Martina in Linden Hills has drawn a lot of of buzz since opening late last year. The attention comes in part due to the neighborhood and also to the quick turnover of its predecessor, Upton 43. Chef Daniel del Prado is another cause for renown. The Argentine chef has made a name for himself in Minnesota at several dining destinations including Bar La Grassa and Solera, but his South American roots are most evident in his latest creation.
Also notable is the beverage staff, many of whom worked as part of the first-rate team at Bittercube. Beverage director Marco Zappia (formerly of Lawless Distilling and Grand Cafe) leads a team that includes Dustin Nguyen (formerly of Can Can Wonderland and Eat Street Social), and Adam Witherspoon from Alma.
Blending spirits in house, while not entirely novel, is a concept that Martina plans to raise to a new level. The bar staff has developed custom blends of cornerstone spirits like vodka, gin, and rum as well as specialty liqueurs like fernet. Nguyen explains that one individual spirit is used as the base, while others of the same type are added to contribute specific characteristics. The majority of these blends use three or four ingredients. Eventually, the team plans to showcase these house blends straight up. As a result, the cocktail menu is notably devoid of brand names, and Martina avoids the common “pay to play” practice wherein distilleries offer their cocktail recipes and are in turn promoted on menus.
For now, the spirit blends are found in an array of cocktails that range from straightforward to avant-garde. The thoughtfulness evident in the cocktail list is also found in the management of glassware, the level of service, and the restrained level of novelty. Many of the offerings feature degrees of salinity, appropriate for the seafood-forward cuisine, while a few offer balanced sweetness and floral notes to temper grilled and charred meats. Ice is also used thoughtfully and skillfully.
A visit to the bar starts with an of-the-moment vermouth blend (a signature practice of Zappia’s from Grand Cafe), which acts as an amuse bouche. The current offering has a marmalade and plum-skin aroma with a balanced flavor profile of hibiscus, black pepper, and bay leaf. The tannic nature lingers on the roof of the mouth.
For caipirinha fans, the Viceroy ($9) is a variation that offers a similar tropical bouquet but without much sugar. Classic Brazilian cachaça meets pineapple and lime, but the addition of togarashi, a spice blend often found in ramen, takes the final product in a different direction. Togarashi adds pepper, sesame, and seaweed notes that build a subtle burn in the back of the throat, but the cocktail never becomes spicy. It’s at once beachy and savory.
Though the ingredients seem to overlap, the Sous les Mers ($9) is distinct from the Viceroy. It debuts with a honey note from lapsang honey (infused with lapsang souchong, a smoked black tea) and changes appreciably over time. Bianco vermouth and lime-nori infused gin contribute an herbaceous component, and the glass faintly sparkles from carbonation. Dulse, an eggplant-colored seaweed, sits below the rock of ice and dances in the liquid, creating an aquariumlike effect. The final few sips contain the strongest nori flavor, while a sustained smoke remains.
The bar program at Martina concentrates on a higher degree of dilution — about 50 percent dilution from non-alcoholic ingredients as opposed to the 30 percent of a typical cocktail bar. This allows for harmonious flavor and nearly eliminates any boozy element. The overall volume of the cocktails is higher than what you would expect at Marvel Bar or Parlour, for example.
Based on a dirty martini with blue cheese olives, chef del Prado’s favorite drink, the Promiscuous ($9) strays from its inspiration in mouthfeel and balance. A vodka blend meets an array of drinking minerals that contain multiple salts and acid, and the result is delicate in the mouth. The thin sheet of ice melts rapidly, and we appreciated the later sips more than the first, as the briny notes arise when the balsamic-soaked olive reaches the surface. Perhaps the most recognizable element is the traditional martini glass, and lovers of the unadulterated original may be divided on this version’s success.
The subtle and restrained vibe at Martina, both in environment and mixed drinks, is inviting. Presentation of each cocktail is as purposeful as food plating and makes for lively conversation. In many ways it feels like a foreshadowing of the cocktail future.
Martina, 4335 Upton Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55410; 612.922.9113. Mon-Thu 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Fri 5 p.m.-midnight, Sat 10 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-midnight, Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-11 p.m.