It’s the kind of bar that, when you leave it, seems to be the best of all possible public spaces. You’re filled with a sense of well being and hope. You’re inclined to make some sort of claim such as “This is the best bar in the world.” Days later on further reflection, you’re a bit more balanced. OK, best bar between Chicago (newly opened Violet Hour) and New York (Pegu, Milk and Honey)—without doubt, if you go by the quality of the products and the care with which cocktails are mixed.
I have an ongoing battle with my long-suffering wife which usually comes down to her saying, “Again, remind me. Why are we living in Cleveland?”
“The Velvet Tango Room.”
Besides having a cool physical bar in a funky little building (the place began as a barber shop and was a speakeasy in the 20s), the VTR mixes drinks with the same care the best chefs in the country bring to their food.
The owners, Paulius Nasvytis and Orva Fuston, find excellent products (Vya vermouth, Amarena Fabri wild cherries) or make their own (bitters, fortified wines that replace standard vermouths, ginger ale).
And they mix drinks, they don’t pour them. The VTR, along with a handful of bars in the country, wants to revive the art of the cocktail, one of a few distinctly American inventions.
Their featured cocktails include the sours and the aromatics. The aromatics usually combine sweet flavors and bitters, such as the Negroni, one of the great cocktails of all time, and the Bourbon Daisy, “the bad boy drink of the prohibition era,” Paulius says, with sweet, sour and ginger flavors. The sours are distinguished for their balance, and importantly the use of egg white. Very important, this egg white. It not only makes the concoction something of a health food or protein drink (yea, verily!), it adds some viscosity to the alcohol, which has very little tensile strength. The egg white shaken to a delicate froth seems to spread out the flavors and allow them to linger for a much longer finish.
I love the care they bring to what we’ve come to think of either distilled spirits with some fruit juice or tonic or soda (at best) or sex-on-the-beach silliness or the vodka martini (in which America lives up to its reputation as premier foister of mediocrity on an unthinking world).
Tatiana Madden (left) and Carol Grabowski are the chief tenders here (and very proud of the work they do). Yes, they weigh their ingredients, yes, the ice cubes are actual cubes (less chipping in that shape) and are kept at 16 below zero, but you can get a sense of the excellence of an egg white in a properly shaken cocktail.
Fill a shaker ¾s full of ice, add an egg white (30 grams is ideal, says Tatiana), ¾s of an ounce of lime juice, ¾s ounce of simple syrup (Paulius makes his with a 2:1 sugar-water ratio) and 1.5 ounces of Mount Gay rum. Shake it well and thoroughly, for two to five minutes, and pour into a chilled glass. The below is a key lime version.
This is the bar I took Tony to on an off night during the Cleveland shoot for No Reservations, for Negronis, and in the car on the way out he said, “Damn, I wish we’d shot something there.” It’s where Wynton Marsalis came when he was here for a jazz fest, and he ended up playing (there’s music on weekends). I like to go there when we’re the only ones at the gorgeous bar and we can watch Carol and Tatiana work their craft. And when Donna’s pissed about living in Cleveland I know where to take her. (She liked it so much she agreed to take these pix—thanks donna!)
Is the Velvet Tango Room the best bar in the world? Endlessly debatable. Unless you're lucky enough to live in Cleveland.