It’s rare to have a perfect moment, but I had one at the press reveal for Optima Chicago last night. Their grand opening is today and I urge you to go because if you are fortunate, if you are lucky, if you surrender to their delightful artifice you just might have a moment of pure and optimal joy.
There are a lot of things about Optima that one could write about. The décor is 1979 rock & roll eclectica with a contemporary wash. Their guacamole is spectacular. Their vibe is tight and their drink menus are hip as all get out. I should write about all that. I should write about their lighting on the second floor, which is the swankier older sister space to downstairs, the one who went to Yale and got a degree in semiotics and only listens to vinyl and gets drunk on Bourbon shots and talks about philosophy. I should talk about their delightfully weird-elegant VIP lounge with its wingback chairs and illuminated horseshoe endcap four-top. I should talk about their brilliant front wall of pure glass with its comfortable booths and handful of two tops and a place for a band to play (like Mid to Midwest who was taking us all back to 1979 AOR radio and fulfilling deep cut requests like it was nothing). But I’m not gonna.
I want to talk about their drinks. I want to walk you through a great drink menu that leads up to a debut cocktail that may be the most Chicago martini ever.
But first, can we talk about Whiskey Mango Foxtrot? Look, it’s summer. It’s 91 degrees by the lake. We need cucumber and white spirits. We need cracked ice and lemon and herbs. We need refreshment. The Whiskey Mango Foxtrot is Bulleit bourbon, apricot, lemon mango, and a basil leaf the bartender smacks into her palm to bring out the flavorful oils. It’s both sweet and savory and a brilliant glowing sunset orange. Five stars.
Can we talk about the Satan Gave me a Taco, named after the slightly insane song of the same name by Beck? Corazon Blanco tequila, passion fruit, lime, and hellfire bitters. It’s rimmed with cayenne pepper and salt. It’s as delicious as the song is maniacal.
Can we talk about the Out of Port Arthur which offers Tito’s Vodka, lemon, cucumber, basil, and prosecco? Can we? Because it’s frikkin’ delicious and after a long day in the sun I can’t think of a better drink to bring me back to life except yes I can.
It’s this one: The Rebel Yell.
The Optima was pushing those first three drinks on the reporters gathered in the upstairs swankatorium because that’s how press reveals work: they make a handful of their drink menu and everyone gets to try them with a little snackage and all is good. But I’m not a very good reporter and when I saw the ingredients of the Rebel Yell, I politely and very quietly begged the bartender to go off script and give me one of these because a) Billy Idol, and b) it has Giffard’s Pamplemousse which is really a lot of fun to say after you’ve had all those drinks mentioned above and c) Malort.
I hate Malort. I love Malort. I have a complicated relationship with Malort because Malort is not a beverage, Malort is medicine. Malort, for the uninitiated, is the result of a very, very, very inebriated man from deep in the Ukraine who one day found himself out of booze but flush with yak urine and thought, oi, I can make wodka, maybe. And then did.
Here in Chicago, where Malort is made and possibly the only place where it is seriously consumed, Malort is an institution. It’s a mental institution but, still, it’s a cultural standard wherein finely bearded hipstars, frat boys, and Burning Mannists across the city turn to their slightly woozy sidekick and say dude, have you ever had Malort? The sidekick says, no let’s do this or heck yeah, let’s do this, neither answer leading them to a happy place but, instead, leading them to a moment of unalloyed and overwhelming regret because Malort is horrible.
Malort has some kind of unyielding draw and, like choosing to inhale the malodorous perfume of a skunk or watching the last three episodes of Lost; you have to do it even though you know it’s awful and you’re going to hate yourself.
As an ingredient, it has no place outside a lab dedicated to ending rampant disease or mixing up industrial barn floor reagents. Yet Optima managed to develop a drink using Malort – and it’s delicious. Dig this:
Broker’s Gin, the old-schooliest of old-school gins, a wildly botanical spirit made in the least efficient method via pot stills in Birmingham England, provides a flavorful and boozy foundation. Giffard’s Pamplemousse pink grapefruit liqueur adds more botanicals and the barest hint of citrus. Vermouth because of course. Malort. It’s like a Last Word (gin, green chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, fresh lime juice) but lighter and not anything like a Last Word.
The Rebel Yell may be the most quintessentially Chicago cocktail I’ve tasted in a long time. It’s served in a perfect cocktail glass (not a martini coupe) is visually elegant with a shaved lemon peel garnish sunk into its perfectly clear body and tastes absolutely, remarkably, wonderfully classy, with a silky mouthfeel like you’re being kissed by a Russian supermodel, but then, after all those complimentary and nuanced flavors and textures and visuals have seduced you in that first frigid sip, the Rebel Yell kicks you in the capones and laughs maniacally in your face while fist pumping and blaring White Wedding like a &^%#**^ lunatic.
Go to Optima in the summer around 6:30 pm. Dig the 1970s aesthetic. Enjoy the DJ.
And, if you want a perfect moment, order the Rebel Yell.