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Can 148 Million Russians Be Wrong?

January 18, 1998|CHRIS RUBIN

Following in the footsteps of New York, where Temple Bar, Pravda and other hot spots celebrate vodka and caviar, Los Angeles is now home to C Bar and Voda, where vodka, both straight and in now-tiresome cocktails, including the martini and cosmopolitan, is king.

The most basic of spirits, vodka can be distilled from grain, potatoes and even beets, partly because the final product strives for neutrality, not flavor. "Odorless, colorless and flavorless alcohol" is how Robert Rogness, managing partner at Santa Monica's Wine Expo, paraphrases the government's definition. "The dynamic range of quality in vodka is the narrowest of any spirit."

That doesn't stop Voda, C Bar and others from stocking dozens of vodkas, and charging up to $12 a glass for trendy imports. And there's no denying that a chilled shot of the stuff pairs well with smoked salmon or caviar, both essential ingredients on the menus at these impressively elegant bars.

C Bar partner Johnny Camacho, formerly of Bar Marmont, says his Wilshire Boulevard establishment sells lots of cosmos, vodka martinis and straight shots to its clientele, who are mostly in their 30s and 40s. "Women lean to mixed drinks," he points out, "while men favor shots of vodka or martinis."

Camacho has tried most of the 50 or so bottles he stocks and prefers Japanese Suntory and Polish Krolewska.

"We have every vodka you can find in California," boasts Voda partner Tommy Stoilkovich of his collection, the bottles dramatically displayed in front of black tile and bookended by rock-faced walls in the Santa Monica nightspot.

Bartender Jeffrey Blyseth, who previously worked at Pravda in New York, insists there are indeed differences between vodkas. "People have to be educated," Blyseth explains, and says it must also be served properly to accentuate its subtleties. At Voda, they keep vodka in the freezer and serve it in shot glasses surrounded by ice within larger glasses. For the vodka novice, he'll pour shots of Polish Belvedere or Dutch Ketel One, "smooth, clean vodkas," he calls them.

Of their collection of 50-plus bottles, Blyseth pours at least a shot or two each night of about a dozen, while the others, he admits, sometimes go untouched for days at a time.

Rogness remains unconvinced of the significance of the differences among the many brands. "Vodka is a marketing guy's dream: There's no 'there' there. Having multiple grades of vodka," he says, "is like having multiple grades of ice."

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