Two for the road

News organs from New York magazine to Food & Wine have noted the resurgent popularity of strong, old-fashioned spirits (oddly coinciding with the new puritanism, MADD's crusade, and the ascendancy of the 12-step program). There's even a lush gift book glorifying the American cocktail.

But the truth is that the most famous cocktail of all, a pure and simple martini made of just gin and historically diminishing amounts of vermouth (it started as a 2-1 ratio, and is now something less than 8-1), is seldom served. It's too easy for our complicated time. It needs something more--a hook, a gimmick. So we trick it out with liqueurs, garnish it to death, and make it with other spirits entirely.

It used to be that if you changed anything at all--replaced the olive with an onion, even--you had a whole new drink. Now, anything can be called a martini. We drink "black martinis" (made with Chambord), "dirty martinis" (made with olive juice), sake martinis, "Cajun martinis" (the olive is stuffed with a jalapeno). Most martinis are now actually made with vodka, not gin.

I can see it, I guess. After all, the martini is as much an icon--a symbol of style--as a drink. In a way, it's the idea of a martini that's important. I'm not much of a martini drinker myself, having had a bad experience, maybe even two, with gin in my youth. But I have a lot of respect for its potential potency and for the classicism of the recipe. And for its style.

So does Dallas' newest hot spot, Martini Ranch. It's as sleek, chic, and stylish as the drink itself, and it serves more variations of the martini than you ever dreamed of or had nightmares about. It's owned by Michael Morris, who owns The Buffalo Club and 2826; he's refurbished the old gallery on Cedar Springs into a beautifully streamlined and polished space that's attracting that particular crowd that always buzzes around the beautiful places. (By the way, no one goes for supper, like we did. Certainly not as early as we did. The cool people were only beginning to arrive when we left at 10 p.m.)

The menu at Martini Ranch is reversible--one side lists martinis, the other side, food. You can order any martini with your choice of manzanilla olives, holland onions, or fresh lemon twists. If you don't want any of the drinks they call martinis, the menu explains that Martini Ranch maintains "an extensive inventory of clear spirits," and you can substitute. You can even, if you dare, order a pitcher of martinis, though that would be hard to manage standing up, and the seating is minimal compared to the crowd.

Seating is first-come, first-served; this is really a bar with food, so a lot of restaurant rules are suspended. Like a separate smoking section (martinis and cigarettes seem to go together better than love and marriage, and the Ranch was filled with smoke), like table settings, like a bearable decibel level. This is not the place for one of those intimate, sexy James Bond-meets-Ursula Andress types of encounters. It's hard to engage in effective innuendo when you have to shout to be heard.

The food side of the menu is an eclectic list of munchies--ranging wildly from smoked salmon to fried chicken. I suppose the kitchen is trying to reconcile the cooking with what we discovered--martini style doesn't always blend with an actual appetite for food.

On our first visit, one of us (I won't name names) brashly or rashly ordered a chocolate martini (vodka, Godiva liqueur with seasonal fruit garnish) before realizing we'd ordered caviar to start with. It would have to be 2 in the morning before you could face that combination. Well, it's true enough that time changes when you enter martini-land. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who originated that tired quote about it always being 2 in the morning in the deep dark night of the soul or something, and he shoulda known. He drank a lot of martinis.

The Martini Ranch hands must agree because the menu is labeled "Lunch & Dinner." Lunch, dinner, whatever. Who knows? Who cares? We went for a light supper at 7 p.m. and emerged, dazed, with our ears ringing, a little after 10 p.m.

Of course, we ordered Bond's (James Bond's) martini; but when we asked our waitress to refresh our memory as to what went in James Bond's drink, she answered, with all the blitheness of one who doesn't partake, "Stoli and Tanqueray." Right. Shaken, not stirred? Fortunately, the bartender knew better and we were served a basic vodka martini.

On our second visit, we branched out a little and tried the "Cosmopolitini," a pretty drink of cranberry juice and vodka, a "Dean Martini," served with a Lucky and a book of matches (cute, only they were out of Luckies), a "martini bellini," vodka and peach nectar, even a martini picante (made with pepper vodka and a jalapeno-stuffed olive).

Since we wanted to share appetizers among more people, our waiter recommended the crab claws (seemingly cousin to the ones at Campisi's--that is, defrosted, then drenched in garlic and oil), onion rings (good, but you can't help but notice the kitchen seems a little defensive about them; they're the only item on the menu with any adjectives--"sweet and golden"); they needed salt. The fried calamari is exactly the same as you've had everywhere else in town. The caviar of our previous visit, Aristoff osetra, properly served in its tin with plain toasts, was a tastier choice, but at $9.75 for a half-ounce, wouldn't stretch far enough.

Martinis are pre-food drinks, anyway. Cold vodka with caviar is one thing; mostly it was pretty hard to hold on to our drinks through dinner. We tried the fried chicken, surprisingly good, a boneless breast in a crisp golden batter, with bland mashed potatoes, but this just isn't martini food. Pan-roasted salmon, which seems to mean sauteed, served with new potatoes, was a little more compatible, and of course, beef is a traditional follow-up to spirits. We wished our slice of tenderloin, sauteed, was rarer, but it was flavorful enough and came with a foil-wrapped baked potato with all the trimmings.

Dessert, a wedge of cold chocolate something, and a square of apple cobbler, tasteless except for the Haagen Dazs ice cream, had absolutely nothing to do with drinking martinis.

Martini Ranch, 2816 Cedar Springs at Fairmount, 220-2116 Open Monday-Saturday.

Martini Ranch:
Caviar, Half an Ounce of Osetra $9.75
Crab Claws $7.95
Pan Fried Chicken Breast, mashed potato and gravy $6.95
Pan Roasted Salmon with vegetable $10.25
James Bond's Fave $5.25
Dean Martini $5
Chocolate Martini $5.75

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