Barhopping in the South Bay

(Note: This article was published in South Bay Accent in September 2005)

It all started with Carrie Bradshaw.  Before the lassies from HBO’s “Sex and the City” turned the cocktail into the newest fashion accessory, this retro libation was mainly seen in some trendy lounges of a few big cities.  Now martinis and all those other recherché drinks from back in the day are a must-have across the country and far beyond. And that definitely applies to the South Bay.  No hot local restaurant worth its fleur de sel would be caught without some fancy cocktails on the menu.

Today’s cocktail culture is an outgrowth of today’s more adventurous eating.  Amidst the ongoing search for new taste experiences, there’s the back-to-the-future effect in which yesteryear’s favorites are recycled and reinvented. The cocktail comeback accompanied the reemergence of the steakhouse and big slabs of prime beef as popular items of today.  Celebrity chefs have helped fuel the mixed-drink craze by working with bartenders to create signature cocktails that reflect their cooking styles and themes of their restaurants.

However, the appeal of new-wave cocktails is about more than taste.  These are look-at-me drinks, posing in pretty colors from showy stemware.  “There’s something about the glass,” notes one local bartender, talking about the oversized classic martini stem that is ubiquitous in classy lounges for all manner of cocktail.  Holding one, you feel like a modern-day Bogey-and-Bacall sophisticate.  That was certainly the case for a quartet of women spied one early evening recently at the Hedley Club in downtown San Jose. They might not have been wearing the glam fashions sported by whippet-thin Carrie Bradshaw – local garb tends toward the overly casual — but they were certainly twirling their colorful cocktails with glee, giggling over the potent contents, and might have been on the lookout for any Mr. Big equivalents in the vicinity.

While the cocktail isn’t new, today’s versions might as well be. The humble Tom Collins, Whiskey Sour and Screwdriver – likely made with cheap vodka and orange juice concentrate – consumed by earlier generations only have the buzz they impart in common with modern cocktails.  No lounge lizard these days would order a plain gin and tonic.  It would have to be made with a hottest-of-the-moment gin like Van Gogh or Damrack.  Even that is too boring for one top restaurant, which steeps fresh ginger root in high-end gin and uses it to whip up a “ginger gin and tonic” garnished with chunks of sugar-coated crystallized ginger.  In the modern cocktail era, the wackier the better. One popular spot serves a “Japanese martini” made from vodka and sake, with wasabi on top and a garnish of ahi tuna. Perfect for those who want a little snack with their drink.  With-it lounges in some cities have served pickled-ramp martinis featuring that über-trendy wild leek, or martinis touched with squash juice.

New for a nanosecond

To the cutting-edge lounge crowd, knowing what new cocktail to order is a fashion-savvy indicator. And each drink-of-the-moment seems to have the lifecycle of a gnat in the more trend-conscious locales.  Every conceivable flavor of martini has already cycled through – vanilla, chocolate, basil, apple, even rhubarb.  In this year’s flavor crop, kumquat was the new blood orange, which was the new pomegranate. Bartenders report that the grasshopper – the creamy, minty “lady’s cocktail” popular in the post-war years – made a brief appearance this spring, jazzed up with high-end ingredients.

A couple of years ago, black cocktails made the rounds of hip lounges. They were based on Blavod vodka (it’s French, not Transylvanian), which is black as tar in the bottle and looks dark blue-green when poured. Sort of like motor oil.  The hot Blavod-based cocktail was the Black Mystique, which combined Blavod, pineapple juice and berry liqueur. Reportedly, it tastes like a Polynesian party drink but looks like an oil slick.  Underscoring the ephemeral nature of today’s popular spirits, local bartenders say that nobody orders Blavod anymore.

But certain drinks have had a longer shelf life. A couple of seasons after Carrie and the girls began sipping them on t.v., Cosmopolitan became much more than a magazine. One of the many high-society cocktails from earlier in the last century that have been recently rediscovered, Cosmos (lemon-infused vodka, orange liqueur and cranberry juice) were dropped by the New York foursome in favor of the “Flirtini” around season three. Nevertheless, Cosmos – as well as other retro drinks like Sidecars and Manhattans — remain a big seller everywhere else, including in South Bay lounges.

