Stirred, But Not Shaken

The Side Door’s quest for perfection

Consider the humble Daquiri, a drink that calls for just three ingredients: sugar, rum and lime juice. What should be a refreshing, simple drink that perfectly tempers the sweet burn of white rum with the zing of fresh lime is consistently turned into a dayglo concoction that has more in common with a sugary Slurpee than something an adult would drink. The folks at The Side Door would like to change that. For the past three months the small, elegantly appointed lounge tucked away next to the Family Dollar at 3530 Leavenworth St. has quietly been making some of the best, most authentic cocktails in town. Yes, The Side Door also serves beer and wine, but not a lot. There are just five beers on tap and a handful of wines. They don’t even carry Budweiser products. “We asked our customers what they wanted and they said they preferred Miller High Life,” head bartender Tyler Fox says. “So we carry Miller products.” The emphasis here is on serving the proper cocktail, most of which run around $7. Considering the quality of the ingredients — you won’t see any jugs of Skol vodka or Passport Scotch here — it’s a great deal. “We want an opportunity to give our customers something good,” Fox says, with a wall of exotic (for Omaha) liqueurs like the Italian aperitif Cynar, the delicate Crème De Violette and maraschino liqueur (a far cry from the syrupy neon stuff cherries bob in) lining the shelves behind him. And they deliver. Whether it’s a cocktail with a long list of expensive and hard-to-find ingredients or a classic like a Margarita or Manhattan, this is the place to belly up and enjoy cocktails as they were intended. Fox’s take on the simple Negroni — traditionally made with equal parts sweet vermouth, gin and the bitter orange Italian aperitif Campari — ups the gin ratio, taking the edge off the bitter Campari to make the drink more attractive to American palates. Then there’s the Aviation, a seductive combination of gin, fresh lemon juice, maraschino liqueur and the hard-to-find Crème de Violette liqueur. Often written off as too medicinal or astringent, the Crème de Violette in the Aviation gives the drink a lavender color and a slight floral note that’ll give you a greater respect for gin. Winter’s a terrific time for a Manhattan, a combination of bourbon, sweet vermouth and bitters. Here, the cocktail’s smoky sweetness gets an added boost from a flamed orange peel added just before serving. While that may sound like Tom Cruise Cocktail-esque showmanship, the flamed peel really does add something to the drink — the slightly toasted orange flavor that really brings the drink’s ingredients together. It’s important to note that “something good” doesn’t mean “something overpriced and served with a dollop of disdain.” Tyler and the other bartenders I interacted with were happy to help, offering suggestions and frequently quizzing patrons on what they’re in the mood for. There’s no signature drink at The Side Door. Fox and the staff would rather serve you the right drink at the right time than insisting you try a drink you’re not wild about. “Tell me what you like,” Tyler said when asked about the ordering process. The bar does have a small menu of suggestions for cocktails, but those are just a jumping-off point. “What time of day is it? Are you going out to dinner or coming back from dinner?” Ask him a question — why are you using that gin? What’s the deal with bitters? Why are some drinks shaken and others stirred? What you’ll get in return is an enthusiastic and informative answer free of contempt. Taylor and his cohorts are there to help and are eager to do so. The desire to educate extends beyond the bar as well. Each month, Dan Crowell, a manager at Sterling Distributing and spirits columnist at Food & Spirits magazine, hosts a Libation Association event at the bar. Each month he and Fox highlight a particular spirit, explaining its significance, characteristics and variations in addition to serving several cocktails featuring the liqueur of choice. The bar’s inclusive qualities were apparent on each visit. With a playlist ranging from Big Boi to Frank Black, goofy retro movies like “Hercules and the Masked Rider” playing atop the bar and an ever-changing array of local bands, it’s never the same night twice. It’s not uncommon to be sipping a Manhattan next to a dude with a Mohawk while a couple of Baby Boomers unwind from their day at the table next to you. That’s by design. Owner Steve Jamrozy used reclaimed wood from the Orpheum Theater for the lounge’s smooth, weathered wood floor. Large, colorful paintings line the walls instead of neon beer signs and Husker memorabilia. Salvaged doors serve as paneling, with coat hooks tucked underneath. If this passion for perfection sounds familiar, it should. Jamrozy and his wife Kathleen have been behind some of the city’s best dining spots for decades. Their resume reads like a list of culinary destinations: The Flatiron, Espana and the sorely-missed Bomba Dia. “I’m a father to all these children, but I’m especially fond of the Side Door,” Jamrozy said. After just one visit you will be too. The Side Door Lounge, 3530 Leavenworth St., is open Tues.-Sat 7 p.m.-2 a.m.. with an occasional Sunday or Monday show, including this Sunday’s 5 p.m. Sunday Roadhouse concert featuring Jeffrey Foucault and Mark Erelli. Call 504-3444 for more info.

posted at 06:51 pm
on Friday, February 11th, 2011

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