The barman at Il Bistro mixes a mojito with the exacting concentration usually reserved for major surgery. The mint's a little limp; he saves the most picturesque sprig to deploy precisely as garnish, as if there's one correct location for it and only one. While the care taken is admirable, the making of mojitos in November should be against the law, especially at Il Bistro. If Tom Bergin's in Los Angeles is The House of Irish Coffee, Il Bistro is El Casa de Café Español, known for making the finest version of the world's finest corrected-coffee drink.
The barman is as impeccable in appearance as he is meticulous in his mixology. His inky black vest has never seen a stain, his tie is a perfect Windsor knot of understated stripes, and no one's head has ever been balder. Everyone at the bar watches the creation of the Spanish coffee, reverently silent except for one woman's murmur: "I love Spanish coffee."
The rim of a tulip-shaped stemmed glass is lemon rubbed and sugar dipped. (The lemon, like the tiny twist served with an espresso, provides a note of citrus that hits the coffee just right.) A small amount of high-proof rum is introduced, then set on fire; it burns blue, and the barman holds the glass horizontal, turning it slowly, watching intently as the sugar rim caramelizes. If a flame escapes, falling to the floor like a scrap of incandescent blue cloth, he extinguishes it calmly with his foot. He grates a cinnamon stick over the last of the fire, making sparks. Then it's dark rum, Tia Maria, coffee, and whipping cream from a battered silver bowl with a whisk in it that waits in the refrigerator below the cash register. On top: a grating of nutmeg.
What's so Spanish about Spanish coffee? The Spanish are said to be the people who first united coffee and alcohol, a clash of civilizations in a cup. Moorish conquerors from the Umayyad caliphate brought the Iberian Peninsula coffee; conquistadors returned from the Caribbean with blood on their hands and "a hot, hellish, and terrible fuddling" called rum. According to lore, "the rumbullion man" walked up and down the docks of Lisbon—the JFK airport of the 16th century—selling the restorative combination to shivering sailors. (The Irish variation, legend has it, wasn't concocted until the 1940s, when it was served to weary, presumably cranky American travelers at what would become Shannon International Airport.)
The drink: unsweet, unexpectedly complex, exactly the giddyap-whoa a winter evening requires. How Il Bistro's amber-lit hideout of a bar became the premier venue for Spanish coffee is a mystery, lost to the sands of time; the place has been open since 1975, the menu is classic Italian.
Il Bistro, 93A Pike St, 682-3049