Suddenly I am on a cool cocktail bar bender.
Over Halloween, I was in New York City, and had a chance to visit the excellent Pegu Club. You can read of my adventure here. The next weekend I had a different, in many ways better, experience in Cleveland, Ohio, at The Velvet Tango Room.
The owner, Paulius Nasvytis, has the questionable taste to read this blog regularly, and he saw my bleg about bars to go to in NYC. He suggested a couple of good ones, and then his own Velvet Tango Room for my next trip to Cleveland. It was my extreme good fortune that I had a party to do in Cleveland the very next weekend. We hooked up and I was able to get to the joint about eleven on Saturday night.
Now, I mentioned that the Pegu Club was unimpressive from the street. The Velvet Tango Room makes Pegu look like The Mirage. When Paulius bought the VTR, it was a condemned cowboy bar (the kind where they have
both kinds of music: Country and Western). The picture below is from Google Maps Streetview. At night, the shutters roll up and you can see little four-inch-high blue neon letters that say the name in one window. In short, it goes from looking like an abandoned dive bar by day, to looking like an operating dive bar by night. From the outside.
Inside, you will find the front room with a few tables. The ancient mahogany bar, gorgeously scarred and meticulously maintained, is on the wall to your left. It seats about fifteen guests, maybe. The second room has more seating, including a group of comfortable couches, and a grand piano that is put to good use by a variety of jazz artists and their bands. The music is good, but not overpowering. You can have a quiet conversation with ease. Beyond that is the back of the house area, and a huge, gold framed mirror. Ask Paulius about the mirror. It’s fun.
Enough with the layout! It’s nice bar. We get it. Can we move on to the drinks now?
When I arrived, I camped out at the end of the bar. The VTR was just enough less crowded than Pegu for there to be one seat left for me. I asked for Paulius and perused the three menus on the bar whilst I waited. The first is an appetizer and dessert menu that I largely ignored. The second two are both full of cocktails. Most are capital-C Classics, but they have a few of their own devising. You can read their offers on the website. The menu is wide ranging and interesting. It is also meticulous and funny. Here’s an example that should appeal to your neighborhood cocktail snob:
Moscow Mule – Invented at the famed Cock and Bull in Hollywood in the 50’s, this is the cocktail that introduced vodka to the U.S. *Vodka then proceeded to lobotomize future generations.
*Vodka did the damage, not the “Mule”.
Paulius came over and introduced himself and his partner behind the bar, Carol. We spent a couple of hours talking cocktails and life in general while I watched how he and Carol and their staff ran things. I thought one of the interesting things about the Pegu Club was a sort of Sushi Bar way of doing things. VTR doesn’t have that vibe. They have the same quality of ingredients, and if anything the VTR takes even longer crafting each cocktail than Pegu. But there were no little pieces of artwork for garnish, or special glassware for each drink. The bartenders here go about their business like happy, good-natured craftsmen, rather than the elegant, slightly aloof performance artists at Pegu.
I think Nick and Nora Charles would have preferred the Velvet Tango Room, if only because Paulius and Carol would actually participate in a discussion of Foxtrot, Two-Step, and the Waltz.
I had several full drinks, and samples of some others. It was a battle between wanting to finish everything off and wanting to make it back to the hotel. I started with a Bourbon Daisy, which went right to the top of my list of drinks I need to figure out how to make. I followed that with a Lady in White, which their menu lists as an entry level gin drink. I have a little problem with this for two reasons:
- I think a Pegu should be everyone’s entry level Gin drink.
- They use Hendricks in it. Hendricks is so gentle, you are almost cheating when breaking in a new Gin drinker.
That said, it’s a fine cocktail. After that, they wanted me to try a Dark and Stormy (fascinating but overpowering before you stir it, delicious but less interesting after. Your mileage may vary), and a house invention, the Spicy Chica. The Chica is a dark brown tiki-style beverage with a sock in the nose of cinnamon. It really isn’t to my taste, but I’m betting that it is to a lot of customers. If I get around to being a tiki guy for a month, I’ll make these for Maggi.
I didn’t have one of their Moscow Mules, but I saw a bunch of them being drunk with relish along the bar. The VTR makes all their own soft drinks, even their cola, but not a true Ginger Beer. They pump up their Ginger Ale with some kind of ginger syrup. What they use tasted darned yummy in the Dark and Stormy.
At some point, Carol walked over to me with a cordial glass of white foam. It was a sample of their Ramos Gin Fizz. I’ve never had even a ersatz one of these, so I gave it a hesitant, curious try. About twenty seconds later, I had the little glass jammed hard against my face, rooting around the bottom with my tongue to get the last drop. I really needed one of these for myself. As I watched them whip me up my own, I quickly realized why the Ramos Gin Fizz is not a staple of bars these days despite being one of the most delicious things you have ever (probably not) tasted.
First, they use an entire fresh egg white. Yes, I know that is what you have to have for a genuine RGF, but it’s pretty damn hard to find a bar owner like Paulius who will proudly proclaim that,
We are not a bar that is afraid of egg whites! Second, a blender will ruin this cocktail, but you have to shake it like San Francisco in 1906 to get the foam complete. Carol ran out of arm strength long before it was ready, and with a smoothness born of repetition, handed it off to another guy behind the bar who kept at it for a good while longer. It reminded me of a passage from Charles Baker’s book, where he describes a bar that served a ton of these that had to have a staff of ten guys whose only job was to shake each Ramos Gin Fizz. If you visit the Velvet Tango Room and order one, be sure to tip for two. If you show up with a party of eight, and you all order them, expect to see someone cry.
In conclusion, if you are in Cleveland, this little hidden gem is where you need to drink. When you drop by, order a Pegu. That way, they’ll know I sent you. Pegus aren’t on the menu, but they do need to change that. Other than that, if I lived in Cleveland, they’d have to but a brass plate engraved with our names on a couple of the stools.