Wednesday Happy Hour: Shaking, Stirring and Cooling Off from the Summer Heat at the Czar Ice Bar

Posted on: Aug 15th, 2012 By:

ATLRetro has been planning to launch a cocktail and food section ever since we revved up, but we wanted to ensure that when we did, it would be a regular feature that you could count on. The ground rules would be simple – Retro location in a vintage building; Retro cuisine from the best in classic diners and blue plates to tantalizing tiki (guess where, we dare you!); venues that have been around long enough to be Atlanta institutions;  and/or worthy additions to the city’s cocktail scene. In other words, when you want to dress up in your swanky suit or vintage dress and slowly sip a fantastic drink with that special date, spouse or just friends, where should you go? We’ll alternate between supper club and happy hour pieces and promise at least one of each every month, always posting on a Wednesday to help you plan your weekend.

Appropriately, we think, ATLRetro first piece is a Happy Hour because everyone on MAD MEN knows that a great cocktail is the essential apertif to a delicious expense-account dinner, isn’t it? Our drink of the week is Vodka, and with hundreds of different vodkas on the menu, Czar Ice Bar, in Buckhead’s Andrews Entertainment District, has perhaps the largest selection in Atlanta. Normally heading to Buckhead might be a bit too neo-trendy for us, but we found Czar Ice Bar to be a surprise charm with a touch of old world class worthy of James Bond. Atmospherically the intimate blue-lit space was the perfect retreat from summer heat with a bar literally made of ice and a dramatic blue glass ceiling, seasoned with a taste of old Russia thanks to ornate seating, bottles lined in cathedral windows and towering paintings of pre-Soviet nobles. Oh, yeah, we could easily imagine Pierce Brosnan seated at it in a tux sipping a martini with a sexy spy in a slinky evening dress.

We recently caught up with co-owner Stephen de Haan to find out more about Czar Ice Bar’s striking interior design, generous vodka selection, and why sushi is on the menu (we can attest Master Sushi Chef Saito Saito‘s creations are both original and scrumptious). Of course, we also asked for  some advice on crafting the perfect vodka cocktail and how to stock your own bar at home.

ATLRetro: What’s the story behind Czar Ice Bar? 

Stephen de Haan: Czar Ice Bar developed from our passion for amazing cocktails. Specifically, with hundreds of different vodkas, flavors and house-made infusions, we have an amazing palate to paint with. Also, with the success of Prohibition around craft cocktails, we saw a void in the market. Specifically around women who enjoy vodka both in flavor and because it has the lowest calories for any spirit, and who are looking for a sexy nonsmoking environment. How did the owners get the idea for it?  We developed Czar around this idea of a sexy environment focused on vodka. Initially Cold-war era Soviet Union comes to mind, but we went back further to the aristocracy of the Russian Empire during the period of the Czars. We were inspired by the Winter Palace, specifically the sitting room, and what would a modern day Czar’s sitting room look and feel like. Combine this palatial feel with a modern vodka-based cocktail program and Master Sushi Chef Saito’s sushi masterpieces, and you have a place where any Russian princess would want to relax.

How many different vodkas are on the menu, and how do you select which vodkas to serve?  

We have over 300 vodkas. They have all been tasted and selected by [myself]. The first criteria is the nose; they need to be clean, not offensive like rubbing alcohol. The second is the mouth feel. All of our vodkas are smooth, with very little after-bite. Also we look for uniqueness, for example, vodkas that have unique distillates, such as Russian Bear which is distilled from molasses, and Pau which is distilled from pineapple in Hawaii. We love a the story behind the brand, the people, the process, and how it impacts the final product.

Vodka is often thought of as not having a lot of taste nuances when consumed straight-up. Other than flavor-infused vodkas, what are a few aspects that differentiate vodkas and makes one better than another for drinking straight or in cocktails?

When comparing the traditional vodkas side by side you will find a large difference between a potato vodka, or a winter wheat, or corn vodka. Once you know the flavor profile for each and find a preference, then explore the others in that category to find a personal favorite. Also, some people with a gluten sensitivity have not thought about the vodka, and the clouded head may not be a hangover, rather a reaction to some part of the distillate. A switch in vodka may be all it take to keep you feeling well and the head clear. Then again sometimes it is just imbibing a bit too much.

