I had joined Sharon and her best friend, Rami--who I had wanted to meet for years--at the Reata Grill somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. Sharon and I were there for a conference, but Rami was wise and opted for dinner at the Reata rather than salmon with us. I joined them for a post-prandial drink.
The Reata, according to Darian, features beef grown on the actual ranch that was the film setting for Giant, that Ferber fantasy that pretty much defines Texas in my mind to this day. Not necessarily a gentler and kinder Texas even then, but different. At least, I think Darian said it was the Giant ranch. Maybe it was beef raised by Antonio Banderas on his finca in the Argentine or his estancia in Andalusia. Or perhaps some roguish Mishima-inspired ronin in Kobe. I would have believed anything Darian had to say--would have, anyway, until I took a sip of the drink he so smoothly and convincingly handed over to me.
I had simply asked for a "dirty" martini. Gin, of course, Tanqueray in particular, up, Sonoran Desert dry and with three olives. My dad taught me about them, and I've learned to like them in the summers. Spring, too, sometimes. I'm sorry to tell you that the Reata's version leaves much to be desired, despite the winning ways of visions of Rock Hudson and James Dean in a Victorian manse on the Texas plain. The martini was sharp and bitter, touched more by vermouth than olive juice. As I did the next night at another eatery, I asked for a bit more olive juice--there just wasn't enough "dirt." Darian's eyes glittered when I said that; at the second joint, the barkeep paused only momentarily in the midst of giving me his filmic resume.
The three best martinis I have ever had in a restaurant have all been in Tucson. More important, I know they always will be good--no small thing when you have a martini on your mind. I recently wrote about Laurent and Le Bistro. Not to dwell overly on happiness in his establishment, but his staff knows what to do with a bottle of Tanqueray, a whiff of vermouth, a shaker and a jar of olives. So does the gang at McMahon's. The dirty martinis there are to perfection each and every time as are, I am guessing, all the classic cocktails. If you do a great job with one, you tend to do a great job with them all. Besides, at McMahon's they offer the nice twist of stuffing the olives with Roquefort. In years past, several of these would have qualified as a meal. The third establishment--which is, I confess, a comfortable kind of home-away-from-home for me--is FioRito's. It's the place I go when I'm on my own, or for those first, kinda-not-sure dates. And those comfortable repeat dates. A century ago, I used to go there for takeout pizzas; when John and Tess bought it, it always felt like I was a familiar and welcome houseguest coming home for dinner. I don't expect that to change now that Patch--he of the dimples and the adoring fans--and his partners, Jennifer and Craig, have bought the place. While I'm pretty sure I didn't teach Patch how to make a dirty martini, I did lairn the boy how to make 'em the way I like 'em. They are absolutely correct in composition, and he fills the glass to the brim (not for me, so much as to watch Claudia very, very carefully carry it from bar to booth. It apparently brings him much joy).
I seldom make martinis at home, but I did the other night, and it turned out to be a good experiment. Instead of the big Spanish olives, I skewered some pitted Kalamatos olives and used a few drops of the juice they were in. It was a bit dark, full-bodied and very flavorful--a dirty Greek martini, as it were--which will bring a smile to the faces of Star copyeditors Tony Tselentis and Mark Stewart.
And speaking of the Star: Steve Auslander--its former executive editor, best gadfly and one of my closest friends--made mention in its august pages the other day of my recipe for a beef-broth-based three-chile soup. I named it Caldo del Diablito ("Broth of the Little Devil") and it was published some years ago as part of the fund-raising cookbook series which benefited the Community Food Bank. Steve observed that it was possibly the best thing he never ate. I had forgotten about his delicate constitution.
But I can't forget his own recipe in that same book--"Chorizo a las Chispas"--which included two pounds of ground beef, 12 minced garlic cloves, "lots" of Santa Cruz chili powder and cheap red wine in which to soak the whole mess. Folks, I am not kidding you--it's there on Page 14. After letting it marinate all night, the cook is asked to fry it up and serve with scrambled eggs, refried beans and tortillas. The question, of course, is to whom would you be willing to serve this?
In the files:
To Margie P-E: Thanks for the kind words. Infamy lasts longer, I think.
To Linda R: Your dad painstakingly taught me to make a great posole. To be honest, he taught me a lot about a life well- and richly lived.
To Andrew S: You provide the inspiration for so many good things and it's always a pleasure cooking with you. I look forward to many more great times.
To Roxanne D: How cool to get those recipes from Down Under and how great to hear from you again! Letter to follow.