Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Extra Helpings: Chi-Town At The Velvet Tango Room

I had been hearing rumors for a while.

Back in May of this year, Paulius Nasvytis, co-owner of the Velvet Tango Room located on Columbus Road between Tremont and Ohio City in Cleveland, had traveled to Chicago for both personal and professional pursuits. As a result of that trip, an idea was born. He had the fortune to visit the fine folks at Bar Deville during his visit and really liked what he saw. What if the two bars, with equally refined cocktail menus but different vibes, were to do an exchange? In professional kitchens, cooks often do a stagiere at other restaurants for several days or weeks at a time in order to gain experience and expose themselves to new ideas and cuisines. Why not put this concept to use for two cocktail bars that have such a dedicated following?

I happened to be at the Velvet Tango Room about two weeks ago to celebrate my new-found employment with some friends and our bartender brought over a flyer that described the exchange in more detail. Apparently the fine folks from Bar Deville would be arriving for their stagiere at the VTR relatively shortly. It wasn't until I received an invitation from Paulius asking if I'd be available to attend a reception he was throwing to welcome the staff from Bar Deville that I realized that the exchange was not several weeks away, but imminently upon us. It seems that the Bar Deville staff would be here serving cocktails on Monday, October 26th and Tuesday, October 27th. To kick everything off, the charismatic chancellor of cocktails decided to throw a small two hour complimentary soirée to introduce the visiting bar staff and their cocktails to an eager Cleveland crowd.

I happened to arrive about fifteen minutes early and was immediately greeted by Paulius as I walked into the front bar area of the Velvet Tango Room. After enthusiastically shaking my hand, he asked if I was hungry. Admittedly, I had left work around 4:30 PM today in order to make it in time and hadn't had a chance to stop for any type of sustenance. He escorted me to the back room where Chef Rocco Whalen from Fahrenheit had dropped off an impressive selection of food for the staff and guests to nosh on before the start of the event. Among the food available were several pizzas, a salad, ravioli, and a beef noodle dish. I walked down the line, taking a little from here and a little from there and ended up with an amazing selection of food.

Fortunately, today was a gorgeous fall day in Cleveland, so it was a complete no-brainer to walk out the back door of the Velvet Tango Room and sit at one of the patio tables. Here was a shot of my food:

The pizza to the right side of the plate had mushrooms, onions, goat cheese, and rosemary as toppings. The pizza slice right in the middle of the plate (which was kind of buried underneath the ravioli on the left) was cheddar cheese, incredibly thin apple slices, and a chili and cumin spiced sausage. Needless to say, both pizzas were excellent, but I particularly liked the the mushroom and goat cheese pizza. The crust was thin but still had a wonderful chew to it. The ravioli on the left side of the plate had been stuffed with potato and were topped with a wonderful spicy cream corn sauce. I almost wanted to call them pierogi, even though they had the classic ravioli shape. At the top of my plate were the noodles and beef. The beef was nearly falling apart and the noodles were tender and flavorful. I have yet to try out Fahrenheit, but after having this plateful of food, that may be next on my list of must-try places.

After finishing my pre-event dinner, I grabbed my glass of water and my phone and digital camera and headed back up to the front area of the bar to stake out a table. I figured it would give me the best view of those coming through the front door as well as a great visual of the gentlemen working behind the bar. Here was an early shot of a VTR regular, Rick, as well as one of the handsome gentlemen from Bar Deville:

This shot was taken just as the reception started. Once guests started to arrive, the atmosphere really got hectic. The two gentlemen working the bar did an excellent job filling orders and creating some really dynamite cocktails. Sitting out on every table and along the bar were cocktail menus detailing the drinks we would have an opportunity to sample tonight and tomorrow night:

Paulius wisely decided early on to serve half-sized cocktails during the reception. This would give guests the opportunity to try more samples from the menu as they attempted to try and figure out what suited their own individual tastes. I thought this was a fantastic idea. With twelve available cocktails on the menu, I ended up getting to try half of them. It probably also helped that I was sharing my cocktails with two of my favorite people, Debbie and Scott. By the end of the two hours, I had probably only consumed about two cocktails worth of alcohol, making me perfectly fine to drive home.

