My friends are at the Old Mill Martini Bar. "Aren't we eating dinner?" they ask.
"Do they even serve food at the Downtown Martini Bar?"
Like many other diners, my friends didn't know that behind Bendistillery's velvet curtain sits a tiny kitchen from which 16 different dishes appear. This is a common misperception about downtown's spot for locally brewed spirits and custom crafted adult beverages.
Bendistillery opened the tasting room (that soon got nick named the "martini bar") back when the martini trend inundated bigger cities but was just creeping into Bend. The Martini Bar established Central Oregon's martini progression, substantially setting the stage for other hotspots to specialize in those complicated, fancily-named "up" drinks.
We started out the evening with a mandatory sampling of house drinks. I went for the Pom-tini due to my love of pomegranate. It was fresh and easy to drink. My friends got the Ginger Rogers, which had a nice zing of ginger and some spicy cinnamon floating on top, and the Pendleton Round Up, a hangover-inducing mixture of vodka, whiskey, triple sec, lime juice, bitters and a splash of black cherry juice. It was pronounced by my friend to be a bit watery tasting.
It was a Thursday night and the "Psatiric Psychic" was making the rounds, handing out cards for readings. To the glee of the large group of women sitting near us, it was also Ladies Night. And the group let out a loud cheer when they received the bill. I found out later, when I tried to play the ladies night card, that the discount only applies to the infused drinks. If only I'd known...
Our appetizer of stuffed mushrooms arrived and we dug in. It was a standard preparation, fresh mushrooms stuffed with a savory mushroom/veggie mixture, but nothing to rave about. Then came the salads, which were good, especially the Winter Apple Salad. It consisted of crisp romaine topped with sweet red onions and thinly sliced apples with the house vinaigrette.
My friends moved on to the Grapefruit Basil martini, which was one of the best drinks of the evening, and the French 75 - a combination of gin, champagne, lemon juice and a sugared rim - that was also very tasty and went down easily. I reserved my next indulgence for my favorite dessert drink and was already dreaming about my Cocoa Puff.
In the meantime our entrees arrived. The penne primavera was really good, so good my dining partner refused to try anything else so as not to ruin the taste in his mouth. I got the fondue, which is made with four cheeses and infused with great flavor. Unfortunately, it fell prey to the bane of fondues everywhere; it was gritty. This happens when the acidity in the liquid used (usually wine) isn't high enough. It happens to the best of fondue makers, but is disappointing for the fondue eater.
I ended the meal with what I think is one of the best drinks in town. Maybe it's because I love hazelnuts, chocolate and cream, or maybe because Cocoa Puffs were my favorite childhood cereal. Whatever the reason, every time I order this beverage, I wish it came in a pint glass with a straw.
Overall, my experiences at the Martini Bar regarding food could have been brighter. The drinks are well crafted and the award-winning spirits are local, which is a plus in my book. Paring down the menu to a few really good items and concentrating on pairing food with what most people come for - the martinis - would add luster to the experience at this downtown institution.
Bendistillery Martini Bar
850 NW Brooks Street. 388-6868. Tu-Sa 4:30pm-Midnight