As recently as five years ago, drinkers could judge a cocktail den's gravity by the length of its bartender's handlebar mustache. With housemade tinctures, fresh fruit juices, suspenders, and secret passwords all bound up in the same pre-Prohibition bear hug, dapperness was briefly a pretty reliable indicator of where to get a giggle-water fix.
ESSEX 1421 N.W. 70th St., 838-1960, essexbarseattle.com. 4:30 p.m.-close Wed.-Sat.
VESSEL 624 Olive Way, 623-3325, vesselseattle.com. 11 a.m.-close Mon.-Fri., 5 p.m.-close Sat.-Sun.
But the principles of capable cocktailing proved more sustainable than silly fashions, so it's now possible to order a north-of-decent mixed drink from a guy who shops at Macy's. Once-precious bars are sloughing off their affectations, and longtime beer-and-wine joints are fiddling with spirits, making the stirred rye Manhattan—along with more imaginative beverages—an increasingly attainable prize. Gratifyingly, cocktail history has reached its middle-grounding period.
The convergence is especially evident in Seattle, lately blessed by the arrival of two bars which originated on opposite ends of the fussy spectrum. Former Esquire "best bar" Vessel, which famously denied its patrons vodka, is back downtown after a two-year sabbatical rooted in a lease dispute. And over in Ballard, acclaimed wood-fired-pizza salon Delancey has opened an adjunct cocktail bar in a space vacated by an umbrella-rental shop. While the restaurant could previously be counted on to scare up a martini made with microdistilled gin, its spawn, Essex, keeps a gin-and-elderflower spritzer on tap.
Vessel and Essex are very different bars, but they convey the same triumphant message: It's a great time to drink in Seattle.
It's instructive to note how the glasses, bottles, and jars on Essex's five-ledge wooden back bar are arranged. The crowning shelf is reserved for pickles and other homemade concoctions. That's largely a logistical choice, since no bartender wants to climb a ladder every time he needs a jigger of rum. But the setup fairly represents the hierarchy of flavors at this Delancey offshoot. Whether a drink's base spirit is tequila, bourbon, or gin, it usually ends up tasting like whatever was blended or aged beneath Essex's charming pressed-tin ceiling.
While such provincialism is the enemy of a well-balanced cocktail, it doesn't detract from the shotgun room's winningly cozy ambience. With its marble-topped tables—scrunched together so closely that there's no space for the pedestrian rabble of handbags and winter coats—and white-tile backsplash behind the bar, Essex has the romantic feel of a New Orleans oyster house or a Paris Métro station. Lots of flickering candles and wallpaper printed with a stylized whale crest underscore the Old World vibe, a welcome antidote to dark, sodden nights.
When the weather's wet, drinkers' eyes are likely to gravitate toward the appealingly named Autumn Sweater, featuring somber, bitter notes that can typically stand up to storm clouds and Irish poetry. The cocktail's made with bourbon, Averna (a caramely amaro that's sometimes compared to a light port), allspice dram, candied blood orange, and Essex's own cherry brandy and cherry bitters. Sadly, the proportions were askew the night I tried it, so the drink tasted medicinally sweet. A Red Medicine—house-aged rye, Delancey fernet, Rachel's Ginger Beer, and rhubarb—was also badly out of whack: The highly carbonated drink bore no trace of whiskey. And if there was any syrup in a maple pisco sour, it was drowned out by egg froth.
Maple is used to far better effect on a plate of oven-roasted carrots, one of a dozen or so dishes on a snacky menu that stresses bread, cured meats, and pickles. (Fair warning to brine fans: The signature pickle plate includes only carrots, fennel, and cucumbers, so order a la carte if you're curious about red onion, celery root, and other oddities.) The slender sugared carrots, nestled in a scrape of textured ricotta, are surely preferable to a hunk of pork shoulder that traded its moisture for a heavy dose of smoke; a limp scallop crudo; and a greasy assemblage of prosciutto and deeply caramelized pears. But the very best order at Essex is perhaps the beer-boiled soft pretzels, soulful dough twisted into fat protest ribbons and served with a frisky whole-grain mustard.
I ran into a friend at Essex who's patronized the neighborhood joint frequently enough to know my drinks that evening were prepared by an understudy bartender. When she stopped by my table, her party was in the midst of relocating to Delancey, a reliable source of impeccable pies. They had the right idea: Although Essex may eventually become a worthwhile stand-alone experience, it's currently a terrific red-wine-and-pretzel anteroom for Delancey. And as the many eaters who've been forced to wait for a table at that popular restaurant know, that's a splendid addition.
A certain breed of cocktail nerd will immediately notice Vessel's ice-hoisting system (described in an accompanying First Call column on p. 37), but customers not especially interested in the machinations and magic needed to create a cocktail that makes keeping a home bar feel like folly will probably never wander into "The Lab," a windowed back room stocked with saws and foam-making equipment. Vessel, which in its first incarnation earned a reputation for rigidity—and counts a veritable cityful of talented bartenders (Canon's Jamie Boudreau, Rob Roy's Anu Apte, Liberty's Keith Waldbauer) among its alumni as a result—feels downright relaxed.
That doesn't mean Vessel is the kind of bar in which you'll be tempted to put your feet up on the leather couches. The angular, red-and-black room, with lighting sufficiently dimmed to discourage downtown workers from making the bar a second office, has the generic swank of a jazzy watering hole in Charlotte or Phoenix. Whereas Essex is all character, Vessel has nearly none.
But the small plates and cocktails easily make up for the bland ambience. Sustenance is an important consideration during multiple-drink sessions, particularly at lunchtime. Vessel deserves credit for trying to restore the midday hard-liquor habit with its menu of light, food-friendly cocktails: The Pimm's Cup is superb, with enough pep to goad a drinker through the afternoon. The menu includes an elegant white bean-and-sunchoke hummus, with citric overtones that mesh well with rum, and a gorgeous deconstructed Niçoise salad, featuring fleshy fingerling potatoes, two perfectly poached slabs of salmon, and a shiny sous-vide orb of egg yolk supporting two crisscrossed white anchovies. An excellent French dip demonstrates a command of lamb rarely encountered outside curry houses.
The evening cocktails change constantly, since Vessel employs a rotating stable of 25 bartenders, each of whom writes his or her own drink menu. Regular patrons have their favorites: When I once asked for an off-list drink, my server explained that the bartender whose drinks weren't selling as well that evening would be in charge of creating it for me. Yet I never had a dud drink at Vessel: Every cocktail I sampled was clean, balanced, and brave. Michael Bertrand's Zeus' Wrath, made with rum, cognac, lime, honey, and Greek yogurt, momentarily knocked me cockeyed. It had the consistency of a post-workout smoothie, but thrust forth flavors not usually associated with healthy living. By giving barkeeps a chance to tinker with ideas—and drinkers a venue in which to enjoy them—Vessel had already made itself essential.
Autumn Sweater $10
Maple Pisco Sour $10
Pickle plate $8/$14
Pork shoulder $10/$18
Zeus' Wrath $12
Cane Old Fashioned $12
Nicoise salad $14
French dip $13