They say a man never forgets his first time, and that’s certainly true for me. The place was Toronto, the year 1980-something. A fresh-faced reporter not long out of graduate school, I had just sat down at The Library Bar for an interview with a hot-shot investment banker when the waitress came over for our drink orders. The banker asked for a martini and I, wanting to look worldly and sophisticated, ordered the same.
In those days, martinis at The Library Bar were made stirred, not shaken, and generously served in glass pitchers. My martini arrived arctic-cold with no discernible taste save for its slight hint of dryness. It burned soooooo good. I felt like a grown up.
I’ve lived in New York for two decades now and in all that time – and despite the city’s reputation for having the best of everything – I have yet to find a place that serves one that rivals the mastery and flair of The Library Bar. Gotham is sadly lacking on the quality bartender front. You have a better chance of getting hit by lightning than randomly finding a bartender who knows how, or will take the time, to serve a properly dry martini. Even some of the best and most expensive restaurants employ rank amateurs.
Fortunately, there are some notable exceptions. And one of them is Abdul Tabini, a longtime bartender at The Odeon who is beloved by Tribeca locals not only for his significant mixology talents, but also for his warmth, charm, and unbridled discretion. I suspect James Bond, a character known for his impeccable taste for the best of everything, particularly his martinis, would be most appreciative of Tabini’s handiwork with a bottle of gin or vodka, a few olives, and a splash of vermouth (although Bond would no doubt disapprove that Tabini also believes a good martini is stirred, not shaken).
The Odeon is, of course, the landmark New York restaurant that flashes in the opening credits of “Saturday Night Live” and was featured on the cover of Jay McInerney’s novel “Bright Lights, Big City.” From the day it opened nearly 30 years ago, the restaurant has always managed to attract a trendy crowd of artists and bold-faced names without making mere mortals like me feel somehow out of our element. Despite its impressive pedigree, The Odeon lacks pretension, which I suspect is one reason for its continued success. For at least the last 14 years, martini-master Tabini was another.
In the mid-nineties, 22-year-old Tabini left his native Morocco for the States with no more than a few dollars in his pocket and a handful of English phrases in his vocabulary. He quickly found work at The Odeon as a barback (essentially a bartender’s assistant), where he thrived. He kept his eyes and ears open, quickly learning both the language and the art of bartending. Tabini was promoted to bartender within eight months; I am proud to be counted among his first customers.
To describe Tabini as being a bartender would be tantamount to describing Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg as mere film directors. He does not simply pour drinks by rote following recipes long-ago locked in his head. There is exceptional art and pride to what he does, approaching each empty glass much like a sculptor must approach an unmolded piece of clay – as an opportunity to create a uniquely wonderful “wow” moment.
In addition to his sheer flair for making a great drink, I also very much admire Tabini’s inimitable warmth. He has a remarkable memory for details and always seems genuinely interested in how things are going for me and my friends, especially “Chuck” who was one of the regulars many years ago before work obligations took him out of the neighborhood. Tabini also is incredibly discreet: I’ve yet to hear him say anything about anybody to anyone. Whatever happens in front of Tabini stays with Tabini. The guy is a real class act.
This Saturday night will be Tabini’s last shift at The Odeon, a day that the regulars have looked toward with mixed emotions. While we hate to see him abandon his cocktail shaker and swizzle sticks and wave goodbye, he leaves to start Ward III, a 46-seat restaurant and bar he’s opening with two former colleagues around the corner at the site formerly occupied by QDT at 111 Reade Street.
Although Tabini’s myriad regulars earnestly pledge they will frequent his new joint, many also admit they will miss seeing him at The Odeon. “He’s like family,” confided Tommy, a local producer and director. “It’s devastating,” chimed his friend Patricia (before reminding me again to be sure to mention in this blog post that he makes the best martinis).
It takes real guts to leave a secure job to open a restaurant at the best of times, and even more so in the midst of a major economic downturn. Tabini says he isn’t afraid. “You can’t give up just because it’s a bad economy,” he says. “We believe in ourselves.”
Having enjoyed his company and his drinks for the last innumerable years, I must say I believe in them, too.
Tomorrow we drink to your continued success, Abdul. Bottoms up!