This drink's on the Island | Mercer Island bars offer unique, festive variety

Bennett’s Pure Food Bistro bartender Roger Rookstool pours a custom drink on Mercer Island, Dec. 23. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Bennett’s Pure Food Bistro bartender Roger Rookstool pours a custom drink on Mercer Island, Dec. 23.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

When it comes to a night on the town, most Islanders head for Seattle or Bellevue. Yet Mercer Island has its own share of bars and restaurants; many of them neighborhood favorites. Many Islanders will agree; there is nothing like a familiar drink served by a familiar face where — maybe not everyone — but somebody knows your name.

In the spirit of this festive season, the Reporter visited some of the Island’s most popular bars and restaurants, asking to try a sample of each establishment’s “specialty” drink — the house cocktail that brings locals in every Friday night or that special Peppermint Martini, perfect for this month’s snowy weather. Although Mercer Island may not be a nightlife hot-spot, we found that each establishment has a signature drink that brings Islanders back. Whether it is an elegant “wine flight” at Cellar 46 or a glass of hot sake at Yuzen Japanese Restaurant, everyone has their favorite.

The Islander Pub and Restaurant

The Islander is mixing up a special winter drink this holiday season, the Peppermint Martini. This seasonal special comes with vodka, creme de menthe and peppermint schnaps. It is garnished with a candy cane. According to Manager Stephanie McGough, the Islander serves more than a dozen martinis of various flavors.

“There’s maybe 15 to 20 specialty martinis that we have,” said McGough. “We started listing them on our chalkboards about six months ago, and they’ve become really popular.”

Another Islander favorite is the Peach Margarita Martini. This tropical drink comes shaken with 1800 Tequila, peach schnaps and splashes of triple sec, sweet and sour. The drink is topped off with orange juice. Tonight, the Islander is serving two special New Year’s Eve entrees: the broiled lobster tail ($22) and steak and lobster ($32). Both dishes are served with sweet corn butter and gratin potatoes. For dessert, the restaurant is offering a delectable chocolate cravat bande for two ($16) that includes a toast with two glasses of champagne.

Cellar 46

The Island’s wine bar and restaurant, Cellar 46, is featuring a “very popular” wine flight this season, called Winter Warmers. For $20, guests receive four taste glasses (2 oz.) of warm Northwest reds to please the pallet. The Substance Syrah, Challenger Ridge cabernet sauvignon and two full-bodied Columbia Valley blends were selected for their bold flavors. The restaurant features four other flights as well, ranging between $17 and $24. During happy hour (4 to 6 p.m.) the flights — served in an elegant steel holder — cost only $10.

Owner Ryan Allison said the flights are usually themed for the season, by varietal or location. Guests can build their own flight with any wines available by the glass.

“Wine flights offer the bridge between those who want to get into wine, those who know about wine and those a little afraid of learning about the wine world,” said Cellar 46 bartender Garth Hockersmith. “As a wine appetizer, flights show the most important thing about the wine world — that there’s a wine for every person out there.”

Cellar 46 will be one of the few Island establishments popping champagne tonight, with a classy New Year’s party from 7 p.m. until the wee hours of 2009.

Bennett’s Pure Food Bistro

At Bennett’s Pure Food Bistro, the house special isn’t a drink; it’s the bartender. Roger Rookstool, who has worked at Bennett’s since it opened, is somewhat of an Island celebrity.

“The entire Island loves him,” said Bennett’s General Manager Sarah Jennerjahn. “We have some serious, hard-core locals who come in just for Roger’s cocktails. He creates them and makes them himself. He’s kind of the man around this place.”

Indeed, Rookstool is a permanent face behind Bennett’s bar, at least Tuesday through Saturday. As for his signature cocktails, he keeps the recipes a secret.

“There are a couple of weekly specials that turn into monsters,” Rookstool said when asked about guest favorites. The Hot Chika and Roger’s Margarita are two such examples.

“I have people I’ve never seen before who want to order my Hot Chika,” he said, revealing only that the drink combines muddled jalapenos, fresh lime, raspberry liqueur and vodka. “My margarita is also pretty popular.”

Rookstool has been a bartender for more than six years, beginning at Club Medusa in Seattle. Islanders can get an early New Year’s drink from the man this evening, as Bennett’s will be open at regular hours until 9:30 p.m.

El Sombrero

The only Mexican restaurant on the Island, the South end’s El Sombrero is all about the margarita. “People drink more margaritas than any other alcohol we have,” said co-owner Yadi Rodriguez, adding that 90 percent of drink sales are from margaritas. “The other 10 percent is the Mexican Coffee. We maybe sell one glass of wine a night.”

The most popular margarita is the El Sombrero Signature Margarita ($9.99), a mix of fresh-squeezed lime juice, Gran Gala orange liqueur and Don Julio Blanco Tequila, which Rodriguez swears “is the best out there.” The recent flurry of snow has not kept South end residents away from their margaritas; in fact, just the opposite. “These five days have been wonderful,” Rodriguez said. “People have been walking here just to warm up with a shot of tequila.” El Sombrero will be open on New Year’s Eve, offering Islanders a tropical alternative to champagne.

Yuzen Japanese Restaurant

There’s nothing like a warm shot of Japanese sake on a frigid, snowy day. The rice-based alcohol is traditionally served heated in the winter. But at Yuzen Japanese Restaurant, guests can order their sake any way they like.

“There’s no certain way to drink sake,” said owner Taiki Hanamoto. “You can have it hot, cold, room-temperature, any way you want.” Yuzen, which is two doors down from El Sombrero in the South-end shopping center, has dozens of different types of sake in the bar; so many that Hanamoto could not even count. The drinks range in price from $4 a shot and $20 a bottle to three times as much for “high-end” sake. One of the owner’s favorites is the Midnight Moon unfiltered sake, with its smooth, natural taste. Although not on the menu, this “super premium” sake can be ordered from the waiter. Yuzen will be open for the New Year’s holiday.

The Roanoke

The oldest establishment on Mercer Island, the Roanoke Tavern is irreplaceable for many an Islander. During the winter break especially, the cozy tavern overflows with old haunts: MIHS graduates from decades past, Islanders returned for family reunions and the weekly locals. Lucky is the man who finds an empty seat.

According to server Ryan Potter, the big holiday drink this year is the Jolly Roger Christmas Ale. With a festive pirate theme (“Yo-ho-ho” reads the beer label), this darker Christmas Ale — with its deep malty fruit — is a Roanoke Christmas favorite.

“We usually get only one keg a year, because it’s so popular. But this year, we got a second one. It does pretty well during the winter season,” said Potter.

The keg of Jolly Roger may be empty by New Year’s, but the bar’s rotating taps boast a number of Northwest favorites.

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