Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cocktail Nirvana at the Velvet Tango Room

If someone had ever told me that my favorite cocktail would be a gin drink, I'd have called them insane. Growing up, I watched my grandfather make gin martinis at home and order them as a pre-dinner cocktail when going out. I would try them from time to time and could never understand why on earth anyone would subject themselves to the pine and juniper berry horror that those drinks offered.

Even more to the point, the notion of a "cocktail" just seemed so antiquated to me. None of my peers in college and beyond were interested in martinis except the kind which contain cranberry juice, Cointreau, or Godiva chocolate liqueur. Frankly, this whole "-tini" craze seemed nothing more than a dressing up of the much forgotten classic martini for the "white zinfandel" crowd. So it was with great surprise and interest that several of my foodie friends let me in on one of Cleveland's best kept secrets, the Velvet Tango Room.

I had long considered wine and food to be worthy of education and discernment. And with the advancement of the beer micro-breweries popping up throughout the country, even the lowly beer was now being elevated to a position of status and worth seeking out, even if one had to drive to find a distributor. With the introduction of the Velvet Tango Room, I had finally found a true edifice of higher learning to bring the art of the fine cocktail where it truly belongs: at equal footing with all other manner of fine food and drink.

Finding the Velvet Tango Room is the first trick. In the spirit of the 1920's speakeasies, the front of the building is quite unassuming:


Parking is on the street directly in front of the location or around the corner in a small lot.

Once inside, however, the old-world charm simply washes over you. The dark woods that make up the bar and console behind the counter just ooze with sophistication and class. The lighting in the bar is intimate, but warm enough that you can strike up a conversation with your neighbor at the bar without feeling like you are invading their privacy. On nights where there is live jazz music, the melodies waft through the air and mix in with the conversation to form a sort of symphonic etude that ebbs and falls as old friends reconnect and new friends are made.

I remember as a child whenever I would attend an important event, a symphony concert, a recital, a holiday dinner, I was always expected to dress up. It made the event even more special by visually reinforcing the importance. The Velvet Tango Room is just such an event. While good-condition jeans are allowed, the specialness of experiencing one of their cocktails makes me want to dress up. Even just a little bit. You're not going to find Rum Runners, Sex On the Beach, or that horrible abomination the Amaretto sour made with pre-made sweet and sour mix.

What you are going to find are carefully thought out, carefully measured, and artistically crafted cocktails that could withstand a challenge from any other bar in Cleveland. For that matter, outside of Cleveland. And you are going to find the most gracious staff, ready to welcome you and make you feel at ease while you are their guest. From my first visit to this current one, I have never met a bartending staff who works so diligently on making sure that everyone's visit is memorable and enjoyable.

When my friends finally got me in the door, I immediately started gravitating away from the gin drinks to the vodka drinks. After a little cajoling, I finally agreed to give one of their more recent additions to their menu a try. The moment I took a sip of my first Aviation:


I was hooked. This is a cocktail that is perfectly balanced. It is dry with a lovely note of citrus and has a wonderful cherry note to the nose. When I found out that this was a gin-based drink (no vodka in sight), I was flabbergasted. There was no pine taste. There was no juniper berry taste. It was smooth, delicious, and refreshing. It was only then that I began to understand that not all gins are created equal. And while some are better for martinis, others are more suited to a subtler use of their talents. While there are many cocktails I have fallen in love with at the Velvet Tango Room, the Aviation remains my favorite.

It became quite clear early on that the Velvet Tango Room is committed to making the best cocktail possible using only the freshest ingredients. When you walk in and sit down at the bar, the first thing you notice are the enormous platters of fresh lemons, limes, and oranges sitting at various stations. When you order an Amaretto Sour, fresh lemon juice is squeezed specifically for your drink. If your drink requires fresh lemon zest (as did my Aviation), it is removed only at the time it is required. This ensures that you get the maximum flavor from all the ingredients. The Velvet Tango Room also makes their own bitters, their own vermouth, and their own syrups (simple, ginger, and root beer) on a regular basis.