The martini, then and now

James Bond wanted his “shaken, not stirred” and half a century later, that’s how people today still like their martinis.  However, there’s little else in common between the simple, potent drink of 007’s era and what’s mixed up today in the name of the martini.  It seems like anything made with vodka – and very occasionally, gin – served in that sexy glass is now called a martini. This has led to a seemingly never-ending assortment of new vodkas from every part of the globe, particularly flavored vodkas.  Some local lounges are making their own fruit-infused vodkas in rainbow colors and turning them into a raft of new martinis.

Vodka remains huge with cocktail aficionados, but other spirits are gaining ground as well. Predictably, there are now so many kinds of booze available that the selection process has become as tough as picking a wine brand for many people. Accompanying the gourmet liquor trend is a brave new world of mixers and garnishes. Today, juices must be fresh.  And the garnishes are even more upscale, featuring items like Dubonnet-soaked cherries, olives stuffed with almonds toasted in Spanish paprika, and even edible gold dust.

Leaping on this bandwagon is – where else? — New York’s Trump Tower with its $50 martini made with two kinds of costly cognac, freshly pressed grape juice, Veuve Clicquot champagne and 23-karat edible liquid gold. With tax and tip, it sets you back about 64 bucks but lets you feel like The Donald until your Visa bill arrives.  However, this is not the most expensive cocktail on the market. According to Guinness, that honor goes to a $440-a-glass Sidecar served at the Ritz Hotel in Paris containing cognac and champagne that survived the 1870 siege of Paris and two world wars.  By contrast, our South Bay cocktails typically run from $6 to $10. The only precious metals involved are those you might be wearing.

Where to twirl that martini in the South Bay

It seems like reinvented cocktails are everywhere these days.  AP Stump’s in downtown San Jose has added a martini bar, joining many other top spots doing likewise.  At some of our cutting-edge Asian fusion places like Alexander’s Steakhouse and Blowfish Sushi, “saketinis” in all flavors are the rage.  Lounges in high-end hotels have particularly embraced the trend.  Makes sense. There’s historical precedence linking cocktails, hotel bars and sophisticated repartee.  So here’s where to go in the South Bay if you’d like to recreate the ‘30s ambience at the Algonquin Roundtable, trading quips with Dorothy Parker and the other literati of the day while getting blissfully snockered on a Sidecar or two.

Parcel 104 lounge (Santa Clara Marriott)

This gorgeous, spacious bar has seating to fit any mood.  Busiest during weeknights, it’s got intimate little tables for two, plush chairs near the fireplace, tall stools from which to observe the rest of the bar and the adjacent restaurant, or “the best seat in the house” according to head bartender Doug Mackay.  That would be sipping a cocktail while perched on a stool in front of the restaurant’s exhibition kitchen and watching executive chef Bart Hosmer and his crew work their culinary magic.

The wrap-around bar is a good spot to watch friendly Mackay authoritatively shake house cocktails like The Sophisticate (Ketel One vodka and a splash of Glenkinchie single-malt scotch), which is big with the guys, or a more girlie drink like the Berry White (Stolichnaya vodka, Chambord liqueur and lime) and Paint the Town Brown (Stoli vanilla vodka, Godiva dark chocolate liqueur and cream).

Those lounge guests who haven’t yet joined the cocktail nation will find Parcel 104 an excellent place for sipping wine. Try one of the three-wine flights served in a metal contraption that holds three tasting glasses. Like the other lounges included in this article, Parcel 104 offers upscale bar “snacks” as well as the full restaurant menu.  Given how well today’s yummy cocktails hide their alcohol, doing some nibbling is a wise strategy.

Lobby Lounge (The Fairmont, San Jose)

So seriously does this showcase lounge take its cocktails that it enters them in drink competitions. And wins.  Like the Wireless Cocktail (in honor of all the laptops that guests often hoist into the bar), a melon-flavored, colorful drink, not too sweet, garnished with melon balls. Developed by head bartender, Irishman Keith Durnin, it’s just one of his creations.  He whipped up a sexy concoction for New Year’s Eve called Midnight Passion (Ciroc vodka, wild strawberry liqueur, passionfruit brandy, Chambord and cranberry juice) that’s worth a special visit. It’s got an alluring, exotic flavor that hides the kick and is served in the coolest glass in town.

Mild-mannered, goateed Durnin admits that his male guests lean more toward “manly” cocktails. “Manhattans are coming on strong” these days with the men, he says.   The guys are also prone to classic vodka martinis made with Grey Goose, which seems to be the vodka of the moment in the South Bay. Blue cocktails are big right now with his female guests, he says, who will request “anything blue.”  His dozens of well-crafted libations help carry guests through the evening, swaying to the piano duets or dancing cheek-to-cheek.

