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.

THREE GIRLS, INTERRUPTED
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.

MARK MINE A SEXY
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 décor. 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.

NOW SHOWING AT A BEACH NEAR YOU
Days go by before I make it to The Yard House at the Irvine Spectrum (71 Fortune Dr., Irvine, 949-642-0090). With other locations in Costa Mesa and Long Beach, the place looks just like a Cheesecake Factory or a P.F. Changs. Until now, I'd thought the Yard House specialized in imaginatively worded menus of bland food. Then I tried the martinis and realized those huge throngs pack in there for a reason—the drinks! So if you don't mind the "scene" and can somehow avoid watching the desperate-looking girls making rounds of the bar looking for someone, anyone (!) to talk to, then try the Miami Icemade with Zone peach vodka, peach schnapps, pineapple schnapps, sweet and sour, and blue curaçao. Substance and style!

CAN YOU LAMINATE THAT?
Having heard much about the power scene and martinis at Roy's of Newport Beach(453 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, 949-640-7697), I'm looking forward to checking it out on a Thursday night. We arrive a little after 9 p.m. and find the place teeming with blondes and suits over 35. The bartender offers us the martini menu, a laminated piece of plastic about the size of an index card. With just five very traditional offerings (why did they bother to print and laminate?), we once again ask an expert for recommendations. The bartender tells us to try the Razzatini or Vitamin C, neither of which is on the menu—again, why did they print it? The Razzatini is a mix of Grey Goose and Chambord that tastes a little like cough syrup, and the Vitamin C starts off smooth but ends with a bitter afterbite that is inexplicably grapefruit-y from the combination of peach schnapps; lemon vodka; and pineapple, orange and cranberry juices. The Vitamin C softens as it goes, and by the time we're halfway through, the bitter taste has faded—or maybe just worn our taste buds out. Pretty disappointed overall with the drinks, we can however happily recommend the mushroom pizza (yum!). Just ask for it un-laminated.

STOP PANDERING FOR CULINARY COMPLIMENTS ALREADY
Unless you live there, you have absolutely no reason to go to Foothill Ranch. The guys who opened KEGs (26772 Portola Pkwy., Foothill Ranch, 949-586-KEGS) want to change that with their new dining and drinking spot. With a name that leaves no doubt which is higher on their priority list, KEGs has chosen not to overcrowd the tables in the one square dining area, instead leaving lots of breathing room around the large circular bar. Formerly a Shakey's, they left the video games and added fire pits to the outside dining area. Just two weeks into its grand opening, KEGs has a decent selection of martinis on its menu including a Vanilla Cheesecake that I can't resist ordering. Pleasingly pink, it's made with Stoli vodka and DeKuyper Razzmatazz and topped with half and half. With definite fruity undertones, it seems innocent enough at first bite, but halfway through, I start to realize it's biting back. General manager Steve Gostin comes by to check in and show off the monster martini glasses that are used to make KEGs, Southern Peach Martini, which serves four. Barely able to drink for one, I ask Steve for his house specialty. Ever obliging, he rolls up his sleeves and gets to work pouring. I see him squeezing whipped cream into the shaker and start to get worried. When he refuses to tell me the name of the drink I consider freaking out but tentatively try the electric-blue concoction that he has topped with more whipped cream. And it's good. Really good. Sweet and fruity, it feels more like you should be on a beach in Hawaii than in a Shakey's—oh, sorry—KEGs. Steve finally tells me the name, and if I hadn't already started, I would have spit, not swallowed. So let's just say you can ask for the Smurf Special. ERNEST HEMINGWAY DRANK HERE
There are a slew of tourist-trap restaurants throughout Europe that hang their shingle out saying they were a favorite of the esteemed author. People, he was a suicidal alcoholic. If you had a bar, he probably drank there. If, however, Hemingway had made his way to Orange County and was, instead of a suicidal alcoholic writer, some purveyor of supreme hep, then he would have drunk at Habana (2930 Bristol Blvd., Ste. A110, Costa Mesa, 714-556-0176). Cozy, unique and home to one of the best damn Lemon Drops around, Habana is frequented by many who frequent it often, as well as many others who wander in and quickly become more frequent. Try any one of the drinks they have steeping in the oversized glass vats that grace the bar (Sour Apple Martini, lemon drop or sangria), and you won't be disappointed. We'll see you there. You'll be back—trust Papa on this one. FORE OR SIX LATER . . .
Once you overcome the unpleasant reality that the Club House is actually attached to the behemoth known as South Coast Plaza (3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-708-CLUB), not somewhere near the ninth hole of a PGA course green, you can still appreciate the power scene that patronizes the country club-like establishment. With a 57-martini menu, it's hard to decide which to pick first during our power lunch. Only the second place we've heard of that hand-stuffs bleu cheese olives, we order up a Chopin Vodka Martiniwith garnish. Normally not a huge fan of the natural martini, this drink changes my mind. It's smooth and refreshing, and the tang of the olives offers a nice finish. We get to chit-chatting with the staff and find out that two of the bartenders, John and Tony, have a friendly competition going with their pet creations—the Flirtiniand From Moscow With Love. We decide to throw our hats into the judging ring and order up both. From Moscow With Love is cranberry-red but tastes much lighter, with peach undertones. Its contents are apparently kept under wraps by "Tony, the One and Only." The Flirtini is a mix of champagne; Stoli raspberry; Triple Sec; and splashes of cranberry, lime and pineapple. It's slightly carbonated and quite refreshing. Our decisions are split on which we like better, so managing partner James Hall brings out their special Lemon Meringue Martini(Skyy citrus vodka, Triple Sec and cream) it's a 10 on presentation—with cream piled pie-high-in-the-sky. Tastes just like one, too, but save this one for dessert. O-PAH-LEEZE LEAVE US ALONE
We're actually in the door about 3.5 seconds before a woman swoops over to us and starts tugging at Mary's sleeve. "Hi, see that guy over there with the mustache? He's my friend, and he's really a nice guy, and he's really sweet, and he thinks you are so pretty." I interrupt her barrage. "And she's married. To my brother." "Oh!" she barely misses a beat. "Well, what about you?Are you single? He thinks you're cute, too." Gee, tempting, but no. Now leave us alone. But it's a Thursday, and we're at Opah(26851 Aliso Creek Rd., Aliso Viejo, 949-360-8822), and they told me it was a meat market, but I couldn't believe it, not in Aliso Viejo, but there it is, and believe me, it IS a meat market. Operated by the same owners as 230 Forest and with a new location in Rancho Santa Margarita (22332 El Paseo, 949-766-9988), Opah is a mecca for young single things on Thursday nights. We manage to order our martinis (Banana Splitand Melon) before "Bill" interrupts with a pathetic attempt to win us over by commenting on how nice it is to see women with brown hair. We start pointing out other brunettes at the bar (ooh, look, there's one!), and he finally gets the hint and then moves on. We finally get to sample our martinis! The Banana Split is creamy but potent; a blend of banana liqueur, dark crème de cacao and cream, it's definitely a one-drink drink. The melon is supposed to be made with Midori and cream but looks surprisingly clear and tastes superstrong. We ask the bartender about it, and he admits to being new and not exactly working off the menu. We consider asking him to add the cream but decide the results would be so sickeningly sweet that we opt to take the advice of one of the non-brunettes at the bar and try the Key Lime: "It's the best drink ever at 230 Forest, so it's probably pretty good here." Thankfully devoid of any dairy-product enhancements, the vanilla vodka, pineapple and lime juice creation is tart and refreshing. And that's it, folks. Now go do your own damn research. And, someone, anyone, get me a margarita.
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