The Power of the Perfect Manhattan

I start most restaurant meals by asking for a perfect Manhattan, Maker’s Mark, twist of lemon, no cherry. Straight up, of course—a Manhattan on the rocks is like asking the chef to poke a hole in your soufflé.

The success or failure of the evening rests on what arrives at the table, and the visual cues say a lot. I’m looking for a generous glass (funny shapes and tints need not apply); a fine coating of condensation, indicating proper chilling; and a rich, amber color to the liquid, filled close enough to the brim that the server must concentrate not to spill.

From the first sip of a well-made Manhattan, the universe falls into perfect, benign order. Problems that hours earlier pressed like lead weights seem distant and manageable, and the other couple’s banal observations about the incompetent contractor handling their kitchen renovations sparkle like conspiratorial revelations. It’s us against the world, and we’re winning.

But a gaffe on any Manhattan front—tepid temperature; an inch of space between the drink and the brim, precious liquid slopping onto the fingers of a careless server, a lemon wedge instead of a twist—and the whole effect is ruined. When one of these crimes occurs, not even the most talented chef can resurrect the meal. My well-meaning wife, who has grown adept at recognizing (if not understanding) my disappointment at such times, usually compounds the problem by asking if I wouldn’t enjoy a nice glass of wine instead.

The finest Manhattan I’ve ever had was not in New York but in northern Maine, of all places. It was well chilled and very strong but in perfect balance. Best of all, it came with a sidecar glass containing a few extra ounces that wouldn’t fit into the larger one. The sidecar sat beside me like an unspent Christmas bonus. Just knowing it was there gave me solace. The food was not good. Ignoring docks not 100 yards away unloading the world’s freshest lobster and haddock, the owners had gone exotic with Montana bison, Oregon salmon, Alaskan crab and other items as foreign to the chef as they were to northern Maine. But no matter, I enjoyed the evening thoroughly and mourned when the restaurant went out of business. I would have become a regular. And that, I think, says it all about the power of the perfect Manhattan.