By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
One of the most exciting culinary trends of the past couple of years has happened outside of the kitchen. In bars across the country, mixologists are thinking like chefs, producing ingredient-driven cocktails. Taking advantage of the cook's full toolkit, they are experimenting with textures and juxtapositions of contrasting flavors. Aided by an expanded arsenal of liquors (a crowd of flavored vodkas and rums, the mad scientist brews of microdistilleries and a recent flood of international quaffs like cachaca) and housemade mixers, bartenders are freestyling it like never before.
And now it's almost Christmas and New Year's.
The holidays' signature smells and flavors hail from the baking world, sweet cinnamon and nutmeg, spicy gingerbread, the snap of peppermint or a lush vanilla waft of eggnog. It's a season of slow-roasted pumpkin and sweet-tangy cranberries. We trolled Tampa Bay bars looking for some of the season's most festive cocktails.
Since it opened a few years back, Ocean Prime, (International Plaza, 2205 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa, (813) 490-5288) has maintained its reputation as one of the area's most glamorous restaurants serving some of the area's most glamorous clientele (Rays and Bucs regularly haunt the place).
The bar gets booming on weekend nights during the holiday season. Bartenders are busting out the bubbly this year, offering a special Raspberry Champagne Cocktail with Absolut Vanilla, Chambord (brambly black raspberry), Piper Sonoma champagne and a blush of raspberry puree and squeeze of lemon. It shares the limelight with one of Ocean Prime's other top sellers, the Berries and Bubbles cocktail, which comes in a martini glass with a dragon's puff of dry ice for drama. Like a kir royale for the 21st century, there's creme de cassis as well as Belvedere Citrus and Domaine Chandon brut, the deep rose drink served in a martini glass.
I've had my issues with Cinebistro (1609 W Swann Ave., Tampa, (813) 514-8300), the movie theater for grownups where you can dine in the dark, but the bar at Cinebistro is a good time, seeming to draw a raucous girls-night-out crowd with a great martini lineup. For Christmas the bartenders have launched a candy cane martini. It sells for $10 and is offered through Dec. 30, swirling Stoli Vanilla with Rumple Minze, Godiva White Chocolate liqueur and half-and-half, all finished with a grenadine drizzle and crushed candy cane on the rim. It drinks like dessert and is pretty as a picture.
Just across the street, Timpano's (1610 W Swann Ave., Tampa, (813) 254-5870) has also emerged as a place ladies congregate, especially on Tuesday nights when martinis and select wines are $3. They've got a seriously festive lineup of specialty drinks for the season, often offered as specials in the dining room on non-ladies' nights as well.
A pumpkin spice martini (pumpkin spice vodka with pumpkin liqueur, half-and-half and a little nutmeg) is in a serious bakeoff with a peach cobbler martini (peach vodka, peach schnapps, amaretto, etc.), with a gingerbread version (gingerbread liqueur and Baileys Irish Cream) nipping at their heels. Timpano's does its own version of a peppermint martini, with white creme de menthe giving it pep and lushness. With live music Tuesday to Saturday in the Starlight Lounge, Timpano's has a Brat Pack nostalgia that seems very appropriate around the holidays.
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar (4322 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa, (813) 874-9463) is one of the places I go recreationally when I'm not eating for a living. Often I end up with a cocktail, the bartenders having never let me down. This time of year they are doing two seasonal drinks, one overtly Christmasy, one not. The latter is a sophisticated kir-like assemblage of Quady Elysium (muscat dessert wine) St. Germain and prosecco ($10.95) served in a flute, and the former like a mint julep re-engineered for the season: Gentleman Jack, ginger liqueur, pomegranate juice and muddled mint ($11.95) in a highball glass with ice.
Tryst Gastro Lounge (240 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, (727)821-4567) recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, with bartender Logan Owens winning top bartender honors from the Times' sister publication tbt*. Owens got special props for his bespoke cocktails, inventing a drink to suit your tastes on the spot.
As a place to toast the holidays, it's hard to beat: a long onyx bar capped by a crowd of stunning pendant lamps, shimmery silver wallpaper and sexy banquettes on which one can imagine Marie Antoinette lounging louchely. In a red-and-green theme, try the Green Envy (muddled basil cucumber and celery with cucumber vodka; $10) or the Tryst signature drink, which pairs muddled berries with lemon, St. Germain, Absolut and a splash of cran ($10).
Kelly's Chic a Boom Room and its Blur nightclub (319 Main St., Dunedin, (727) 736-0206) slid into the holiday spirits just before Thanksgiving with the Great Pumpkin Martini, something Charlie Brown can get behind with its pumpkin spice liqueur, Stoli Vanilla, vanilla and hazelnut Kahlúa, Baileys and a dollop of fresh whipped cream and a sprinkling of nutmeg. It's a steal at $7, as is their other seasonal offering at the same price.
According to general manager Brook Steinway, the other seasonal quaff is an homage to a cult favorite at Serendipity 3 in New York. Even Oprah waxes rhapsodic about Serendipity's frozen hot chocolate. At the Chic a Boom Room, the peppermint frozen hot chocolate martini is crafted from Kahlúa chocolate peppermint, Godiva Dark Chocolate liqueur, a splash of cream and a couple of scoops of hot cocoa mix that are blended with a scoop of ice and topped with whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles and a candy cane. With all the allures of one of the holiday's beloved hot drinks, it's a martini you can eat with a spoon. Now that's Christmas, Florida style.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter, @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.