It was 8 p.m. on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving and Café Maude was packed.
Anyone who has tried to get a reservation for the trendy Armatage bistro or read one of the dozens of (typically positive) reviews online will not be surprised by this. Café Maude, it seems, is always packed.
Why do they come? To sit on red velvet and bathe in flattering candlelight? To sample from an intriguing menu of small plates?
Both, probably. And also to have a drink, like one of the inventive and curiously named potions on its martini list.
If you’re carrying an iPhone you could google Ivan Putski and come up with its namesake, a former professional wrestler who went by the nom de guerre Polish Power. At Café Maude, the Ivan Putski incorporates Polish potato vodka into an unusually smooth and clean-tasting dirty martini.
You get the sense that master mixologist Johnny Michaels, also of La Belle Vie, did a lot of nudging and winking when he came up with the drink list. Luckily, that didn’t get in the way of making some very delicious, well-balanced drinks.
Like the Montgomery Burns, for example. Named for the ancient and malevolent nuclear plant owner from "The Simpsons," the drink starts with prune-infused gin and is finished with lemon sweet and sour.
Prune-infused gin may conjure up images of a wild retirement home party, but it’s possible this martini could remake forever dried plums’ reputation as a digestive aid. It’s that good.
Many of the martinis seemed designed to surprise in that same way. Ingredients are transformed into something much greater than the sum of their parts.
They’re fun, too. The Jackpot, for instance, is a refined appletini that comes garnished with a scratch-off lottery ticket.
Café Maude’s 10 house martinis are supplemented by a longer list of cocktails, most of which seem to have received the same attention to detail and ingredients in their crafting.
(Here’s a tip: At least a few of the same drinks are served in the lounge at La Belle Vie, but they’re a buck or two cheaper at Café Maude.)
If you don’t know where to start, ask the staff behind the bar. On at least one recent visit, they offered a small sample to an indecisive guest.
That is, of course, if you can get in.
5411 Penn Ave. S.