmo as the official drink of girls' night out, but the frank, earthy taste of a real mojito, as made with fresh-pressed sugarcane at Xiomara, still contains within it the elements of shock and awe. Xiomara serves the cocktail in a slanty, angle-bottomed highball glass, as if to describe the attitude you may well assume if you dare to drink more than two. 6101 Melrose Ave., L.A. (323) 461-0601.
"Any sufficiently advanced technology," Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, "is indistinguishable from magic." And even those of us inclined to be hostile to hydrocolloid-obsessed chefs who compress oysters into rubbery sheets or impale shrimp with lab pipettes tend to be fine with unconventional cocktails. Cocktails, even in their purest form, are artificial constructs. So it is fun to sit at Bar Centro at the Bazaar and watch bartenders pour liquid nitrogen over caipirinhas, plop spherified cherry puree into Manhattans and cap martinis with airy olive-brine foam. I remain unpersuaded by the kitchen's signature foie gras presentation, which involves rolling bits of duck liver in crushed Corn Nuts and encasing them in cotton candy, but the billows of cotton candy over which the mojitos are strained do the drink no real harm, and the floor show isn't bad. 465 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A. (310) 246-5555.
In Tagalog, pek pek is an affectionate term for the most intimate sector of the female anatomy. At A-Frame, it is a variation on the Perfect Manhattan, substituting a splash of elderflower liqueur for the sweet vermouth. In the right circumstances, either can be intoxicating. 12565 Washington Blvd., W.L.A. (310) 398-7700.
Los Angeles continues to be a place where New York bartenders can come to reinvent themselves, like 1930s playwrights drawn by the possibilities of Hollywood. So appletinis were probably not what Dave Kaplan and Alex Day of NYC's Death & Co. were envisioning when the newly remodeled O Hotel recruited them for its lounge bar/kitchen. And appletinis were not what they delivered. At least in the bar's earliest days, Kaplan and Day seem obsessed by the possibilities of flavoring whiskey with sherry wine (not unlike what distillers like Bushmills do when they age their whiskey in used sherry barrels), and last time I dropped in, bourbon/sherry cocktails dominated the tiny list. The El Matador, which includes amontillado, orange and fresh lemon juice, expands the idea of what bourbon might be. 819 S. Flower St., dwntwn. (213) 623-9904.
Many bars have some version of the mint julep, the cocktail that announces spring in the mid-South and is the essential Kentucky Derby tipple. A certain number of us grew up craving the sickly green fizz sold at the stand in Disneyland's New Orleans Square, which is pretty close to what passes for a julep almost everywhere. If Kentucky sued Disney for defamation of a state symbol, it might have a pretty good case. But a real julep — bourbon, dewy-fresh mint and a little sugar over crushed ice in a frosted silver cup — bears the same resemblance to a sports-bar julep that a Rolls-Royce Phaeton does to a Yugo: Both drinks may get you to the same place, but in only one are you going to enjoy the ride. Seven Grand, perhaps the most bourbon-intensive bar in California, is especially obsessive about its juleps, to the point of commissioning a custom blend from Woodward Reserve just for the cocktail. Derby Day demands no less. 515 W. 7th St., dwntwn. (213) 614-0737.
Violet-scented cocktails, once nearly as common as Cosmopolitans, almost disappeared 50 years ago, dismissed as auntly and old-fashioned, unable to compete with the more immediate pleasures of Harvey Wallbangers or Mudslides. For years, a decent violet liqueur was a grail of American cocktailians, a faint breeze from the past whose sweet woodsiness was the key to so many of the formulae in the great old bar books. An Aviation made with maraschino can be delicious, but it bears the resemblance to its violet-tinged inspiration that a colorized print of Casablanca does to the original. But as suddenly as absinthe, Old Tom and pimento dram found their way back behind the bar, so has violet — the fragrance of faithfulness, of modesty, of virtue. Nowhere does the fleeting scent of violets express itself more eloquently than in an Aviation #2, that great pre-Prohibition cocktail, where it adds a pretty whiff of calm to the chilly herbs and fresh citrus of a gin sour. It is difficult to think of a better cocktail to finish an evening, or a better place to experience it than the Varnish. 118 E. 6th St., dwntwn. (213) 622-9999.
