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Out of a possible five

Slaw, ribs shake up martini bar

It’s the kind of place you want to run out and tell everyone about, but at the same time, you want it to be your own special place and don’t want tell anyone for fear they might ruin it.

So, with that, I’ll tell you that Cocktails in Maplewood Plaza is not a super cool place to unwind and have a few drinks, it does not have more than 175 martinis to choose from, it does not have surprisingly delicious food and it is not the kind of place I have already been back to and that my wife already calls a favorite.

Cocktails took over the spot that was once the popular steakhouse Peppercorn 2 1/2 years ago. The atmosphere could not be better for a martini bar. It is dark, has a cool pillar-style fireplace in the middle of the old barroom, which still has some of the retro stained-glass touches that Peppercorn fans will remember, and a hip raised parlor area with a couple of facing couches.

The menu is pretty basic pub fare but is expanded on Fridays to include several pasta options, and smoked baby back ribs and chicken are the specials on Saturdays.

Rita Tsuleff, who owns and runs the bar with her husband, Peter, and son, Mathew, goes the extra mile.

Take, for example, her signature seasoned crackers – an addictive pub snack of large oyster crackers dusted with a zesty seasoning that tastes sort of like ranch. They are served by the basket and also flank the salads. Tsuleff only uses Westminster crackers, which she obtains from the plant in Massachusetts through a Chicago distributor.

She also goes to Chicago to get her dough for pizzas and sausage rolls. The barbecue rub and sauces – hot and mild – are her creations, and the sides of Oriental slaw and baked potato salad are her recipes.

The slaw was great – sweet with a vinegar bite and with a surprise of Ramen-style noodles mixed in with the cabbage – as was the potato salad, which incorporated sour cream instead of mayo and had bits of bacon and chive.

Even better was the house salad, which is made with freshly cut iceberg and romaine, chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, onions and olives, cheese and a little parsley.

Two of the best things I had carried the restaurant’s name: the Cocktails martini and the Cocktails focaccia pizza. The martini was made with amaretto and Tuaca vanilla citrus liqueur. It was dangerously sweet and tasty.

The pizza’s crust was drizzled with oil and garlic butter and topped with chicken, sundried tomatoes and cheese. The crust was perfect – chewy but nicely browned and crisp in spots – and the pie was even better when dipped into the side of garlic butter.

The time and homemade touches made a difference in the barbecued ribs. They had a beautiful deep smoke ring, the rub had just a little zip and the tangy sauces were above par. I preferred the spicy, which was a bit thicker but wasn’t so spicy that it masked the smoky flavor of the tender, moist pork.

The most ingenious barbecued item was the Mr. Big BBQ Roll. This homage to the Summit City favorite sausage roll was instead filled with pulled pork in a mix of the spicy house sauce and a thicker, sweet commercial sauce and cheese.

The well-done, deep brown crust was glossed with a little garlic butter and dusted with salty parmesan.

The pasta dishes I tried were just OK, with the spinach alfredo lasagna besting the rather non-descript spaghetti and meat sauce. The lasagna came in a big bowl and was covered with a bubbling layer of cheese and tons of rich, creamy sauce, which was cut nicely by the spinach.

The best part of my pasta dishes were the pieces of buttery garlic bread that came with each. The appearance and distinctly sweet flavor reminded me of garlic bread I used to often get at The Spaghetti Shop years ago. And when I told Tsuleff this, she said, “Yep, that was ours,” because Peter at one time owned a share of 50 Spaghetti Shops across the state.

The service was deliberate at Cocktails, but each server kept me informed as to how the food was coming and making sure I didn’t need another martini.

I enjoyed myself during each visit, and I really enjoyed the martinis. There was no dessert on the regular menu, but there were plenty on that martini list. How does a Milky Way martini sound? How about an Almond Joy?

On second thought, never mind everything I just told you. I don’t want to ruin a good thing.

Restaurant: Cocktails

Address: 6133 Plantation Lane

Phone: 486-8000

Hours: 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday; 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. to midnight Sunday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-Friendly: No

Menu: Cocktails focaccia pizza ($10.50), seasoned crackers ($1.50), Mr. Big roll ($8.75), ribs ($9 half slab, $16 full), spinach alfredo lasagna ($7.50), spaghetti and meat sauce ($5.50)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 max.), service: * (1 max.)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.