I can finally cross another thing off my “What?!? You’ve never been there?” Cleveland list after I found myself on the doorstep of the Velvet Tango Room for the first time.
If you don’t know what you’re looking for when you’re driving by Velvet Tango Room, you’ll likely miss it (I almost did until I noticed the small sign in their front window). But once you cross the threshold, you’re transported from an unsuspecting Cleveland neighborhood into a bygone era.
From the well-appointed furniture to the vintage decor, beautiful piano, and private backroom, VTR seemed like a set straight out of Midnight in Paris. The mood reminded me of that glow of romance and anticipation you get on a first date.
Last week’s trip to VTR was for Emerging Chefs’ Last Tango in Tremont dinner. The sold-out crowd took over the Velvet Tango Room’s backroom and patio, which is where Scott and I snagged a table with Smitten in CLE, Why CLE and @TheRealCLEGuy.
The setup was a little different compared to previous Emerging Chefs. As Eat Drink Cleveland noted in her recap, some of the table settings were better suited for cocktails and small bites instead of a five-course meal. Despite this, though, the layout provided an intimacy you don’t always have a chance to enjoy at a large culinary event.
Chef Brian Rosander designed the menu for the evening. While the first course was being served, he came and spoke to each room about his inspiration for the evening. Because of the recent heatwave, Chef Rosander created dishes that were all chilled. His goal with chilled dishes was to not only provide us a refreshing escape, but also showcase the flavor of the ingredients without dampening them with heat.
Velvet Tango Room’s Paulius Nasvytis handpicked a cocktail to pair with each dish. As wonderful as VTR’s vibe is, it’s their dedication to cocktails that makes them famous. The combination of fresh, artisan ingredients and VTR’s experts behind the bar contributes to these consumable masterpieces, and guests at Last Tango had the chance to enjoy a cross-section of five of them.
The evening’s first act featured a bowl of Chilled Pea Bisque. This creamy, refreshing soup was topped with a dollop of fresh crab. It’s difficult to create a dish that’s equal-parts hearty and fresh, but the bisque achieved this. And honestly, adding crab to almost anything will make me happy.
The dish was paired with a White Lotus cocktail, a subtle drink whose taste of honey took me a few sips to identify, but really elevated the beverage. I always like to think about what time of year I’d prefer to drink a specific cocktail, and the White Lotus struck me as the ideal Springtime drink – fresh, citrusy ingredients with a bit of warmth that would be welcome after a long winter.
The second course was a sampling of Toulouse sausage, and Aligot, Purple Majesty, and American potatoes. Chef Rosander introduced the dish by saying it was his take on a French-inspired antipasto. The sausage, in particular, topped with a light creamy cheese was my favorite part of the plate.
A bite of this chilled sausage, followed by some of the Aligot mashed potatoes and then a sip of VTR’s Manhattan packed the biggest flavor of the evening.
VTR’s Manhattans will knock you for a loop. If I had to pick a drink from the evening’s selections that reflected VTR’s essence, it would be this classic – deceptively straightforward but perfected by VTR’s attention to detail and the flourish of the Italian-imported cherry that accompanies it.
While I thought the second course featured the best individual mouthful of the evening, Chef Rosander’s Chicken Mousselin with tomato tarte tatin maintained the best overall flavor throughout the entire course. A seasoned cut of chicken was topped with a juicy, roasted tomato, drizzled with basil oil and garnished with a bit of fresh basil.
Everyone agreed that it was reminiscent of a caprese salad and was the dish I’d want to try to replicate at home for dinner (though I doubt I could come close!).
In my opinion, this dish also had the most complementary drink pairing of the evening. It was served with an Apricot Lady – whose tartness was tempered by the egg whites. The drink and dish were ideal for summer and most-exemplified Chef Rosander’s goal for the evening to provide a chilled, fresh – yet still flavorful – meal.
The only lowlight of the evening for me was Act 4, a savory twist on a traditional French clafoutis. A clafoutis is most often served as a dessert – filled with fruit and dusted with powder sugar. While Chef Rosander’s clafoutis had apples baked into it and powder sugar on top, it also featured poached pork belly.
I appreciate Chef Rosander taking a chance to try something different with the dish. Unfortunately, the cooled flavor of the pork belly didn’t come through as well as I would have liked and I personally found the chewy, soft texture off-putting.
The Berkshire Martinez that accompanied the course had a sharp bite of gin and bitters. When it comes to gin, it seems people fall into two camps — with strong feelings of either love or hate for it.
Fortunately I love gin and thought this was one of the better drinks of the evening (I even got a second serving when Scott – a non-gin fan – couldn’t stomach a sip of it). After looking up the ingredients for a Berkshire Martinez, I was not surprised when it took me to the blog of one of my favorite food writers (and singer of Velvet Tango Room’s praises) Michael Ruhlman. The Berkshire is Ruhlman’s variation on a Martinez, named after the road in Cleveland Heights where it was first made.
The fifth course was a return to form for Chef Rosander, as we wrapped the evening with a Ginger fruit tartare over rosemary cream catalana and rosemary-chocolate ganache. The fruit and cream ended the meal as subtly as it began with the bisque, while the chocolate ganache added a dark richness to it.
Dessert concluded with VTR’s White Russian. I have fond memories of White Russians as they were the first cocktail I ever drank — though VTR’s was far superior. I was particularly excited for this beverage because it showcased VTR’s specially-made ice cubes, designed to cool your drink without melting and watering it down.
As we leisurely sipped our White Russians and watched some distant fireworks, I reflected on how a tango is equal parts teamwork, passion and dedication to the craft. Thanks to Emerging Chefs bringing them together, Chef Rosander and the Velvet Tango Room performed a nearly perfect dance that was music to all my senses.
The next Emerging Chefs event takes place Friday, August 3 at Saint Rocco’s Church when Chef Jeff Fisher presents an evening of Italian summer fare. Tickets for Sagra di San Rocco are only $50 and are on sale now.
***Disclosure: I was invited to attend Emerging Chefs Last Tango in Tremont with a single media pass; Scott purchased his ticket. As always, all opinions are 100% my own.***