The new Aburiya Toranoko is as sake-intensive as any good izakaya, any bastion of daiginjos, junmais and fancifully named bottles like Demon Slayer, Mirror of Truth and Last Ride Home. But among the sweet cocktails, the cucumber drinks and the "martinis" flavored with persimmons or Kyoho grapes is the vodka infused with shiso, a sharp, aromatic flavor that happens to go very nicely with sushi. In a restaurant run by Nobu alumni, this is a desirable trait. 243 S. San Pedro St., dwntwn. (213) 621-9500.
It is perhaps odd for a Middle Eastern restaurant to be known for booze of any sort. Lebanon is famous for its wine, perhaps; more famous for its intolerance for alcohol of any sort. But Alcazar, an Armenian-Lebanese nightclub in the gentle levant of Encino, imports a special Lebanese arak, an especially smooth version of the anise-scented Lebanese liquor that turns milky when you stir it with ice and cool water; a beverage that tames the cumin-fierce flavors that sizzle underneath your tongue. 17239 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 789-0991.
Dr. Hull's Tonic
Cocktails, I think we can agree, are not health food, no matter how many acai berries, organic pomegranates or metric tons of goji you manage to squeeze into them. Your pounding head the next morning does not care whether you've been drinking Rain or Stoli, Veev or Old Grand-Dad. You're sacrificing those brain cells for the cause. That being said, Akasha customer, if it makes you feel better to know that your vodka is organic, has been mixed with fresh-squeezed carrot juice and contains chakra-snapping doses of ginger, I wouldn't dream of standing between you and the Saturday night of your dreams. Namaste, good buddy, namaste. 9543 Culver Blvd., Culver City. (310) 845-1700.
Smoke of Scotland
When you trace the cocktail movement in Los Angeles, nearly every trail leads back to Vincenzo Marianella, who started the bar chef movement at Providence, the cocktailian modern speakeasy at the late Doheny, and is epitomizing the farm-to-glass thing at Copa d'Oro, a high-volume bar around the corner from the Santa Monica Farmers Market, where he invents drinks on the spot from customer suggestions of fruits, liquors and aromatics like a brilliant improv comic weaving audience suggestions into art. His Smoke of Scotland — ultrapeaty Laphroaig given glowing, moody depth with a few drops of vermouth, elderflower liqueur and the Italian artichoke liqueur Cynar — taught Scotch whisky to speak Italian. 217 Broadway, Santa Monica. (310) 576-3030.
Blackberry & Sage
The Santa Monica Farmers Market is like the giant gas planet of the local culinary universe, influencing the orbit of restaurants even many miles away and bringing local stoves into tight compliance with its rhythms. The bar at FIG, in the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, is no more immune to this influence than the kitchen — the drinks menu, designed by Charlotte Voisey, bursts with things like beet juice, blood oranges, hand-pressed blueberries and organic lemon thyme. (Let us not even speak of the fig-jam mojito.) Blackberry & Sage, a summerish cocktail tied together with good bourbon and a dash of cassis, is the kind of thing you want in your hand after a trail walk or a second set of tennis, an elegant cocktail with an earthy smack of sun-drenched earth. 101 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 319-3111.
Two Moon July
Cocktailianism has always included a certain level of obsessive tinkering, the drive to craft a substitute for pimento dram or the citrus base called falernum when no satisfactory version exists on the shelves, to concoct one's own orgeat from a handful of really delicious almonds, to hunt down a long-discontinued liqueur that exists only in the basement bars of 37 Korean War vets. The bar at Playa, John Sedlar's new small-plates restaurant in the old Grace space, pushes the boundaries of the esoteric into strange, uninhabited grounds. One of the cocktails includes both X.O. Armagnac and bitter corbezzolo honey, a costly substance difficult to find even in Sardinia; another features tobacco-smoked rye whiskey and toasted chiles. A bartender — at the moment, the bartenders include Julian Cox of Rivera and Julian Wayser, formerly of the Doheny — refuses to make the cocktail called An Andalusian because the bar is temporarily out of the rare Spanish vermouth he prefers. And Two Moon July, one of the specialties of the bar, is a fizz involving bourbon, freshly pureed grapes, a Ghanaian spice called grains of paradise and a blend of at least three different Italian amari. It is bitter, refreshing, intense. And it is a good bet you will not be making this at home. 7360 W. Beverly Blvd., L.A. (323) 933-5300.
