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Shaken, Not Stirred 

g bar

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001
I drank my first martini courtesy of John the Jehovah's Witness, serving behind the bar at Da Angelo in Mill Valley. I had ordered a kamikaze and John had misunderstood me. I used to order kamikazes when the pressures of day-to-day life had taken their toll; in any event I had always appreciated the cultural iconography of the martini, so I accepted this one without comment and with little curiosity. There are certain comestibles that take getting used to -- beer, horseradish, anchovies, and especially martinis -- and that first taste was evocative of paint thinner more than anything else, a far cry from the elusive, almost vaporous transcendence I have evolved enough to appreciate.

The martini itself has evolved considerably since its apocryphal half-gin/ half-sweet vermouth invention in San Francisco 140 years ago. It has become steadily drier and has acquired the allure of cultural sophistication (think The Thin Man's Nick and Nora Charles or the ever-suave James Bond). So the relatively recent devolution of the martini into a sort of alcoholic Bosco for post-pubescents is, if not sociologically traumatic, at least noteworthy.

The current state of the noble martini is showcased every evening at g bar, a hyperhip cocktail lounge adjoining the recently renovated, retro-moderne Laurel Inn. Here the questing imbiber will find licorice martinis, melon martinis, walnut martinis, and martinis made with apple and pineapple and chocolate, the sort of martinis that inspired chronic curmudgeon (and Mark Twain expert) Bernard DeVoto to write "orange bitters make a good astringent for the face." This phantasmagoric array of quasi-martinis appeals to the same demographic that embraces Nick at Nite and the Spielberg oeuvre; they're evocations of childhood and candy in surface-sophistication form.

The martinis at g bar reside in a chic, sleek setting not unlike a living room in the Jetsons era. It's all lines and angles: edges, planes, and sharp, shiny surfaces in geometric intersection. The bar area features a long, slender island to lean against in addition to the glossy counter itself; the adjacent lounge has sofa islands covered with pillows, dollar-sized tabletops, Eames-ish black lacquer chairs, and a narrowly horizontal sandscape/fireplace that looks like something out of Waiting for Godot. Ambient electronica -- the elevator music of the new millennium -- fills the ozone with meaningless sound. A metallic tree with flickering filament branches casts weird shadows and pools of purple light in random configurations. Much of the seating sacrifices comfort for style, rendering the place largely group-unfriendly, and all those flat surfaces reflect sound, making conversation difficult even on a relatively placid Tuesday night. On weekends there are lines up the block, bouncers, cell phones, noise, and claustrophobia: a little bit of L.A. for the homesick Angeleno. The black-clad staff, meanwhile, is as cool, attractive, and aloof as the place itself.

Those (expensive) house cocktails aren't particularly soulful either, but many are unequivocally tasty, and what's another cavity or two? The Nocello-fueled walnut martini has a wonderfully nutty aroma, a rich mahogany color, and a smooth, creamy flavor, like a candied walnut with a kick. The sour-apple martini is, in contrast, as sweetly tart as a Jolly Rancher, with a pleasing Oz-like emerald glow. If you like licorice you'll love the licorice martini, which derives its candy-store hue and flavor from Sambuca Negra and Blavod Black Vodka; its cloying sweetness is best avoided otherwise. But the pineapple-raspberry French martini is splendidly frothy and light, with a satiny taste and texture, while the chocolate martini's like a low-rent milkshake -- buttery, seemingly innocent, and more milk than chocolate. Amidst all this sweetness and light, the Mandarin martini is stridently alcoholic despite its underpinnings of orange juice and cointreau, and the citrus martini packs a vodka punch but isn't as tasty as your average lemonade.

There are other specialty cocktails in addition to the spectral martinis. The Sparkling Campari Cocktail is delightful: brisk and refreshing with the bite of grapefruit, the bitterness of Campari, and the bare sweetness of moscato. Between the Sheets, an amber concoction of cointreau, benedictine, lemon juice, and Hennessy cognac, is a silky blend of complementary flavors, a sophisticate among the mixologically callow. But the Apple Crisp -- Calvados, cointreau, and lemon juice -- is murky and confusing, and the Gin-ger Tonic is watery and undistinguished despite its floral nature and rumored ginger essence. Perhaps as a result of all this culinary chemistry, the house version of the plain old martini isn't focused enough to be its usual splendid self: too much vermouth, not enough ice, and a notable lack of sparkle.

Confectionery cocktails like these demand strong, salty bar snacks to undercut the saccharine, but g bar's food menu is mostly made up of nibbles and noshes as soft and rich as the libations. Spongy canapés come topped with cheese spread and a few token shards of smoked salmon. Icy, rubbery prawns earn a sweet cocktail sauce barely redeemed by wasabi. The Mediterranean olive plate features a perfunctory array of bland, chewy drupes, and the chicken and spring vegetable salad features some dried-out poultry, a few croutons, and no dressing to speak of. But the pâté has a velvety texture and comes with a pungent mustard sauce and a fine selection of garlicky olives; the warm, toasty Serrano-manchego bocadillo is like a really good grilled ham and cheese sandwich; and the miso-dressed ahi rests atop thick rounds of sushi rice crunchy with black sesame seeds. There's a cheese platter as well -- you can order one, three, or five varieties -- and although the servings are small and the daily selection erratic, you might luck into a pungent Stilton or a nutty manchego. Seedless red grapes, crunchy apple wedges, and thin slices of terrific walnut sourdough accompany the fromage. Best of all are the medjool dates: Black, sweet, and chewy, they're stuffed with the aforementioned sharp Stilton to deeply satisfying effect.

The rest of the menu is made up of liquor, and lots of it: a 19-item wine list, 11 champagnes, nine tequilas, a dozen bourbons, 17 vodkas, 10 breeds of gin, 21 single malts, a mere two draft beers, and several brandies, grappas, cordials, and dessert wines -- including Château d'Yquem's 1993 sauternes at $165 per bottle. If you want a martini, though, you might want to check yourself out of this SoCal wannabe and visit the Owl Tree or Specs' or Patterson's in Sausalito -- convivial venues of high spirits at once expansive and intimate, much like the martini itself.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford


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