Simply put, Steve & Cookie’s in Margate is one of the best restaurants in South Jersey. Actually, make that ALL of New Jersey. Run by beloved restaurateur and James Beard Award nominee Cookie Till, the restaurant is known for its inventive new American cuisine and for being one of the toughest spots on the shore to score a reservation.
But forget all of that. I came for the bar.
Of course it’s fitting that the cocktail program at a restaurant as stellar as Steve & Cookies would be equally impressive, and, of course, it is.
A lineup of martinis, negronis, cosmos, sidecars and old fashioneds dot the cocktail list, most of them created by longtime barman George Patten, who has become something of a legend himself over the 24 years he has worked at Steve & Cookie’s.
But the drink that takes center stage here is the Manhattan. No less than seven variants of it live on the menu – plus a Rob Roy, which is in itself another variant on the drink. Patten created all of them, but for today, I’m focusing on the one he says he is most proud of, the Joe Artuso Manhattan.
But first, a little background on the drink itself:
The Manhattan gets its name from the New York City borough, of course, with popular legend crediting it to being invented in the mid-1870s at a nightclub called The Manhattan Club. According to lore, the drink was created specifically for a banquet honoring then presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden. The standard ingredients of the drink are rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters, garnished with a maraschino cherry.
My personal familiarity with the Manhattan goes back to my earliest years. My grandparents were enthusiasts of the drink, and many times the 5-year-old version of me sat perched on the couch next to my grandmother, begging her to part with the bright red maraschino cherry that swam in her cocktail. Being the sweetest woman in the history of the world, she would eventually surrender the garnish (albeit somewhat reluctantly – after all, there was liquor coating that cherry!)
As a result, I became the only kindergartner in my class who could skillfully identify a decent rye in a blind taste test, a source of pride to this day.
The Joe Artuso Manhattan
Masterson’s 10 Year Old Rye, Tosolini Amaro, Cocchi 1891 Sweet Vermouth di Torino
I sampled sips of a few of the Manhattans on the cocktail menu – I would have loved to try all of them, but there is only so much on-the-job boozing that one can do in a work day and still remain functional. The standout for me was the Joe Artuso Manhattan, a variant named for a loyal customer of the restaurant.
Make no mistake – this is not a drink for anyone whose idea of a great cocktail involves pink umbrellas or lots of fruity liqueurs, sodas or juices. The rye is pronounced and up front in the mix, but Masterson’s is about as good as it gets when it comes to smoothness, with toasty notes of grain and a medium body that pairs up perfectly with the vermouth. “It’s a hell of a rye,” Patten says with certainty.
The Tosolini Amaro does a nice job adding bitterness to the drink without going the traditional angostura route. Finally, the addition of some truly divine cognac-soaked cherries adds a lovely hint of sweetness to counteract the stiffness of the drink. Forget the fire engine red ones you see at the supermarket – these are the real deal. And so is the Joe Artuso Manhattan.