The Cosmopolitan is the classic sweet pink thing in a martini glass, popular in 1970s fern bars and given a stunning PR boost by its ubiquity in Sex and the City. It is also one of the drinks many cocktailians refuse to pour. What Cole's makes is a Prohibition-era cocktail by the same name that is also sweet and pink — tinted with the bar's own raspberry syrup — and is on the menu presumably so that it will have something to serve the occasional customer who asks for a Cosmo. Is it a drink, or a practical joke? I have no idea. The cocktail menu claims that Cole's Cosmopolitan dates from 1926, but no bar manual I have seen from the period has even a mention in the blank space between Corpse Reviver (No. 2) and Country Club Cooler. 118 E. 6th St., dwntwn. (213) 622-4090.
Last Tango in Modena
Matthew Biancaniello, of the Library Bar in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, can be at the same time one of the most interesting and the most irritating bartenders in Los Angeles, capable of drinks of great beauty, but also of concoctions so horrid that you want to scrape them out of your mouth and out of your mind. He may be the only self-taught Los Angeles bartender in the top rank, and he is as likely to ignore the rules as to follow them. He has no printed menu in his small, dark bar — he likes to intuit what you might like to drink. There are, to be sure, more than a few people here who believe Biancaniello is the greatest bartender of them all; who are happy that his inventions, which are often entire meals abstracted in a rocks glass, exist outside the universe of Milk & Honey or the Savoy. But when it works, it works: When he'll allow you to order it, his Last Tango in Modena, with farmers market strawberries, balsamic vinegar, gin and an elderberry foam, is an intelligent riff on a classic Italian dessert. 7000 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 466-7000.
The taste of jamaica, the Mexican hibiscus drink, is sharp, tart and slightly bitter, stained red with the pigment of the petals. It is refreshing. It does not call out for alcoholic enhancement. At Malo, an Angelina teases the playfulness out of jamaica with lime and a shot of Rosangel, a jamaica-flavored tequila aged in port barrels, and it becomes an entirely different thing: not just a flower but the entire lei. 4326 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake. (323) 664-1011.
Bricia Lopez is a Oaxacan princess. Bricia likes cocktails, a lot. Bricia's father owned a mezcal distillery in Oaxaca before he moved up to Los Angeles to start the Guelaguetza restaurant chain, which includes Bricia's cemitas cafe Pal Cabron. Bricia is fond of mezcal. At almost any decent Los Angeles cocktail bar with mezcal on the menu, there will be a cocktail referred to as a "Bricia drink," in honor of her 1,000-watt smile: the Brisa de Oaxaca at La Descarga; the salsa-enhanced Bricia at Las Perlas; the Bricia Blanco at the Association; and a deliciously bitter Bricia Champagne Cocktail that Pablo Moix did for Javier Plascencia's stint at Test Kitchen last fall. Bricia's favorite Bricia? All of them, she says. So we'll go with the nicely balanced highball called Sweet Bricia that Jason Schiffer does at the well-regarded 320 Main. 320 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 799-6246.
Herbert Hoover stayed at the Mission Inn. Richard and Patricia Nixon got married here. Ronald and Nancy Reagan honeymooned here. The sprawling Riverside neo-hacienda has been visited by Taft, McKinley, Ford, Benjamin Harrison, Teddy Roosevelt and George W. Bush — it's a pilgrimage site for Republican presidents. The Presidential Lounge has more than earned its name. Is there a better way to celebrate California's Republican heritage than with a cerulean Reagan martini, as strong, undiluted and unpalatable as the man himself? I thought not. 3649 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (909) 784-0300.
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