Gin. Dry Vermouth. Shaken (or stirred) with ice, then strained into a stylish though somewhat impractical glass, with either an olive or a twist of lemon peel dropped in at the end.
With such a brief recipe, could the quality of the Martini Cocktail actually vary that much from establishment to establishment? The answer is, of course, “GOD yes!” And the martini served at Los Angeles’s venerable Musso and Frank is the finest I have ever had.
We were celebrating my recent graduation from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, whose founding faculty included Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. While I was studying there, I also received a bit of financial help from the Mary Pickford Foundation. Pickford, Griffith, and Fairbanks, along with Charlie Chaplin, founded United Artists 1919, and they were all regulars at Musso and Frank, which opened that same year. Chaplin’s favorite dish was the grilled lamb kidneys, and an “oft-repeated, but unverified story“1 has Douglas Fairbanks racing Rudolph Valentino down Hollywood Boulevard on horseback to get to the famous bar and grill.
A gentleman adventurer is particularly sensitive to the presence of ghosts, and this classic bar and grill is absolutely full of them, carousing and carrying on over the famous martinis.
Now, I know what makes a martini stand out above the rest. The quality of the ingredients (I ordered Hendricks Gin, and their vermouth was the excellent Noilly Prat), just the right proportions, and then, crucially, the manner of the mixing. Most bartenders these days will shake the mixture with a manic viciousness that leaves the drink watered down, with chunks of floating ice waiting to startle a relaxed drinker like the fateful iceberg startled the crew of the Titanic.
The martini at Musso and Frank, prepared by a true craftsman in mixology, is shaken gently enough that the gin and vermouth are not injured by water but are perfectly chilled and mixed. When I asked for mine with a twist, rather than an olive, the red-jacketed waiter nodded in approval.
But I have had excellently prepared martinis before. And something caused this one to rise clearly above the rest. It’s a quality that I can’t quite explain. Perhaps it is somewhat supernatural; perhaps the cocktail benefits from the ethereal presence of Fairbanks and Valentino, Pickford and Chaplin…