In addition to the cocktail sampler we were about to enjoy, passed hors d'oeuvres made their way around the room. Half of the appetizers were of the "flavorful ingredient on a toasted crostini" variety, two were of the "protein on a stick" variety, and the final one was sushi, specifically an inverted maki roll.

The first appetizer to make it to us was a double crostini variety:

Here was a close-up on my cocktail napkin:

On the left you have a cooked portabello mushroom on top of a goat cheese spread with roasted red pepper slices on top. On the right you have slices of cooked chicken breast on top of a basil pesto and covered with artichoke hearts. Both were served chilled, but were still very flavorful. These had obviously been assembled earlier and then chilled for service. The only problem I had was that the crostini had absorbed some of the moisture from the cooler and had softened somewhat. This resulted in the bread being a bit delicate. Fortunately, these had been designed to be bite sized and it was entirely too simple just to pop the entire thing in your mouth.

The first drink that we received was a Sao Paolo Word:

I had actually just tried a new cocktail on the upcoming menu at the Velvet Tango Room the last time I visited called The Last Word. Made with gin, Chartreuse, lime juice, and Maraschino, I had actually managed to stumble onto a cocktail that bested my beloved Aviation. It was simply that good. The Bar Deville's version took the concept of The Last Word and substituted Cachaca for the gin. The floral notes were very similar to the original The Last Word, but the Cachaca added an extra bit of exoticness that one can experience only in a true Caipirinha. The Sao Paolo Word was definitely tasty and I rated it in the top three of the drinks I tried.

Next up on the appetizer selection were chilled chicken livers wrapped in bacon:

While these were definitely flavorful and had a lovely mouthfeel to them, I think I've grown accustomed to chicken livers being served hot and juicy (thanks, Lolita) and probably would've preferred them served warm. That being said, the zippy citrus flavors from the Sao Paolo Word helped to cut through the fattiness of this two-bite morsel.

Ironically, our second drink was the Negroni #2:

Traditionally, a Negroni has Campari in it. This one did not. However, it did still have the orange bitters used in a traditional Negroni, so I like to think of this version as a play on the original. Composed of gin, dry vermouth, Aperol, and orange bitters, this was a delightfully balanced cocktail. It had an amazing orange nose to it and it played well to both bittter and sweet tastes in my mouth, neither flavor dominating the drink entirely. As it turned out, this cocktail was also in the top three of the evening.

Our next round of appetizers consisted of two similarly inspired tastes:

On the left was a crostini with smoked salmon over a horseradish sauce and finished with finely diced red onion. On the right was an inverted maki roll containing carrots and cucumbers with just a dot of spicy wasabi paste. While I missed having just a little bit of salty tamari in which to dip my maki, the smoked salmon more than made up for it with it's smoky and salty flavor. The spiciness of both the wasabi and the horseradish were definitely welcome flavors.

Our third cocktail was the somewhat non-inspirationally named Bar Deville Cocktail:

Comprised of rye, Campari, grapefruit juice, lemon juice, egg whites, and just a few drops of Peychaud's bitters, this was an excellent drink. Something about the combination of these ingredients actually evoked the flavor of coconut to both Scott and myself. We speculated on what it might be and personally, I think it was the astringency of the grapefruit juice with the smokiness of the rye that combined to form that additional flavor profile. Either way, this cocktail managed to walk the fine line of being sweet, smoky, and bitter without being too strong in any one area. Three cocktails into the evening, we seemed to be batting 100%; the first three cocktails were all winners in my book.

Our fourth appetizer was a beef satay, served on a wooden skewer (sorry for the blurry photo):

This bite of beef was decent. It was tender enough, but I was kind of hoping it would have a more authentic Thai / Malaysian sauce served with it. That being said, it was clear that the appetizers were designed to mix it up and hit multiple proteins with a few vegetarian options thrown in for good measure.

