As soon as I heard about Park Tavern's new three-martini lunch, I took it as a Mad Men-style challenge. The North Beach restaurant recently began offering a three-course prix-fixe lunch menu on Fridays that features farmers' market produce and special cocktail pairings with each course (there are rose pairings, too, for the weak; the lunch runs $37 without drinks, $50 with). So some other media folks -- the only ones I could convince to drink three martinis in the middle of the day with me -- headed over with me last Friday to see what would become of us after such an undertaking.
Our lunch started strong with a smoked melon martini, a mescal-based concoction that looked vaguely medicinal. It tasted strongly of smoke with a bit of sweetness from the melon, and we were all relieved that the martini glasses served weren't those bathtub-sized monstrosities that became in vogue in the nineties, but rather the smaller, mid-century size, back in the days when three martinis at lunch wouldn't absolutely put you under the table.
The first few sips were pretty hardcore, but after a few more the cocktail went down smoothly and its robust flavor paired nicely with the first course, a warm, gorgeously composed grilled Monterey squid salad with hunks of melon, crispy pork cracklings, and seaweed in a white soy dressing.
We were feeling pretty good after the first drink: joking around, Tweeting, gossiping, talking about our weekend plans. The second cocktail arrived soon after our empty first course plates were whisked away. Drink #2, the Hanky Panky, was more traditional, made with gin, vermouth, and fernet. It didn't have as much personality as the first, but its clean flavor was appreciated with the second course, a petrale sole "puttanesca."
This was fish treated with the utmost respect, perfectly cooked in butter, garnished with a fried anchovy and capers, salty olives, green beans, tomatoes, and a pool of buttery sauce. We ate slowly, savoring the flavors, and were all sorry to finish our plates. By then our drinks were gone, too, and we were getting rowdy. The conversation turned personal. Someone started telling a Vegas story. I couldn't tell how loud we were getting.
But press on we must, to the final dessert course. Here we had a choice between cheese and apple pie, but all went with the pie mostly because of the drink that accompanied it, an Autumn Sour made with rye, apple, and lemon. It had a dried apple slice floating in the middle and its taste conjured up visions of hayrides, pumpkin patches, and nights by a crackling fire.
Our attention was diverted by the arrival of the deconstructed apple pie. Honeycrisp apples had been cooked with autumnal spices to become a compote, then paired with crispy pastry, vanilla ice cream, and Calvados-caramel sauce. The best part, though, was the cheddar whipped cream off to the side, a nod to the traditional cheddar-and-apple pairings. It was one of the more playful desserts I've had in recent memory, and we were delighted by it; I'm pretty sure it wasn't just the three martinis talking.
Afterward we had espresso and I walked back to the office. Thanks to the modest size of the cocktails I wasn't as visibly tipsy as I'd expected, though I must say I wasn't super-productive (I'd purposely stacked the day so I didn't have much actual work to do in the afternoon; I was able to send emails, but not a lot else). Studies have shown that alcohol makes people more creative in the workplace, hence all those 1950s ad men boozing it up, but I had so little attention span that I doubt I could have executed ideas even if I'd had them.
Would I submit myself to the three-martini lunch again? Probably not, but that doesn't mean I won't return at happy hour for the cocktails, which were elegant and balanced, and again for the prix-fixe lunch sans booze, for the uniformly delicious and well-composed food. Someday in the future, when I've forgotten the lesson of this experiment, I may even hazard the rose pairings.