February 22 2011
It’s been open for barely four months, yet it feels as if it’s been there for years. That must be because Javier de las Muelas, Spain’s wisest cocktail expert and one of the world’s most highly respected barmen, knows what it means to give a classic a new lease of life.
De las Muelas’s Dry Martini bar on a corner site in Barcelona’s well-to-do Eixample neighbourhood has long brought in the kind of punters who really know their cocktails. By which I mean, the customer who understands that a cocktail isn’t a fishbowl full of something sweet and sticky with a paper parasol sticking out of it, but an exquisite alcoholic preparation in which every detail, every gesture counts.
At the wave of a cocktail stick, de las Muelas’s new place in the Hotel Meliá Fénix in Madrid has transformed the formerly unremarkable bar of this grand hotel on the Plaza de Colón into the classiest of all the city’s classy cocktail bars. Walking in here is like stepping into a 1930s movie, what with the sparkling art deco-ish bar area, gleaming with stainless steel, brass and mirrors, the 10-metre-long wooden bar with its three metres of stainless steel mise en place specifically for the creation of dry martinis, the waiters in smart white coats, the gentle jazz soundtrack. Perch on a high chair at the bar, sink into an armchair in one of the elegant salones, or venture out onto the terrace for a glimpse of the buzzing Plaza de Colón.
It happens that the Dry Bar is as good a place to eat as it is to drink: last time I dropped in there I ended up tapas-snacking on crisp fried tortillitas de camarones, canapés of date and anchovy (the famous Lola Flores, invented by de las Muelas), and a half-ration of delicious ham croquetas. But the main business here, the serious action, lies in the construction of cocktails both classic and contemporary.
The professionalism of de las Muelas’s barmen is astounding. Watch them go to work on a classic dry martini (€14), laying out the equipment on a white napkin with all the delicacy of a surgeon before a big operation. The gin of choice is Bombay Sapphire, iced, like the glass, at -10C. The cocktail is stirred with ice and two measures of Martini Extra Dry in a shaker, then strained into a glass containing a single olive. Finally a scrap of lemon zest is squeezed over the surface, releasing its essential oil into the mix. The cocktail is served on a tray, always, with a dish of something small and salty to take the edge off the alcoholic rush. On a glum winter afternoon when the world seems like a sad place, the perfection and grace of the Dry Bar may well convince you otherwise.