Our fourth cocktail of the evening was one that I was on the fence about initially, a signature drink of Bar Deville called the Songbird:

When I first inhaled the very floral bouquet emanating off of this drink, I was puzzled. I knew that both Chartreuse and St. Germain were used as flavoring agents in this gin-based cocktail. What struck me as I continued to try and identify the unique flavor after repeatedly smelling and tasting it, was that what I was detecting was an almost basil-like quality to the drink ... which, of course, was completely absent from the list of ingredients. I think what was tickling my taste buds into thinking that I was tasting basil was the slightly anise flavor that the Chartreuse brought to the table. Once I identified the mystery flavor, I enjoyed the remainder of the cocktail quite a bit. It wasn't quite as good as the first three, but I could see myself ordering one of these every now and again, just to shake it up a little bit.

Our fifth cocktail (remember gentle reader, these are half-pours and I am sharing them with two other people ... if I had been drinking full-sized versions, I'd be pretty shnockered by now) was something called The Hard Sell:

A gin-based drink containing St. Germain, Malort, lemon juice and grapefruit oil, I immediately guessed where the name had originated. This drink was decidedly bitter. Grapefruit bitter, Campari bitter. This drink definitely appealed to a subset of the crowd and Debbie had exactly the kind of palate to which this drink catered. Being a lover of strong bitter flavors, this was right up Debbie's alley and Scott and I were only too happy to oblige and surrender the cocktail to her. Don't get me wrong, this wasn't a poorly executed cocktail. It's just that that such an astringent flavor only appeals to certain palates.

Our sixth and final cocktail tonight also turned out to be somewhat of a mystery. When one of the VTR bar staff dropped off an Autumn Sidecar at our table, Scott immediately commented on the floral nose of the cinnamon used to top the drink:

Upon tasting it, however, something didn't seem right. Based on the Bar Deville cocktail menu, this libation should have consisted of apple brandy, orange curacao, lemon juice, old-fashioned bitters, and cinnamon. Scott and I both agreed that while this cocktail was tasty, the flavors from the apple brandy and orange curacao seemed to be missing. And in fact, when we compared the color of our cocktail to another guest enjoying the same thing, ours was a decidedly yellow color while hers was a more apple cider color. The cooperative cocktail comparer stated that her drink was absolutely delicious, so I can only surmise that somehow in the mad rush (and it was definitely a mad rush), one or more ingredients were accidentally left out of our version.

As we were reveling in our final cocktail, the final appetizer made its way to our table, a jerk-spiced chicken skewer:

Being the lone hot appetizer of the evening, this was moist and tasty and had a nice little kick to it from the jerk spice rub. The pineapple and red pepper added a lovely bit of sweetness to help cut through the heat. For me, this was probably the tastiest hors d'oeuvre of the evening.

At 8 PM, Paulius raised the lights in the bar slightly and announced that although the reception was officially over, the party need not stop as both the bartenders from the Velvet Tango Room and Bar Deville were available to fulfill all of the patrons wishes and desires. Having had my fill of amazing food and delicious cocktails, I thanked our gracious host, hugged my friends farewell and strode out into the still lovely fall air. I realized how lucky I was to live so close to so many amazing people, restaurants, and epicurean experiences. I even managed to rub elbows with several authors, bloggers, and a chef that I greatly admire.

The fine gentlemen from Bar Deville will be serving their Chicago-based cocktails on Tuesday evening, October 27th as well. While there won't be a reception like there was tonight, the excellent cocktails will still be available for sampling. I highly encourage you to check them out while they are in town. An additional note, several of the bartenders from the Velvet Tango Room will be in Chicago returning the favor at Bar Deville in November. If you happen to be in Chi-town during their visit, you might just want to look them up and make a stop at Bar Deville.

Velvet Tango Room on Urbanspoon


DianeS said...

I didn't get to try the Bar Deville cocktail when you and "Scott" did but I ordered one after you left. It was my fave of the night, wow, what a drink!

It was SO fun seeing you there last night and... you're one of MY favorite people :))))))

MikeV @ DadCooksDinner said...

Oh, that looks soooo good. It's been too long since I've been to the Velvet Tango Room. Thanks for the reminder that it's time to make another trip...


Tino said...

@DianeS: I can't decide if my favorite was the Negroni #2 or the Bar Deville Cocktail. It'd be like choosing a favorite child.

@MikeV: Thanks for the compliment. I'm disappointed I just don't have the time to return tonight in order to sample more of the menu before the guys return to Chicago.

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