What traditional vodka cocktails do you serve (i.e. martini, cosmopolitan, etc.)? 

Of course, we have traditional martinis; our Czar Martini features Imperia vodka 8 times distilled and is made in a traditional style with a Dolin Dry Vermouth-rinsed cocktail glass served with blue cheese-stuffed olives. We also serve cosmopolitans, apple martinis and the like. One unique feature is a California Cosmo with your choice of 14 different orange-flavored vodkas.

What are a few of your more favorite, more innovative creations, and any anecdotes about how you came up with them? 

Recently for National Donut Daywe featured our own house-made Krispy Kreme vodka. We chopped one dozen doughnuts, paired with Van Gogh Caramel vodka and spun it in our laboratory centrifuge at 4,000 rpm for 20 mintues.  The result, a clear smooth Krispy Kreme vodka.

What’s your philosophy behind a vodka cocktail? For example, are there some mixers that are go better with vodka than others?

Very simple. Fresh is best, less is more. Start with a smooth clean vodka like Van Gogh Blue, and mix it with any fresh juice. You need not overdo the juice because a clean vodka will already disappear in the drink.

Any secret to the perfect martini? And is it shaken or stirred?  

The perfect martini, is almost like the perfect BBQ. Every region, every person has their take on the perfect martini. Some believe the vermouth should stay in the next room, others a spritz, and still others a rinse. The Czar Martini is what I consider the perfect martini.  Made with eight times distilled Imperia Vodka from Russia, shaken ice cold, served in a Dolin vermouth rinsed martini glass with Cabrales Blue Cheese-stuffed olives.

Sushi is traditionally paired with sake, so why sushi at a vodka bar?

Think Russia and caviar. Caviar is used in many sushi dishes so taking the next step only seems natural. Also, with Master Chef Saito’s house-made sauces that he garnishes many of his dishes with, we are using the same ingredients, mango, fresh orange, etc.

Are there any particular sushi/vodka pairings that you recommend from your menu, both for the conservative and the more adventurous diner? 

I particularly like the Smash Hit, a martini made with 360 Georgia Peach Vodka, fresh mint and fresh-squeezed lemon juice paired with the Lobster Roll. The sweetness of the lobster is enhanced with this clean sweet peach martini. On the more adventurous side, I would recommend the one of Chef Saito’s special dishes, the Pacific Ocean.  With a wonton sheet and sail, mixed fish, fresh cucumber, cream cheese and Shiro Dashi sauce, it pairs nicely with a Square One Organic Cucumber martini.

The interior design of Czar Ice Bar combines traditional elements of old Russia with the giant portraits and bar items displayed in spaces resembling cathedral windows with a very contemporary club atmosphere—blue lights and 2st century furnishings. Who was the designer and how did you come up with the look?  

I researched many images of the Czar Palaces and relayed those to my partner Stan Weaver who took the ideas and ran with them creating our own modern interpretation of these palaces.  We are very proud how all of the elements came together.

Do you have any advice to our readers on how to stock their home vodka bar?  

I see a lot of vodka that has spent tons of dollars on advertising producing a premium image. Those are ok, but I prefer to look at the artisanal small batch vodkas. On the label they will say small batch or pot-distilled. These are made by artisans one batch at a time creating the best product possible.

Finally how did you create the ice bar?  If it has not been done regionally before, how did you develop it?

The ice bar itself, 27 feet long, four inches thick of solid ice was a huge undertaking. We first found an ice skating rink manufacturer that “thought” it could be done but never had himself. They went to great lengths for us custom-manufacturing the refrigeration mat that freezes the ice. After that, we worked with local fabricators for a custom pan to house this in. Next was working with a number of engineers to review the cooling load specifications. Initially we thought we were going to have to use medical grade chillers, but soon found a source with a unit that met our very strict guidelines. As we installed it looking at different insulation technologies developed by NASA so that a guest’s legs sitting at the bar would not be cold from the immense slab of ice resting inches above them. The whole process was an experiment in itself, but it could not have turned out better.

