File this one under "Life's Little Twists": A veteran chef-owner wants to increase booze sales at her restaurant, so she rechristens it in honor of a popular mixed drink, features more than 125 variations of said cocktail in her dinner menu, and then discovers it's her bar, not her kitchen, that garners the bulk of attention from customers and critics alike.
In this particular exercise in irony, the chef-owner is Carolyn Leedy, the drink is the martini, and the restaurant is Lakewood's Martini's on the Avenue. And yes, the generously sized, powerfully built martinis (many of them with as tenuous a relationship to their gin-vermouth-and-a-twist progenitor as you have to the queen of England) are riveting indeed. The huge drink menu features gin, vodka, fruit, and chocolate permutations, to name just a few. And fanciful presentations -- employing carafes, ice bowls, and enough out-of-the-ordinary styles of martini glasses to stock the shelves at Crate & Barrel -- are a large part of the overall allure. For even greater panache, each one of the signature drinks is accompanied by a tiny canapé -- dainties such as a pouf of piped pâté, topped with half a kalamata olive, or a swirl of cream cheese, crowned with a salmon curl and a dusting of dill.
Like a bowlful of jellybeans, the colorful libations are as much a treat for the eye as for the palate. An irresistibly fruity Ten Grand ($12.50), for instance, made with Tanqueray 10, Grand Marnier, and pineapple and lime juices, shimmered in its glass like a little ball of sunshine. A Black Russian ($9), with Smirnoff Silver, Kahlua, and coffee beans, gleamed like burnished wood. And Bo Derek ($12), with more Tanqueray 10, now partnered with dry and sweet vermouths, and Maytag-blue-stuffed olives, was as clear and bright as a lightning bolt.
Just as important, Martini's bartenders are an agreeable lot. Don't like blue cheese, you say? Then get your olives stuffed with pimento, garlic, roasted red pepper, onion, citrus, anchovy, or jalapeño. Don't like olives? Try pickled carrots, cocktail onions, or cornichons instead. Not really a fan of either gin or vodka? Check out the scotch- or bourbon-laced Manhattans, the impressive collection of sipping tequilas, or the expansive wine list (with plenty of half-bottle options included). The bar also stocks an enticing supply of cognacs, armagnacs, sherries, ports, and madeiras. And for you back-to-basics types, there's a lengthy list of imported beers and microbrews, in bottles and on tap.
Amid all this liquid refreshment, then, it can be understandably hard to recall that Martini's is more than a lounge and that Leedy has been practicing the culinary arts for nearly half of her 49 years. The former pre-med student first dipped her toes into the industry's murky waters in 1980, when she opened a small deli on the site of her present operation. From that humble beginning, she went on to grow her business -- refining her cooking skills, expanding the facilities, and scoring a liquor license -- until 1996, when she finally changed the restaurant's name to Martini's, the better to announce the availability of hooch. Since that time, Leedy has developed a sophisticated menu of updated classics, replete with trendy ingredients such as goat cheese, truffle oil, and candied nuts. While the emphasis is on Certified Black Angus steaks and fresh fish and seafood, Leedy also toils over pasta, lamb, pork, veal, and chicken dishes, and her global wanderings, mostly contained in a long listing of weekly specials, take diners from Pacific Rim rumbas like miso-glazed salmon with cucumber-daikon relish, to Eastern European grooves like chicken paprikash and spaetzel.
After two visits, we declare the lineup of interesting appetizers and salads to be the kitchen's forte. A plump, aromatic tempura-battered-and-fried hand roll, its crisp nori wrapper embracing a filling of sticky rice, ahi tuna, cucumber, pickled ginger, and wasabi, was a clever reinterpretation of good old sushi, and beyond that, it earned points for its enticing interplay of textures, temperatures, and flavors. On the other hand, spicy andouille sausage and strips of roasted red pepper, loaded onto thinly sliced, grilled crostini, were the epitome of simplicity, but the rustic reunion of smoke and fire turned out to be slyly irresistible.
Lightly floured calamari, sautéed in plenty of garlic and lemon juice, proved faultlessly tender and moist, although an emphatically sweet marinara sauce, on the side, easily could have overwhelmed it. And if a flood of dressing dragged down an otherwise tasty salad of baby greens, tossed with strawberries, blackberries, goat cheese, and candied walnuts, then an earthy grilled portobello salad, with savory mushroom slices fanned out on a bed of lettuces, piqued with goat cheese, toasted pine nuts, basil oil, and a sweet-tart balsamic syrup, was lush, fragrant, and beautifully balanced.
Of course, a constantly changing menu, relatively demanding preparations, and a tiny staff can conspire to trip up even the most exacting kitchen; perhaps that explains why several of our main courses left us wishing we'd stuck with the starters. A way-too-salty sauce, for instance, put the kibosh on a dish of sautéed veal and shrimp, a Saturday-night special prepared by Leedy's backup crew when the chef was out of the kitchen; the chewy, overcooked shrimp further dampened our enthusiasm. Sliced pork tenderloin, in a mustard port sauce, was also tough and dry; sides of tasteless tempura-battered sweet potato fries, underdone carrots, and overdone green beans didn't help. And too much fat and gristle marred a nicely seasoned Black Angus strip steak, generously topped with melted Maytag blue; nearly as vexing, the promised garnish of "Cajun-spiced crispy onions" tasted like nothing more than a particularly greasy batch of onion rings.
But there were winners as well. Seared ahi tuna, for instance, with a crunchy coating of black-and-white sesame seeds, was cashmere plush and delicately flavored; perfectly al dente orecchiette, draped with a mellow wild-mushroom cream sauce and a hint of truffle oil, was sleek and rich, but not too heavy.
Like some of the entrées, Martini's ambiance could use a little sprucing up. With tired landscaping and a partially burnt-out neon sign, the restaurant's exterior seemed drab and unappealing. But despite first impressions, the compact interior proved clean and neat, if not as stylish as the menu prices might lead one to expect. A short wooden bar, a handful of hightops, a postage-stamp-sized dance floor, and a niche reserved for the Friday- and Saturday-night musical entertainment made up the small, dimly lit lounge space. And in the slightly larger, equally dim dining room, a working fireplace, dried flower arrangements, and heavy gold-and-burgundy draperies set a somber pseudo-Victorian mood: not inelegant, but certainly better suited to a blustery winter night than to a gentle spring evening. Lugubrious background music -- Sinatra and a collection of 1960s pop tunes -- didn't add much to the energy level either; truth be told, a companion and I nearly broke into cheers when one well-lubed patron ordered the server to "turn down that elevator music!"
Nonetheless, it seemed a shame to see how sparsely populated the dining room was on both a Friday and a Saturday night, when we lingered until nearly 10 p.m. over pots of French-press coffee and homemade key lime-coconut pie -- a sweetly satisfying ending of zesty citrus filling in a macaroon-like crust. After all, the servers are friendly here, the booze menu rocks, and much of the food is creative and well prepared. A little tightening up in the kitchen, a little brightening up in the dining room, and an effort to increase the curb appeal, and the restaurant could certainly be a contender for crowds of West Side hipsters -- people for whom martinis could be just the prelude to a satisfying meal.