We should have known.
When you're thinking about grabbing a drink in a new city, and you run a possible establishment past Bill Norris, always listen to his advice. If he sounds lukewarm and says "I know the owner there, but he moved to New York a while back," well, heed that implicit warning and hie you elsewhere. And if Bill gently steers you towards another bar, saying "... but Charles Joly at the Drawing Room is the best bartender I've ever met," well then, don't be stupid. Go there first.
The Violet Hour in Chicago indelibly taught us this lesson.
We'd read hundreds of positive reviews on Yelp (yeah, I know, I know!) and the drinks menu looked enticing, so we decided to check them out regardless. And try to meet someone there, which anyone who has ever been to the Violet Hour on a Saturday would tell you is a Very Bad Idea.
After finding the door, which is purposely hidden to make trixies feel in the know, we stood cheek to jowl in a tiny vestibule with about ten other people. It was not clear what one was supposed to do at this point. I hissed at Logan to please push aside the giant curtain separating us from the bar so we could figure out what was going on, and there he found a doorman who said that what we should do is wait. We'd be called in the order in which we arrived. To enter, one must have a seat - no standing allowed. And no meeting friends"without prior arrangement." (It was also implied strongly that "prior arrangement" does not really exist.) So friendly!
(More Violet Hour and we move on to the much more friendly Drawing Room, below.)
But we waited anyway. While we waited, we overheard conversations by people awed by the vibe, saying things like "I hear there are drinks here with EGGS in them!" (A declaration which was, sadly, met by a chorus of "EWWWWW!") The doorman and his crisp white suit absolutely refused to seat us anywhere that could accomodate three rather than two, gesturing at the door, "you see those guys waiting? I could fill every seat in here, and I won't give you one that's going to sit empty."
Danielle called to tell us she'd hit awful traffic and to go ahead and get seats the next time a party of two was called. So we did.
We were seated in ridiculously high-backed chairs around a small table, in a room where it was almost too dark to read the menu. Fifteen minutes later, we were finally allowed to place a drink order, and Danielle called to tell us she'd arrived. I went out to the vestibule to chat with her, and Logan managed to work some sort of magic inside (after a further ten minutes had gone by) to get the staff to seat us at a table that would allow for three.
This had a hilarious unintended consequence. When our drinks were moved from the original table, we didn't know which was which.
Considering one of them was the "In Bloom", with Maison Surrenne brandy, lemon, apricot eau de vie, and angostura bitters, and the other was "Vincent's Ruin", with Bulleit bourbon, lemon, St. Germain, and La Muse Verte absinthe, we thought we'd be able to tell the difference just by smelling them. But we couldn't. Then we tried tasting them and were still unsure. They were both overwhelmingly lemony, and not much else.
So we sat back with our twelve dollar cocktails and tried to enjoy them. Logan even ordered another drink. I don't remember what it was. It hardly mattered. The garnish was the most noteworthy thing about it... and not in a good way, trust me.
Our waitress, who was very sweet, told us that the giant ball of ice sharing the glass with Danielle's Hibiscus Old Fashioned had been carved by hand by the bartenders, and that they spent hours during prep hand-fashioning ice shapes. I'd suggest they reallocate that time to learning to make more balanced drinks.
So we beat that piece and moved on by cab to the Drawing Room. The place is on Rush Street, which is I guess like Austin's sixth street, in that you would definitely not expect a decent cocktail joint to be anywhere near there - and the signage out front gave us pause, too.
But we forged ahead anyway, and were rewarded with seats at a bustling bar.
After a round of introductions (Bill's friend Charles was there - awesome!), we found ourselves with a couple of truly neat drinks that were, hey, served in different types of glassware and were BALANCED. Here we've got... er... a boilermaker sour, with Old Weller 107, Half Acre Over ale, fresh sour, and orange bitters, and... you know, I don't remember what the one in front is. Great. WRITE THINGS DOWN. But I dare you to check out their bar menu and not want to order it all, one after another.
And you know what else? Their food was awesome.
I'm so sorry these pictures are so terrible. It was the first time we'd taken the s90 out to a low-light bar, and we obviously had no clue what we were doing. Forgive us?
I thought the Fried Guacamole (tempura avocado, tomato, cumin seed, red onion, charred jalapeno-cilantro puree, fresh lime) was going to be a big fat gimmick, so we didn't order it. But Charles, thinking our decision was stupid, had it sent out anyway. He was right - this was so good. I've never had more perfectly fried avocado.
The Bacon Squared (bacon-wrapped braised pork belly, yuzu-kumquat gastrique, frisee, fried pistachios, shaved fennel) and the Baby Arugula (truffle poached egg, polenta croutons, chevre, rice wine vinaigrette, preserved lemon, amaranth sprouts) were nice counterpoints; one a freaking orgy of pork, the other a decadent vegetarian entree. With a darn fine poached egg on it.
But it was the Fish and Chips (potato crusted halibut, salt cod in vin blanc croquette, lemon aioli, malt vinegar powder, tarragon) that completely stole the show. Here was a good use of molecular gastronomy, one that played up the ingredients without overshadowing them with technique. The croquette, especially, with its molten salt cod center, was just as awesome as this picture isn't.
After eating, we stayed there way late. The Drawing Room is open until 4 AM on Saturdays, with the kitchen open extremely late as well. This would be dangerous were it anywhere near where we lived. I know Logan would absolutely kill for a place in Austin with this level of food and drink that stayed open past, oh, nine.
I don't even know how, but the next thing we knew we were doing shots of Old Overholt and Fernet Branca with Charles and Tim and the behind-the-bar gang, and then it was 2 and way past time for us to be leaving.
I can't thank those guys enough for a great night - what a welcome to Chicago! And such a contrast to the oddly unfriendly vibe at the Violet Hour.
We left, emerging onto Rush Street just as the bars were really starting to get hopping. Velvet ropes were everywhere. I even saw more than one dude wearing tuxedo t-shirts - I thought those had gone out of style in the mid '90s.
Ah, Chicago. I gotta get back and do more exploring, if the Drawing Room is the kind of place you have just sitting around.
I feel like this super long post wouldn't be complete without a picture of the view from our hotel room. Not bad for a Priceline name your own price.
Next: The Publican!
The Violet Hour is at 1520 N. Damen in Chicago. 773.252.1500. And I hear it can be a little better during the week.
The Drawing Room at Le Passage is at 937 N. Rush Street in Chicago. 312.266.2694.