All photographs are courtesy of Czar Ice Bar and used with permission.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Blair Crimmins Promises Prohibition-Era Pandemonium at the Plaza Theatre Premiere of OLD MAN CABBAGE Sat. Feb. 4

Posted on: Feb 3rd, 2012 By:

Blair Crimmins and the Hookers. Photo credit: Scott McKibben.

With HUGO and THE ARTIST nominated for a bevy of Oscars this year, silent films seem to be getting a lot of love lately reimagined in creative ways for the 21st century. From what we’ve heard about OLD MAN CABBAGE, a short film co-produced by popular neo- ragtime band Blair Crimmins and the Hookers and Atlanta’s Ninja Puppet Productions, it sounds like a fantastic local addition to the oeuvre and a great reason to come out to the historic Plaza Theatre again this Sat. Feb. 4 at 10 p.m. But the night’s much more than just seeing a cool movie – Blair and the band will be playing the soundtrack live as the film unwinds on the big screen and then a complete concert afterwards in the alluring art-deco setting of the Plaza stage.

Based on a Blair Crimmins & the Hookers song and set in a farm forgotten by time, OLD MAN CABBAGE tells the tale of two dust bowl farm kids who find their lives flipped upside down when they are caught in an accident with an abusive father. Like so many classic children heroines, they run away to join the circus, only this particular one is distinctly supernatural. Without giving too much away, the cast features performers from the Imperial OPA Circus, well-known to the steampunk community. OLD MAN CABBAGE is directed by Raymond Carr, the founder of Ninja Puppet Productions, a collection of artists and professionals dedicted to the creation of innovative art and storytelling of all sorts.

As we pointed out in a previous short feature on Blair, you might think of ragtime as kind of quaint, but you wouldn’t be talking about his and the Hookers’ take on this 1920s form of jazz. Remember that they didn’t call the Twenties Roaring for nothing. In fact, you might even describe Crimmins’ high-energy style as “in your face” as rock ‘n’ roll. Except the groupies would be flapper girls, and the band is playing instruments your grandparents would approve of from banjo to accordion, saxophone to piano, trumpet to trombone—and may be accompanied by antics inspired by the best vaudeville comedy. Oh, did we mention that while the music swings, the lyrics to many of the songs are also delightfully decadent and dark.

ATLRetro has thought for a long time that it’s high time for Blair to be Kool Kat of the Week, but this week we had no excuse but to catch up with one of the Atlanta Retro scene’s most talented performers to get a sneak peek into what promises to be a sensationally surreal Saturday night at the Plaza. Tickets to the screening and concert are just $10 in advance and can be purchased here or $12 at the door.

What’s the story behind OLD MAN CABBAGE and your involvement with Ninja Puppet Productions?

“Old Man Cabbage” is a track off THE MUSICAL STYLINGS OF, which tells the story about a young man who moves into an old house and becomes possessed by the ghost of an old ragtime musician who lives there. It’s a biographical dramatization on how I became so enamored with early jazz. Raymond Carr took that ghost story and expanded it to give more backstory to the characters, and instead of the haunted house created a whole speakeasy of specters who reenact their gruesome demise every night. Quite a story. I won’t give the whole thing away.

So is it an extended music video or is it a movie? And what’s the running time?

Raymond calls it a short narrative film. I jokingly refer to it as my jazzy version of “Thriller.”  The film runs about 15 minutes long.

Is it performed with puppets or human characters since Imperial OPA is involved?

You won’t find any puppets or ninjas in the film, although we did use some sets built in miniature and green screens.  We brought in a lot of other local talent and used the video as an vehicle to showcase our Atlanta favorites. The circus group Imperial OPA, the cabaret troupe Davina and The Harlots, some aerial acrobats and a number of fantastic swing dancers all put their talents in the film, not to mention the people behind the scenes in makeup and costume who brought the prohibition style to the screen.

