The Martinis Have Landed

A potable trend hits the ’burbs, with mixed (and shaken, and stirred) results

You know a social trend is on the way out when the restaurant industry gets hold of it.

Remember Smoke in Fort Lauderdale? Probably not. That's because the steak house-cum-cigar lounge, which intended to capitalize on the newfound joys of sucking on stogies in public dining rooms, opened after the habit had already been popularized. And since sudden surges are almost always followed by sharp declines, Smoke went up in... well, you know.

Then there's the Macarena -- the restaurant, that is. This South Beach gem came onto the scene just as every disc jockey in America was breaking the recording of that signature song over his very happy knee. Last I heard, this particular establishment was still in business, but that's because, despite the name, the eatery took pains to distance itself from Latin line-dancing.

Now we have not just the martini and its endless gin-and-vodka variations but also months-old martini restaurants like Martunies in Coral Springs and Swig Bartini in Weston. But the bell curve of the martini revival is on a downward slope. Which means that now that the suburbs have gotten wind of it, you can probably kiss the cosmopolitan good-bye. The question remains, however: Can Martunies and Swig survive the inevitable filament bust of their guiding light?

Maybe if we combine the two places. Indeed, given the pros and cons of both eateries, it's almost impossible not to want to take the good elements of each and make one really great restaurant that can outlast the death of its gimmick.

For instance, both Martunies and Swig feature, obviously enough, some serious martini menus. Top-shelf vodka brands are highlighted. Cutesy names are attached to the dozens of flavored blends. Garnishes tend to be anything but a subtle little twist. But where I loved the innovation behind Martunies rim munchies -- shrimp on the "shrimptini," a frozen grape with the "bubbly martini" (champagne and vodka) -- the drinks themselves were less savory than they were bland, overshaken failures. I preferred the sweet mixes at Swig, which were more expertly poured from a glistening shaker, tableside.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the wine list at Martunies, a more interesting assortment that offers an arguably local wine like Pacific Star viognier (Leonard Fassler, one of the owners of the vineyard, lives in Broward County). Swig's list screams California and reads as if it were taken straight from a wine salesman's inventory.

Neither restaurant wins on décor -- both eateries, while handsomely and comfortably appointed, have few memorable style elements -- but location is clearly on Swig's side. While Martunies is isolated in a strip mall on West Sample Road, Swig has the advantage of placement in the nearly complete Weston Town Center. Martunies is indoor seating only, while Swig has a pleasant patio. Guess which one gets the foot traffic?

Still, I'll take the tunes at Martunies over the music at Swig any day. Martunies has hired a talented jazz trio, which seems to attract a crowd of its own with its eclectic take on the genre (think Jimi Hendrix meets Herbie Hancock). The band at Swig? I think I saw it playing "Celebration" at the last wedding I attended.

However, neither Martunies nor Swig gets extra points for service. At Martunies, the waitress kept disappearing, purse in hand, for what smelled like cigarette breaks. She also couldn't adequately describe the "barbecued pork stack," a special of the day, though she told us it was good because she'd tasted it. Needless to say, we went for a generous and juicy herb-crusted pork chop ($20) instead. But even if we did have to hand her our dirty dishes (hint: Please remove), at least she was sweet and earnest. At Swig, we had to suffer the attentions of a VIW -- a Very Important Waiter -- who excused himself from serving our party by loftily informing us that he had to change shirts so he could wait tables in the VIP room. Let's not debate the merits of a VIP room in Weston. Instead, let's discuss his parting line: "Your food will be up in one minute, and I'll be back in five." Honey, that's a deficit of four minutes; who's gonna bring out our linguine primavera in that tasty light pesto cream sauce ($9)? The food runners, of course, because "that's what they're there for." Oh.

Speaking of the fare, the menus at both restaurants are all over the culinary map, though Martunies has more of a chef's signature. Dishes range from slow-cooked four-onion soup ($4), a rich brew, to homemade Polish pierogies ($17) stuffed with ground meat and napped in a bacon cream sauce, one of the highlights of the kitchen. Swig produces "spicy bourbon shrimp" ($9) that taste like Buffalo shrimp and leave a nice zing on the palate, next to a pleasant, smoked-salmon bruschetta ($9). The latter's actually a misnomer, though -- this starter comprised fresh pumpernickel bread spread with a schmeer of cream cheese and layered with thinly sliced salmon, red onions, and capers. We're talking more bagels and lox than bruschetta.

Each of the restaurants has a gastronomic downside, however. At Martunies, some of the food tasted pre-prepared. The bacon-wrapped filet mignon ($25) we'd ordered sans bacon, for example, was served, appropriately enough, without the pork product. But the lingering taste of the bacon on the meat made it apparent that the filet had been wrapped much earlier in the day -- and that no tenderloin had been left unwrapped just in case someone was, say, kosher. Some of the starters, like the crab-and-onion tart ($11), had been barely warmed through; shellfish like the oysters Rockefeller ($9) wasn't fresh, and the shrimp in a seafood medley in tomato sauce over pasta ($25), a special, had a distinct iodine ting.

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