Having started a new consulting position in Cleveland recently, I find myself on a very tight schedule with regard to when I leave in the morning. If I am running more than ten or fifteen minutes late, that can mean the difference from slowed, but continuous driving to the start-and-stop traffic that I personally find annoying. Additionally, if I grab something quick for lunch and take it back to my desk and eat it, I can leave early enough in the afternoon that I can enjoy a stress-free drive home.
Sadly, this gives me much fewer opportunities at lunchtime to explore the restaurant scene around my client. I decided that on one day per week, usually Friday, I would take a lunch break and go someplace local. However, in doing so, that means I would be leaving one hour later, and trust me when I tell you that trying to leave downtown Cleveland via the freeway at 5:00 PM on a Friday afternoon can be simply a horror story if you don't enjoy sitting in traffic.
My very first Friday working at my client, I decided to skip the aggravation of the fully packed freeway and instead of trying to head away from downtown Cleveland, I would go to the very belly of the beast and embrace the Happy Hour at the Velvet Tango Room. I have written about the Velvet Tango Room twice before and now that I am employed again, it seemed like a wonderful way to welcome the weekend as well as wait out the traffic. As a bonus, I had the opportunity to sample two new drinks that will be showing up on the official VTR menus come early June, so consider part of this review to actually be a preview, if you will.
Besides giving you the scoop on several of the drinks on the new menu, I was also happy because I was meeting up with some friends, both old and new. And as it turned out, we not only got to sample some of VTR's delicious beverages, but also their food. I arrived shortly after 5:00 PM and even though the bar was still pretty empty, I was warmly greeted as I took my seat at the expansive mahogany bar opposite the front door. As I sat down, the bartender, Hillary, recognized me from my previous visit two weeks ago. She asked me if I wanted to see a menu and I indicated that I was interested in something from the upcoming menu. Having discovered that I actually do like gin-based drinks when poured and mixed properly, I was feeling no fear when asking her to make a selection for me. The only restriction, I told her, was that I prefer my drinks to be on the drier (i.e. less sweet) side.
"How about a bourbon drink?"
My bartender proceeded to mix a combination of Bulleit Bourbon, St. Germain Elderberry Liqueur, fresh lime juice, Falernum, and a few dashes of bitters into the stainless steel shaker along with some cubed ice. The Falernum, as Paulius put it, gives this cocktail it's characteristic "Creole spiciness." A quick shake back and forth and the now chilled liquid was strained into a martini glass. Here was The Ninth Ward:
This was a delicious and refreshing way to begin my evening tonight. Each of the ingredients could be tasted on their own and yet as a sum total, they mixed together so nicely. As with all of the drinks I've had at VTR, this one was superbly balanced. My first friend arrived just after having been served The Ninth Ward, and after I let him taste mine, he insisted on having the exact same thing.
Next up was a cocktail that I have had a few times before, but never written about, The Last Word:
I thought that the Aviation had been my all-time favorite cocktail at VTR until I tried this remarkable concoction. Where the Aviation had been a combination of gin, fresh lemon juice, and Maraschino liqueur, The Last Word was a slight variation consisting of gin, fresh lime juice, and Chartreuse. As with the Aviation, the taste was crisp and clean, but The Last Word brought an extra level of sophistication to the party. It's as if the Aviation were simply a gateway drink to something more grandiose. It was during this cocktail that our third party member showed up. When the fourth finally showed, we moved from the bar to a four-top table just across the room.
As we sat down, we cool feel the gentle cooling breeze blowing in from the open front door. At this point, all introductions had been made, the four of us were enjoying the end of another work week as well as some fine cocktails when someone spoke up about ordering some food. The only other food I had ever had at VTR was during the special Bar DeVille visit in October 2009. I knew that some of the food that VTR sold was of a pre-cooked / pre-prepped variety, but since everyone else seemed to be hungry, I went along for the ride.
We decided to order two plates of food. The first of which was a fruit, cheese, and cracker plate:
The cheeses consisted of Tillemook Cheddar, Gouda, and what one of the bartenders, Rick, described as a Amish yogurt cheese. There were both water and rice crackers available as well as fresh grapes, dried apricots and cranberries, and toasted almonds. We greedily devoured the entire plate and were even supplied with additional crackers when our supply ran low.
The other plate we ordered was speck on bread:
Speck is a cured pork product that unlike prosciutto, is de-boned before curing. After being cured in salt and various spices, it is then cold-smoked. What you end up with is what we were served today on the plate: luscious slices of cool pork served atop whole wheat bread and adorned with a slightly sweet, slightly piquant mustard. For just a bit of acid to help balance out the fattiness from the pork, a small dish of cornichon was also served.
Having finished both plates of food in what seemed like only a matter of minutes, I decided to finish out my evening tonight at VTR with an old favorite, a Tango Negroni:
What differentiated a Tango Negroni from the conventional was that in place of the sweet vermouth, VTR's own wine reduction was used. I find that the Tango Negroni balances out the bitterness of the Campari much better than standard vermouth. Instead of an overwhelming bitter orange flavor, you get a slight sweetness to the drink as well. And while the Tango Negroni was not new for the summer like The Ninth Ward and The Last Word were, sometimes it is nice to come back to an old friend now and again just to rediscover how good it always was.
Fully relaxed and sated from food, drink, and great conversation, we paid the check and disbanded into the cool Cleveland night. I had not only successfully managed to avoid the Friday afternoon traffic, but also had the opportunity to try out some wonderful new cocktails at the Velvet Tango Room. To make a great time even better, because we had gone for Happy Hour (which ended at 7 PM), all of the drinks were 1/3 off. I knew that whatever stressors my previous week had brought me, I could at least start the weekend off on the right foot.