There seems to be a rebirth in fascination with circuses and carnivals, from the popularity of Cirque de Soleil to books like THE NIGHT CIRCUS, by Erin Morgenstern, which explore their darker, more mysterious side. There’s even that surreal, crazy Guinness commercial. Do you have any thoughts on the current appeal of circuses and where does OLD MAN CABBAGE fit in?

There certainly seems to be a renewed interest, and I’m glad to see troupes exploring all the different facets of the circus tradition. From the classic freak and sideshow acts to the more bohemian variety stuff, many young performers finding their place on the periphery of mainstream performance theater. I don’t know if that’s entirely new, but I can say I [have seen] a lot of very interesting [acts] just in the last few years.  I do think that Atlanta is grabbing a place in art and culture that can now compete with some other big cities.  There is a very youthful and unjaded excitement in the artistic community here.

How did you prepare for scoring OLD MAN CABBAGE?

I prepared for scoring the film by watching other silent movies. Of course, the classics METROPOLIS and CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, which are always fantastic, but I also watched THE GOLEM for the first time, which was one of the earliest monster movies ever made. It was filmed in 1920 about a rabbi who makes a giant man out of clay and brings him to life to protect the Jewish neighborhoods of Prague. I really dug that one and would recommend that to anyone with an interest in silent film.

Anything you’d like to share about the why behind the 1920s speakeasy setting and what the filmmakers did to ensure set, costumes and music were authentic?  

There wasn’t a lot of discussion on why the film should have a Prohibition era style.  That’s where my inspiration lies. That’s where home is for me. I know Raymond did a lot of research and studied old photos to ensure that film looked authentic.

And it’s silent, which seems even more apropos given the popularity and Oscar nominations for THE ARTIST and HUGO, two movies that pay tribute to the silent era. I’m supposing that was just lucky timing? 

Current trends always herd people to different areas to search for new life, to find something that they’ve been lacking, an oasis. I can see people who are finding that needed refreshment in the silent film era. Being beat over the head with the GLEE stick and AMERICAN IDOL will get anyone to pay for a ticket to silence.

Blair Crimmins. Photo credit: Katie Bricker.

What else do you have planned for Saturday night at the Plaza and do we need to dig out our bowties, golf caps, spats and flapper dresses?

Seeing a well-dressed crowd always brings a smile to my face. You won’t be the only one dressed up if you choose to do so. Davina and The Harlots will be dancing onstage and throughout the room in full flapper gear. The OPA will also be working the crowd in their usual fashion. The whole evening promises to be taste of pandemonium.

How did you personally discover and fall in love with ‘20s ragtime music and vaudeville?

It’s just music that endlessly amuses me. You know when you’re doing something you truly comfortable with as an artist because you never get tired of it. Once my writing steered in the right direction, the ship took off on its own.

Your gigs are always packed and your music and performances embrace the past but sell so well in the 21st century. Are you surprised to see how many people enjoy a musical style that’s nearly a century old in a time of fast-passing fads? Any thoughts on why Retro is so hip?

I don’t think it’s a fad or new thing. I feel as if people of every generation reach an age when they discover something cool from the past. Chances are, if you find something that you identify with, you’ll find a whole group of people that love it, too. As you watch new people discover it, there is a tendency to think “Wow, this is really catching on”; the reality is that it has never gone anywhere.  Its popularity is always fluctuating but never dies or becomes reborn. Some of the bad trends die and hopefully never wake up, i.e. polyester suits, but the really good stuff sticks around forever for generations to enjoy.

After Saturday’s screening, will OLD MAN CABBAGE be heading out on the film festival circuit or what are the plans for the film?

Yeah, Raymond is going to talk more about that at the film premiere.

And of course, what’s next for Blair Crimmins & the Hookers? 

We have a lot of great touring on the books for this year. There will definitely be new singles out this year and maybe a record. I’ve already been talking with some of my favorite local artists about the next music video, and I’ve got some other film opportunities in the pipe. Things are about to get real busy for The Hookers. I’m trying to do as much as I possibly can and never lose an opportunity to let the music take me somewhere new.

