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Manhattan quest has the perfect drink has a sparkling ending

NEW YORK - We knew it was there somewhere, but time was running out. We'd come to New York with a purpose, my partner and I, two sleuths on the trail of the perfect night-on-the-town drink.

We didn't have much to go on, just a handful of tips from local informants on a couple of venues. We had decided to concentrate our search near the most recent sightings around Gramercy Park and the Flatiron District, a revitalized enclave of refurbished artists' lofts and studios south of the Flatiron Building and just west of trendy Park Avenue South.

Recent months had witnessed a renaissance in the cocktail world, a resurgence of traditional aperitifs and dessert drinks on bartops everywhere. None seemed as ubiquitous as that time-sanctified classic, the grand old martini.

Maybe it wasn't surprising, after as august an observer as Roger Angell had officially proclaimed the martini's comeback in The New Yorker a summer before. Who but New Yorkers, we figured, had as good a vantage point from which to savor the cream of the new cocktail crop?

We had wisely decided against chasing down drinks on empty stomachs. Park Avenue South boasts some select culinary fare of its own. The stretch between 40th Street all the way downtown to the Village is lined with places to eat, from juicy steaks at Angelo and Maxie's, to continental classics at The Lemon restaurant/lounge, in the lobby of the W Hotel.

We ate our fill of Venetian delicacies at Osteria Laguna. The house lasagna (with ragu and veal, $16.50) was a bit soggy but came packed with neat and tasty layers of mozzarella, topped with a thin coat of parmesan. Sufficiently filling - and absorbent, I hoped - for our lounge-hopping exploits ahead. The wine list boasted an impressive array of Tuscan selections, but I started slowly that night - with a Coke.

After dinner, we grabbed cabs for us and our friends and sped downtown to the Gramercy Park Hotel, home of The High Bar, which affords enchanting, if partially obstructed, views of the adjacent park, the only private park in New York. The bar's rooftop space has become spectacularly popular; so much so that it closes at 1 a.m. nightly, per the demands of residents whose bedroom windows are a stone's throw from the deck.

Red floodlights set on white brick walls cast a moody glow over the L-shaped terrace, where we found clusters of 30-somethings huddling at small tables and on bench seats around tall glasses of boldly colored concoctions. Could we have hit the jackpot?

Settling into the cushions at our corner table, we scanned the long, narrow drink menu. The signature Gramercy Chill ($12) sounded different: a quirky mix of Magellan gin, white creme de menthe, and a tinge of fresh mint. Frillier, fruitier options are relegated to a separate list called Special Tall Drinks.

I tried a sip of a friend's High Bar Fizz ($12), a dark and heavy blend of Kurant vodka, Chambord, lemonade, and various strains of berries. Pretty cute, and definitely original, but not quite what we were after, even if we didn't know just what that was. So back out we went.

Right from its unassuming entrance on West 19th, the grand and splendid Flatiron Lounge (formerly part of the legendary Manhattan Ballroom) impressed us with its understated, but undeniable, class. A funnel-shaped corridor gives way to the main room, a cavernous den with blue-tiled walls. Huge archways cover the red leather and velour seating, all dimly lighted from below by opaque candles and lamps suspended on brass posts.

One glance at the menu from the track-lit Art Deco bar, and we knew this place was good, providing an array of thirst-quenching possibilities from nationally acclaimed mixologist/owner Julie Reiner. The choices are fresh and so varied that it's well worth spending a few hours here just to sample and savor.

Start with a Flatiron Original, like the Sparkling Wildberry Sangria ($10), which the menu pushes as "an effervescent twist on the original.'' There's also the Morango ($10), a wild tropical rush of strawberries, fruit juice, and tequila.

Proprietary creations aside, the Lounge also has some of the tried-and-true favorites we were after. "The Classics'' include a Parisian Sidecar ($10) and the Floridita Daiquiri ($10), white rum and Maraschino liqueur, diluted with grapefruit and lime juice. As the night wore on and ever more Prada-clad patrons squeezed in, we considered prowling about for a quieter scene. But where?

We'd been tipped off about Flute, the intimate lounges that had cropped up in New York. The nearest one, Flute-Flatiron, was but a few blocks away on East 20th Street. Flute's specialty? Not Manhattans, not Cosmopolitans, not sours - no, not here. Just champagne. More than 150 labels, 20 of which are available ``by the flute,'' to toast the night away.

The ambience at this former speakeasy was hard to pinpoint: the cool decorum of the curtained booths and exposed brick jazzed up by a score of bassy funk that coursed through subwoofers. Shelf after shelf lined with bottles of champagne adorned the pillars and the counter.

Easing into the plush velvet ottomans, we scoured the menu for options. The champagnes span a wide spectrum of prices, including the Marquis de la Tour ($7 per glass, $30 per bottle), the 1996 Taittinger Brut ($17/$85) and higher. Intriguing house variants of the Cosmopolitan ($9), the Metropolitan ($9), and flavored martinis are also offered.

Deciding on chilled bottles of the light, fruity Piper-Heidsieck Rose ($14/$79), from which the waitstaff promptly and periodically refilled our glasses, my partner and I congratulated ourselves after a proper night on the town and a job well done. Who could have known that the simple elegance of a good bubbly was what we had wanted all along?

Aiyaz Husain is a freelance writer living in Medford.

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