by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
5800 Santa Rosa Road, Camarillo
The Manhattan of Camarillo attempts to recreate an old-school, New York-style Italian restaurant modeled on that city’s supper clubs of yore. Its ambience is decidedly urbane, with dark wood and low lights, waiters in crisp black-and-white and, if you’re lucky, smooth jazz performed live on a small stage. For a romantic dinner, you could do a lot worse.
The bar is likewise beautiful, and fits the classically upscale atmosphere to a tee. My companion and I were excited to see what kind of specialty cocktails the bartender had in store. The Violet Beauregard seemed too sweet, and no one was in a ginger mood (so we eschewed the Ginger Twist), but tequila sounded about right. The South of the Border is a margarita-martini hybrid, muddled with jalapeños, strained, and served straight up with a salted rim. While the drink went down easy, and I appreciated the hint of spice and lime, it struck me as a little thin. A blanco tequila can make a dynamite margarita, but in this case an anejo might have been a better choice, to give the drink more body and oomph.
By the Shore, with Citron vodka and elderflower liqueur, seemed a refreshing choice on a warm spring evening. Elderflowers are prized in cocktails for adding a floral element with hints of pear and lychee, and a citrus vodka should have played off those flavors beautifully. The drink I got was underwhelming; I had trouble picking up the aromatics, drowned out as they were by the tonic. Insipid is the word that comes to mind, not what I was expecting with the ingredients spelled out on the menu.
Hoping that the third time would be the charm, I ordered the #8, a Manhattan with quality rye aged in oak. Now this was something I could sip with pleasure! Rich, oaky, balanced, with a nice edge from the bitters: an exceptional example of a cocktail classic.
In fact, that might be the key with The Manhattan (the bar, not the drink). The restaurant specializes in a classic feel and traditional Italian food; it stands to reason that its best drinks would follow suit. While I love the novelty and experimentation of a mixology-approach to drinks, I retain a high regard for an ice-cold martini, a perfectly muddled Old-Fashioned, a gin and tonic with quality liquor. Judging by my #8 (aged though it was) The Manhattan does the basics beautifully.
The wine and beer offerings are commendable as well. Lots to pick from, even by the glass, and we had a wonderful premium Chianti to wash down our chicken marsala. New to the restaurant is Madison Beer Garden out front, with several taps and an impressive list of microbrews from near and far. I might find myself grabbing a pint here in the near future.
The Manhattan may not excel at trendy mixology, but in my opinion, it doesn’t need to. The tried-and-true drinks seem to be done right, and that’s a big plus for any bar. Classics are classic for a reason.