Trawling for Tinis

Martinis are here and now. They're also yesterday and the day before. They just won't seem to go away but keep getting new life beat into 'em like they're Madonna discovering cowboy hats.

Some astute observers say that the only reason people drink martinis is for the packaging: that slender, sexy stemware magically turning whomever grasps it into someone witty and devil-may-care. But now you don't have to quaff paint thinner to hold that pretty glass. Don't like gin? Can't stand vodka? That's no longer a problem with the latest tequilatinis gracing the bars of OC—and, therefore, the nation. (Thanks, VH1!) But who has the best "martini" out there? (The quotes are for you gin-and-twist-only purists, who should probably stop reading right now.) Who's serving up the equivalent of The Immaculate Album, and who has the bubblegum pop of Cherish? My friends Annabel, Mary, Belinda went with me on my search.

It's a Wednesday night when we head down to Laguna Beach's Sorrento Grill(370 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, 949-494-8686). Off the main Forest/PCH strip, Sorrento's is a favorite of the locals. We start by trying to squeeze past three men clad in sport coats, obviously in town on business. What's not so obvious is why they can't seem to move out of the doorway. Finally breaking free into the main room, we settle on three bar stools. As usual, the place is packed with a mix of families and the young fashionables that inhabit Laguna. Warm and inviting, the main downstairs looks like the courtyard of an Italian villa washed in afternoon sunlight.

The martini menu boasts 16 specialties, so we ask bartender Michael for his recommendation: PinaCranaKaze, a mixture of pineapple-infused Skyy Vodka, lime and cranberry juice. Mary agrees to try that one, Belinda opts for a more traditional Cosmopolitan, and I order the Key Lime Pie. Before we can say, "Finlandia," our friends from the front vestibule are elbowing in on our bar space. One of them looks so much like Paul Sorvino that we actually think we might have been wrong about the biz trip until he opens his mouth to summon the bartender with an, "Amigo!" Go back to Oregon, buddy.

When our drinks arrive, I am pretty disappointed with the results. After hearing raves from everyone about the Sorrento martinis, the Key Lime Pie tasted light and watery. Mary loved the PinaCranaKaze, which was a surprisingly white, foamy concoction. Belinda's cosmo was so strong that I started to worry about the hot air being blown from "Paul Sorvino," who keeps yelling, "Amigo" to Michael, who blissfully ignores him. In his frustration, Paul tries to explain to me about the joys of bleu-cheese-stuffed olives and how Sorrento's is one of the only places in Southern California that will hand stuff them for him. Michael comes by to see how we like our drinks, and I tell him I'm disappointed with mine, and he points out that Mary and I had inadvertently switched drinks—she had been happily sipping away on my Key Lime Pie for 20 minutes now. Glasses empty, we contemplate ordering another but decide Paul and Co. are going to need more space for their olives, so we vacate without ever finding exactly what Michael stuffed in them.

Final take? Great place, great atmosphere, great food, but don't drink the PinaCranaKaze. Or order it and then drink someone else's Key Lime Pie.

Undaunted, we push on to Mark's (858 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, 949-494-6711), where we're greeted by Mark himself. He recommends their Mango Martini, an off-the-menu selection. We settle in at a table in the mostly empty bar section and admire the minimalist dťcor. Mary opts to try one, and I decide to get something blue or green so there is no way she can get confused. Luckily, the Sexy Martini does the trick. Pure alcohol, the Sexy is made with Smirnoff vodka, peach schnapps and melon liqueur. I can't decide if they call it Sexy because of the cool color or because it is so strong that once you drink it, everyone looks sexy—hell, even the barely-of-age bartender is looking worth the trouble by now. Belinda is equally happy with her Bikini Martini, a refreshing mix of raspberry-twist vodka, Alize Red Passion Liqueur and a splash of lemonade.

Mark comes by to see how we like our drinks (oooh, sexy), but apparently Mary was not too happy with the mango (too bland). Not one to let a customer leave dissatisfied, Mark has the bartender start whipping us up some house specialties like the Lemon Drop(good, but tasted a little like lemonade concentrate), a Fig Martinimade with fig-flavored vodka that was actually very good, and a Chocolate Martini that is made with vanilla vodka and light and dark Godiva chocolate liqueurs (so-so). Still not completely won over, Mark makes one last attempt to win our loyalty with a Grapefruit Martini. We take one sip, and our mouths pucker in protest (oooh, not so sexy). He says it's an acquired taste. We think someone else should acquire it.

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