The Big Chill

The martini's appeal endures - and so does The Martini Club

click to enlarge CLEAN AND GREEN: Restaurant BT's Kaffir lime leaf lemongrass martini. - LORI BALLARD
LORI BALLARD
CLEAN AND GREEN: Restaurant BT's Kaffir lime leaf lemongrass martini.

What is it about martinis? The nouveau Rat-Pack thing is over, the retro cocktail lounge revival is so 1995, but the drink that fueled a million hangovers is still shaking, or stirring, us up.

There are numerous possible explanations. The glassware's certainly a factor. The wide inverted cone, the delicate stem - just holding a martini glass can bring out one's inner Audrey Hepburn. And then there's the suspense of watching your server try to get a martini to you without any sloshover… a remarkable feat when it works, and deeply upsetting when it doesn't. The waste, oh, the waste.

Then, of course, there's the nature of the drink itself. When made correctly, it gets right to the point; cold, pure, perfectly simple - everything you want a cocktail to be. And if you toss down several martinis, they get progressively colder, purer and simpler, which is why they're fun, and also why they're dangerous.

For several years now, bartenders have been tarting up martinis so that even the gin-averse can find some version that's tolerable. (I'm a vodka man myself.) The Cosmo was arguably an offspring of the pseudo-martini trend, though its only real kinship is the glass. And then there's the unfortunate longevity of the chocolate martini: cocktails for dessert.

But if you want to know what keeps martini drinkers drinking, maybe it's best to go to Tampa Bay's most enduring source of martini lore and opinion: the members of the Martini Club.

The club was formed in 1993 as an informal meeting ground for the "creative community," otherwise known as "the advertising biz" (or, as past president Keith Bucklew puts it, "artists with money"). Over the years, the membership has grown to include all manner of creative types, and while the once-a-month gatherings at local restaurants are still primarily social occasions (and open to whoever hears about them), attendees do have a mission: finding the bar with the best martinis, and giving it an award at the end of the year. There's even a ballot.

One recent Wednesday, the club tested the waters at Restaurant BT in Hyde Park Village. With cocktails as serenely chic as its interior, BT's is a sublime spot to sip, so the turnout for this particular club get-together was large (about 40). Bar manager Andrea Caruso and bartender Roy Vance make some of the more splendiferous martinis in the Bay area, with ingredients that seem to reflect Vance's other career as a landscaper: chrysanthemum and rosemary and ginger and an array of fruit infusions which, if you're lucky, Vance may let you taste (try the rum infused with vanilla bean and pineapple).

But for purists like group founder Eric Swanson, only the classics will do. Like beer. Yes, the founder of the Martini Club was kicking things off with a tall cold one. He moved on to the real thing later, and to a discussion of The Glass Question. He likes his martini glasses small - "two or three ounces tops." The drink stays colder that way. Swanson, who's advertising creative director for Arthur Rutenberg Homes, serves up martinis at home in tiny glasses that belonged to his grandmother. Fellow club member Denise Howland approves: "He makes 'em tingle." (Denise, an artist and speech pathologist, is a good person to have along at a cocktail party if you want to know whether you've had too much: "If you start lisping, I notice it.")

Swanson gave his martini a 7 (the ballots rate the glass, taste/ temperature, garnish, bartender/ waitperson and ambiance on a scale of 2 to 10, from "bad news" to "excellent"). His wife Laura, who was wearing a grayish blue iolite necklace of her own design, loved the garnishes, especially "the most lovely thing ever invented, blue cheese-stuffed olives." (She also pointed out the bit of artistry that is the BT toothpick - an exquisitely curled spear of lemon grass.)

But in this crowd, there were bound to be some critics. And, not surprisingly, the most articulate (despite - or maybe because of? - the alcohol) were two English professors from UT, Don Morrill and his wife Lisa Birnbaum. Morrill's martini (Bombay Sapphire) "aspires to better things," he opined, "but alas it merely satisfies." Birnbaum saw failed aspirations in her Belvedere martini as well: "It does not have the enviable quality of a woman who is too thin or too rich." Morrill, who makes his own at home, keeps his glasses in the freezer, believing "the first sip has to be polar." And Birnbaum is enough of a connoisseur to always ask for one olive instead of two: "It doesn't displace as much alcohol."

You just don't get this kind of expertise from your average corner bar.

So far this year the Martini Club has been all over the map, from last year's winner, Café Alma, to Ciccio & Tony's in SoHo to Pelagia at the new Renaissance Hotel in International Plaza. How did BT's do? The ebullient president of the group, interior designer Bruce Laughridge, gave a thumbs up to his martini. "It's perfect," he enthused. "They're going to get good marks."

Garden Party:If you're a fan of BT's martinis, imagine what they can do with a bloody mary. The restaurant is now offering a bloody mary bar on Saturdays, and the list of vodka infusions reads like a grocery list: rosemary, basil, anchovy, horseradish… great way to eat your vegetables.

Restaurant BT, 1633 W. Snow Ave., Tampa, 813-258-1916, restaurantbt.com.

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