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Kool Kat of the Week: A Jazz Interlude With Kayla Taylor: Why She Loves ‘30s/’40s Classics, the Unsurprising Success of Her New CD and the Pleasures of Playing the Vintage Artmore Hotel This Friday

Posted on: Nov 16th, 2011 By:

Atlantans who love classic jazz won’t be surprised to hear that Kayla Taylor’s new and sixth CD YOU”D BE SURPRISED hit #23 on the CMJ Jazz charts this week and is receiving airplay across the nation and throughout Europe. Instead, we’re liable to say it’s delovely and just one of those things that had to happen. But then local audiences have had the treat of listening to this Atlanta native and chanteuse extraordinaire resurrect top tunes from the ‘30s,  ‘40s and ’50s  live for a decade or more with musical partner/guitarist Steve Moore. And because this Friday night, Kayla will be performing at one of Atlanta’s coolest vintage venues, the courtyard of the Artmore Hotel in Midtown whose building dates back to 1924, we thought the timing couldn’t be more perfect to make her Kool Kat of the Week.

One of those rare actual Atlanta natives, Kayla literally grew up singing, in her school chorus, church choir and in the shower, but winning two awards in a 7th grade talent show cemented her ambition to make music a career. Along the way, she has performed country music, gospel, R&B and classic and original rock ‘n’ roll until she finally found her heart resided in the golden era of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin—all of whom are represented on YOU’D BE SURPRISED’s playlist. ATLRetro caught up with Kayla to find out more about why she decided to embrace one of our favorite musical eras, what she has planned for this Friday night at the Artmore, her new CD, what’s next and where you might catch her singing while shopping…

ATLRetro: According to your bio, you always sang even as a little girl, and through the years, in addition to jazz, you’ve performed country, gospel, R&B and rock n roll, too. How did you come to embrace vintage jazz?

Kayla Taylor: I have always loved vintage jazz. The charm and romance of the ‘30s and ‘40s was something that always attracted me. I love how clever the lyrics are. When I was a kid, I watched a lot of old movies that were filmed and set during that time period and found all of it to be a natural embrace. Then in the mid-‘80s, Linda Ronstadt—one of my rock heroes—came out with her Big Band albums with The Nelson Riddle Orchestra and the romance started all over again.

Photo credit: John Lee Matney.

I understand that your earliest award was for singing Irene Cara’s “Out Here on My Own” from FAME? What’s the story and how big an early influence on you was the movie, FAME?

I wouldn’t say that FAME had a big influence on me, but the music and Irene Cara’s voice definitely did. I loved the pure emotion that was in her voice when she sang “Out Here On My Own.” The school talent show was coming up, and so I decided that I’d sing that song. I practiced for weeks in my room with the door closed. I must have played that record hundreds of times. My parents had no idea. I wasn’t trying to win—I just wanted to sing in front of all those people. I was also in a girls’ trio that performed “Sincerely”— a tune from the ‘50s. Well, the trio took 1st place, and I took 2nd place. I was so thrilled and excited. My parents had always been supportive of whatever I wanted to try, but at that point, they jumped completely onboard with my singing adventures.

Who are some of your favorite classic jazz composers and performers, and why do you think their music remains so timeless and relevant today?

Cole Porter, The Gershwins, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer . . . there are so many amazing composers from that era that I adore, but these are just a few of my top picks. As far as performers, Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Etta James, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. I think the music is so well-crafted that it can’t help but remain timeless and relevant. Most of the songs are about love or the loss of love—that will always be timeless and relevant.

How did you meet Steve Moore and end up working together?

Great Story! Steve Moore was in a rock band called A Fine Line—an original rock project. They ran an ad in the Creative Loafing looking for a female vocalist. (That’s what you did 19 years ago—you ran an ad in a printed publication if you were looking for a musician.) I called about the position. They sent me a demo of some of their tunes, and I thought they were really cool, so I learned them and showed up at the audition. Later that night, Steve Moore was the one who called me to tell me I had gotten the job. That was the beginning of an amazing relationship as friends, co-writers and business partners. We went through several original rock projects together (A Fine Line, OneWithout) and even an acoustic duo (The Adventures of Kayla & Steve). One day we were talking about all these great jazz standards that we both loved and how much we would both love to play that music one day and to have our own jazz combo. Five minutes later we had made a decision to start working towards that direction. That was over 10 years ago, and we’ve been at it ever since.