One of the great ideas that has been implemented by the owners and bartenders is the notion of the classic cocktail or a Tango version. For instance, my next drink, the Manhattan is classically made using vermouth. You can get it that way if you choose, or you can get this:


A "Tango" Manhattan using the house-made spiced wine reduction in place of the classic vermouth. I often prefer the "Tango" version of several of their cocktails as it adds a slight sweetness to an otherwise assertive drink. This Tango Manhattan was a perfect way to pay homage to my late grandfather who loved a well-made Manhattan. I don't know if I could've gotten him to change his spots over the original version, but it's nice to know that he could've enjoyed the classic version and I the nouveau one at the same time.

Finally, co-owner Paulius Nasvytis made up a batch of a new cocktail they had been perfecting, the Ginger Flyer:


With muddled ginger and lime, this was like a margherita laced with a ginger flavor grenade. The flavor of the ginger was immediate on the front of your palate and only when you swallowed did the gentle burning of the ginger reach the back of your throat. This was definitely a summer cocktail. The flavors were nicely balanced and really the only problem we kept having is that the muddled ginger kept getting stuck in the straws which prevented us from taking anything more than a small sip at a time. Which actually might be good since after a few of the Ginger Flyers, you might be better off grounded.

I will be the first to admit that these are not inexpensive cocktails. And if someone in your party just refuses to drink anything other than "lite" beer or "pink" wine, they may feel like a fish out of water. But for those who can already appreciate a fine cocktail and for those who want to learn what a fine cocktail is, I can think of no other place in the entire northeast Ohio area to pursue this endeavor than the Velvet Tango Room.

9 comments:

bonnjill said...

I wholeheartedly agree. I love the Velvet Tango Room. Some friends and I had the luck of sitting in the back of the speakeasy one night. I want to go back to hang out on the patio soon. I ordered the flight, which was two full drinks and a half drink - a delicious way to try various drinks! If you try the food, I recommend either the cheese fondue or the speck on rye - and our group split the chocolate fondue as well. The Velvet Tango Room rocks!

tmail said...

Great review! I tried a place like this in Chicago called the Violet Hour (http://theviolethour.com). The night I was there they took us on a journey of whiskey drinks (no Coke was consumed). They hand chipped their ice from a huge block so that it fit perfectly in your glass. It was a great and unique experience and it sounds like the Velvet Tango room offers one as well. Now I just need to make up a reason to go to Cleveland to try it out. Thanks Tom!

DianeS said...

Great post about one of my favorite places.

I continue to be totally pleased with your writing. Your style is fab.

Tino said...

@bonnjill: Isn't that patio marvelous? Especially on those non-muggy nights where you can just sit back, sip your drink, feel the breeze, and maybe catch some of the fireworks being launched after an Indian's game?

@tmail: I had a chance to try out the Violet Hour, but never actually made it. I'd be interested in your comparisons after trying both. Let me know if you do come into town and I'll meet up with you for a drink at VTR.

@DianeS: Thanks so much for your kind words!

Kay said...

"Tino," you wrote a beautiful article that very articulately describes the pleasures that are the VTR.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas with us, your faithful readers.

Edsel L said...

Now, aren't you glad we dragged you in there, Tom? =)

I just love this place. Wish I could get there more often. That new drink sounds perfect for Summer.

tmail, there are definitely some similarities between VTR and TVH. Both use high quality ingredients and put a lot of care into crafting their cocktails. The feel is different, though. TVH is going for a hipper vibe, while VTR is more relaxed and elegant in an old-school (good!) kind of way. I enjoyed TVH, but I have to pick VTR as my favorite.

steve.gilbert said...

As an avid fan of the VTR and their quaffs, it is great to see others enjoy it as much as I. The Tango Manhattan is my absolute favorite, though I go gaga over their Ramos Gin Fizz.

Paulius, Carol, et al bring us back to a time when conversation and cocktails were to be prized and enjoyed.

cheers...Steve

tmail said...

Edsel L, interesting. TVH definitely had a feel of hipster exclusivity. Sitting at the bar and having the bartender take us through the history of cocktails was very cool. And watching the people was fun, but there was that pretentious feel. I think a laid back feel would make it even more appealing.

Edsel L said...

Paulius says he's been working on a drink called the Kumquat Flyer. Not sure if it's an evolution of the Ginger Flyer Tom tasted or a separate tangent.

Anyway, I can't wait to ty it. I love kumquats. :)

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