Like other classy hotel lounges, this one draws a mixed crowd of out-of-towners and local professionals who stop in after work or bring their sweetie on the weekend.  While Durnin mixes a mean cocktail, his own preferred drink – like most bartenders – is less exotic. “I’m a beer and whiskey guy,” he grins.

Paragon (Hotel Montgomery, San Jose)

Probably the hippest new place downtown, Paragon presses all the “cool” buttons, from the 100-vodka list and nifty patio lounge with bocce ball court, to the industrial chic décor that looks like a GenXer’s dream living room.  Indeed, Paragon draws some drinking-age students from nearby San Jose State, but also attracts other age groups, such as “the Santana Row crowd,” according to bar manager Scott Oakley.  It particularly hops on weekend evenings when live jazz plays.

Oakley and his fellow mixologists shake some delicious specialty cocktails that often draw on house-made infused spirits, such as oranges soaked in brandy, or vodka steeped with blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and other fruit.  A tasty choice is Mango Madness (Meyer lemon-infused vodka, fresh lime juice, mango puree), while a particularly big seller is the Ferrari, a heady combination of blueberry-infused vodka, citrus juices, sugar and sparkling wine with a sugar rim.  But Oakley admits that it’s often women who order these frou-frou drinks.  When it comes to the guys, “It’s more like, ‘Give me a shot of Patron Silver and a Captain and coke,’” he laughs. The first is a trendy, high-end tequila, while Captain Morgan is a popular spiced rum.

According to Oakley, about 60 percent of Paragon’s cocktail-ordering guests “have more than one or two.”  No wonder, when there are so many delicious choices.   For example they mix up some luscious “dessert martinis” such as the S’mortini, which features the hazelnut liqueur Frangelico, Bailey’s Irish Cream and Kahlua, garnished with miniature marshmallows. Yum!

Hedley Club (Hotel DeAnza, San Jose)

Looking like a cross between the Ahwahnee Hotel’s lobby and a rich men’s club from early California history, this stunning room with its 25-foot hand-painted ceiling and wood-burning fireplace is a cozy spot to slug down a few.  Bar manager Jen Chen will help things along by offering a revolving selection of special cocktails, like a faithful rendition of the Flirtini that captivated the girls on “Sex and the City.” (It’s made of pineapple vodka, Cointreau and pineapple juice topped with high-end Champagne.)

Chen creates drinks to celebrate major events downtown, such as a few delicious offerings served during the Taylor Woodrow Grand Prix held recently. For example, guests could get their motor running with the Red Flag, a top-shelf Margarita with strawberry puree and a dollop of whipped cream.  Among the regular cocktails, Chen’s Pineapple Cosmo is a popular choice – light on the pineapple and sweetness but with just enough bite.

The female guests are all over Chen’s cocktails while guys mainly stick with classics like scotch and rum and coke, but made with name brands, of course.  The crowds tend to come on weekends or Wednesday nights, when live jazz groups play for free.

Arcadia (San Jose Marriott)

This classy spot brings sophisticated, big-city ambience to downtown San Jose, with the bar occupying one corner of the sweeping restaurant. As one of the outposts of celeb chef Michael Mina, Arcadia’s bar is persnickety about quality, from the hand-squeezed juices and garnishes to the high-end assortment of spirits.  Head bartender Tanis Orona – who looks like a younger Rob Lowe morphed with Johnny Depp – puts on a show at the eight-stool bar counter with his popular Mojita, a labor-intensive rum and citrus drink that originated in Cuba in the ‘30s and has become a modern cocktail mainstay.

Orona also mixes a mean top-shelf Margarita, letting guests select whatever high-end tequila strikes their fancy from Arcadia’s large assortment.  One recipe that won’t be shared is their version of the ever-popular Sidecar in which pricey rum, orange liqueur and citrus juices are strained into a double-dipped glass: caramelized sugar on the rim, then a second dipping in cinnamon sugar.

For those who don’t want to watch the performance at the bar, there’s a small lounge area nearby edged with a comfy banquette.  But for the ultimate in see and be seen, guests gravitate to “the fishbowl,” a glass-enclosed area next to the street equipped with couches, armchairs and up-close-and-personal views of whatever’s happening at the moment on this prime downtown corner.  Or in the lounge, for those who’ve ordered a few too many Mojitos.

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