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Jeff Simon: 'The most delicious martini' I ever had

Jeff Simon

I want to tell you about the most delicious martini anyone ever served me. With New Year's Eve on the way, the time seems right.

Martinis are my usual drink, you see. On a freezing cold night, I might opt for a Scotch on the rocks, or a rusty nail (scotch and Drambuie). Or maybe for brunch a bloody Mary. Or, for variety, a vodka gimlet or negroni (gin, Campari and red vermouth).

But if you want to make me really happy before dinner, just give me a Ketel One martini on the rocks made a little "dirty" by a splash of brine from the olive jar (or a lemon twist). I used to order a more ordinary version made with Absolut vodka, that wonderfully pure product from Sweden.

That's what I ordered while sitting at the bar of Musso and Frank's Grille in Hollywood a few years ago. I was with my friend Jim Ortlieb, a working actor in Los Angeles and a versatile and very good one. You probably don't know his name, but there's a good chance you know his face. He's been on "Roswell," for instance, and played a boyfriend in "Magnolia," and a psycho killer in "The Closer." He's also been on the road singing his heart out in the road company of "Billy Elliott."

At the moment we're talking about, his face was one of the most recognizable faces on the tube in America. He played a merry congressional investigator on a Geico TV commercial that was in saturation on networks and TV stations from Bangor to Baja. The only way you could avoid the cheerful puss of our family friend is if you'd been hiding under your bed for three months.

I was, then, at that exact moment, ordering a drink while standing next to one of the most famous, if anonymous, TV faces in America.

He wanted me to see Musso and Frank's, a legendary Hollywood place that goes all the way back to 1919 and has served half the famous faces who ever went west from the East Coast. It was a famous hangout for writers; its nightly stars in its heyday were apt to be Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Orson Welles, among countless others.

Its martinis are legendary. Still. That afternoon I found out why.

You need to understand, I think, that among the more festering scandals in modern America is the pitiable thing that is called a martini in most 21st century American restaurants. My daughter once took me to a Seattle tourist trap that advertised "legendary" martinis. What was the stuff of legend in the glass in front of me was the worst and most watery fluid I've ever been served.

Even in pretty good restaurants, the "martini" you get is the equivalent of watching "Lawrence of Arabia" on an iPhone.

What the veteran bartender at Musso and Frank's put in front of me was ice-cold Ambrosia from the gods. It was not only the most delicious martini I've ever had, it was more delicious than any I'd ever imagined. That, so help me, was a martini a barman would have been proud to serve a Bogart or a Gable or a Monroe or a Cagney or a David O. Selznick.

It came in the old style, too, with a little pony of extra martini from the recipe with which it was made.

There is no way on God's green and glorious earth I'd have been served that drink if I hadn't, at that exact moment, been gabbing and laughing with a friend who happened to possess a face that was all over the tube from morning to midnight.

To understate considerably, I'm nondescript in appearance. I don't resemble Leonardo DiCaprio or George Clooney. I don't resemble Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Tim Burton, either.

That's why, on another trip to Musso and Frank's years later with fellow anonymous civilians, I got what was clearly the "house vodka martini" you get when ordering a drink before dinner at a table. It was a pleasant glass of martini liquid that no restaurant needed to be ashamed of, but which wasn't from Valhalla, either.

Believe me, I get this.

Being a bartender is often a tough and demanding gig, especially when your place starts filling up with thirsty people lined up five-deep in front of you. Who needs a pretentious fussbudget bellying up to the bar at that moment? Why can't he just order a Dos Equis or a Guinness or whatever's on tap the way Eddie does down at the end of the bar sitting on the same stool he's inhabited since 1974?

Who needs overbred showoffs?

The trouble, of course, is that once someone serves you a drink from the highest stratum of cocktail heaven, you might well be on a quest to taste something that resembles it -- at least a little -- even if you never expect its equal.

I have no idea what that bartender's recipe was that afternoon. If I'd had any idea what was coming, I'd have watched him like a hawk. What I do know is that all of his art went into it.

I should have asked him at the time if everybody's martini at Musso and Frank's was like that. Or whether it was the A-list martini while everyone else got the C-list martini easy to toss off in heavy traffic.

It was, among many questions that day, I wasn't smart enough to ask.

So let me make a modest proposal to all those in the noble drink-serving profession wherever they are on New Year's Eve and the days leading up to it.

I know that bartenders come in all different shapes and sizes and have all different resumes. I know we're talking about everyone from college students picking up some extra cash to consummate artists of the trade who've been making everyday magic for 50 years.

If you happen to be one of those people who can make something customers have never tasted before, by all means do so whenever time permits.

I know, believe me, there's a big difference between a mogul or mega-star and a schlub or what they call in Yiddish a "schlepper." (That was the term once used to describe me by a new car dealer from my childhood neighborhood from whom, until that moment, I was planning to buy a car. Once he apologized to his staff for the bedraggled and ordinary appearance of someone from his old neighborhood, I was happy to take my cash purchase elsewhere.)

You never know who's going to be drinking your creation. He may be the most unassuming and most unmemorable person you've ever laid eyes on.

Then again, he may be someone so transported he wants to tell the world about it 20 years later on a weekend when people celebrate the liquids they drink.

Gable, Bogart, and Monroe probably never tasted the prole martini restaurants get away with these days, much less the atrocities people are serving that claim to be "martinis."

The rest of us in the human race deserve an occasional treat from the gods. We're not likely to forget it.

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