Red Lantern

Mélange, 512 North Euclid Avenue, 314-361-8883

On the first rainy night of fall, we click down the tracks, through the fog, in a mid-century rail car. Despite the trouble outside, at least we're not going to get lost. We're headed west. Our destination: Bubbles. The outside world passes like a spinning film-strip: Clouds are dripping wet, so saturated that their weight drags them down. The bricks of Central West End buildings are drenched. Near midnight, the world is a deep maroon. To quote a Kraftwerk haiku: "Neon lights, shimmering neon lights, and at the fall of night the city's made of light."

Mélange, which used to be Kirk's American Bistro, sits at the corner of Washington and Euclid avenues. It's one of the more inviting rooms in the city, what with its full-frontal windows and quiet outdoor patio. During the changeover, Mélange added a wall between the bar and dining room, and the result is one of the most comfortable, inviting cocktail spaces in town. Frosted plate glass now separates one room from the other. The bar's now long and narrow, and feels like a car on the Orient Express.

In the mortal world, Bubbles is known as Sandra Polanc, who used to tend bar at Michael's at the Best Western on Lindell Boulevard. (In a previous column, we celebrated her Hennessy and Champagne creation, Bangin' Bubbles.) Before that, the Way Out Club. Or you may know her from her legendary nightclubbing days along Washington Avenue, where she was the belle of the turn-of-the-century ball. At the peak of the frenzy, a club night minus a Bubbles encounter was considered a failure at best, a declaration without an exclamation point.

Bubbles says she's chilled a bit since those halcyon days, but the punctuation remains. She manages Mélange's bar; six nights a week you can find her here. She likes it, she says. "They let me wear sparkles, and there's no uniform." Recently she even started wearing pink again, after a decade of black.

The martini list, which she designed, contains some obscurities both sweet and dry: The 1904 is a basic negroni renamed: gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. The melontini explains itself. The signature Mélange martini contains Absolut Citron, orange liqueur and fresh lime juice. Bubbles also makes a killer bloody mary, which Mélange offers during weekend brunch.

We're drinking a Red Lantern, a twist on a mai tai with rum, amaretto, triple sec and grenadine. Where a mai tai uses orange juice, Bubbles adds a lemon/lime blend, and passion fruit nectar, the latter of which adds a distinctive, sour accent. What's best, it's two-tone orange and red, and looks like a Rothko painting. Served in a curved-neck martini glass, it sits on the bar in perfect harmony with the room. You could get lost in here. But tonight, we ride. Beyond the rain-streaked windows, the fog outside is thickening as the click-clacks accelerate. A red lantern swings from the ass-end of the caboose as we gradually fade into the darkness.

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