Kayla Taylor and Steve Moore. Photo credit: John Lee Matney.

Can you tell us a bit about YOU’D BE SURPRISED came together, and what it means to you that it’s doing so well?

To say we are excited is an understatement. OVER THE MOON with excitement might scratch the surface. All of this came about because we hired an expert to handle it for us. We’re indy artists—SmartyKat Records—that’s our own label. We don’t have the connections personally to make this kind of airplay and exposure happen, so we hired Kari Gaffney and Jeff Williams of Kari-On Productions to handle all of it for us. Kari has over 21 years experience promoting and marketing CDs to radio and print media. I have never seen anyone work as hard as she has been working. I don’t know when she even has time to sleep. She’s done a fabulous job for us.

What’s your favorite song on the CD to perform and why?

WOW. To pick one tune—that’s tough because I love every song that’s on the CD. It’s like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. If I have to pick one, though, I’d have to say the title track—“You’d Be Suprised.” What I love about that song are the great lyrics. They are so clever!!! I love the Marilyn Monroe version.

The Jazz in the Courtyard series at the Artmore, where the building dates back to 1924, promises an urban escape with “sultry music, sexy vibes and sinful drinks.” And the signature cocktail is “The Prohibition.” Can we surmise that the goal is to create a speakeasy atmosphere, and will you be tossing some Roaring ‘20s tunes into the mix?

Artmore is a great hotel, and the courtyard is a beautiful venue. We have a great time playing there and love that they have embraced our music. We’ll still be hanging out in the ‘30s and ‘40s era but love that they have created a speakeasy feel—with a modern twist. All concerts take place in the courtyard, and there is a fabulous firepit and heaters to keep everything warm. If it should rain or turn freezing cold—we’ll move the show into their basement speakeasy lounge. I think we might be good to have this final concert of the season out in the courtyard, though.

Anything else you’d like to share about Friday’s gig at the Artmore?

Reservations are not required, but if you want to reserve a seat, you can email them at sales@artmorehotel.com. Come prepared to have a great time. I have a retro-styled microphone that is wireless so I can move all over the courtyard, and I love to come by and sing to anyone who seems like they might be receptive. Trust me, though—if it’s clear you’re there with a date and you just want to make eyes at each other—I’ll stay out of your way.

Where else will you be playing in Atlanta soon, and any plans for a tour to promote YOU’D BE SURPRISED?

Our next big show will be at Feast in Decatur on Saturday, December 3. This will be a great show because it’s the beginning of the holiday & Christmas season, and we’ll have some of the great jazzy Christmas tunes from the era to throw into the mix. This show generally sells out, so it’s a really good idea to call them to make a reservation. We play from 7:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. with the five-piece combo. The food at Feast is fantastic and we always have a great time. [Call] 404.370.2000 – for reservations.  As far as a tour to promote YOU’D BE SURPRISED—definitely something we are thinking long and hard about we just have to make the numbers work out.

Do you really burst into song at the grocery store? If yes, where do you shop?

Not every time I’m in the grocery store, but yes, I have been known to burst into song in the middle of a shopping excursion. My sweet husband, Scott, has been so good about dealing with those moments and I know they have been embarrassing—but sometimes a song just wells up inside and I have to blurt it out. For the record, my favorite place to shop locally is Publix—the stores are smaller and easier to navigate and everyone is super-friendly. If I’m going to travel away from my neighborhood to shop, you’ll find me at Whole Foods.

Finally, we’ve got to ask. What would we be most surprised to know about you?

Two things: first, I am an avid gardener. I love digging holes and putting plants in them and then nurturing them and watching them grow. It fascinates me! The next thing . . . I actually suffer from stage fright on occasion. It’s true.

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