Vessel has great ice. At the new lounge, many of the drinks are made with pleasing-enough small pebbles of frozen water, like large-gauge snow-cone material. The ice cubes, one-and-a-quarter-inch perfect squares, are exactly what you picture in your mind when you think "ice cube," like a drawing for an alien of what an ice cube should be. The ice spheres are even better: baseball-sized, filling the majority of a tumbler, made from glacier water, and (through some magic of chemistry) purportedly melting at half speed.
The ice spheres, however, only come with drinks like single-malt scotch. Vessel's patrons generally select potent Vessel cocktails, featuring the aforementioned pebbles and cubes, and show the effects with impressive elegance: A woman in red teeters across the foyer, exclaiming about something to no one, while a composed gentleman at the bar wears an unmistakably slurred face. So far, it's the upper upscale who populate Vessel in its odd, upper-upscale location next to the 5th Avenue Theatre. Like a caricature of wealth, someone comes in carrying an extremely soft-looking small dog in a pink sweater. Foreign accents or people with foreign accents are a favored accessory. Women of Belltown, take note: It's evident here that dyed black is the new blond.
Vessel is stylish very nearly to a fault. The requisite one-word name rings faintly ridiculous, conjuring up the nautical, the anatomical, the receptacle. (It's a tribute to the building's old-time tenant, a shipbuilding company.) The windows with their gauze drapes, the sleek bar, servers all in black—it's all quite familiar. A vertiginous translucent stairway is ostentatiously underlit in chartreuse. Sound reverberates, especially in an upstairs room with red walls. Some seating is undeniably awkward: Where do your knees go in relation to your lovely little spool of a table? If you're perched on one of the big, gorgeous ottomans of black leather, is it uncouth to keel over backward for a little alcohol-induced rest?
What distinguishes Vessel from many similar spots is that it works. It's stupid-posh yet understated. It bears the imprint of an obsessive mind rather than a marketing plan. The ceiling high above the entryway, of ornate plasterwork, used to belong to the ladies' tearoom at the theater next door; this and other original 1926 elements interact with Vessel's modernity with admirable restraint. The details (pouty-lipped Spiegelau cocktail glasses, silver mesh soda siphons, a postmodern version of a French antique chair) quietly impress.
At these prices, impressing is a necessity. Some of the booze is absurdly expensive: Specialty cocktails are $10. (They're also three-ounce pours, which dulls any sticker shock very effectively. As one drinker ineloquently put it, "My drink was phenomenal. It was a drink I would've gotten another one of if I wanted to be knocked on my ass.") Bar Manager Jamie Boudreau, imported from Vancouver's vaunted Lumiere and given his full druthers here, achieves curiosities and wonders, exploiting the rich history of alcohol and his own clearly fixated imagination. He is a man of strong opinions when it comes to liquor: Vodka does not now and never will appear on his cocktail menu, as it is "for amateurs," lacks complexity, and lies beneath consideration. He imparts this extreme prejudice with mesmerizing charm; he wears arm garters. Each drink on his menu bears a date, a place of origin, and a composer as available; you may get knocked on your ass here, but it's knocked on your ass by art.
Bar snacks are the purview of Alyss Dillon, liberated from Elemental @ Gasworks; not only are they the expected painstakingly arranged small plates, they are actually delicious. Corn fritters ($9) should be served in an even number so as to avoid conflict. They're as light as something fried can be, and their sweetness collides spectacularly with their garnish of salty red caviar, a little sour cream bridging the two tastes. Linear sections of perfectly buttery croque monsieur sandwich ($8) come with a Mornay sauce for unnecessary but entirely welcome added richness. Ahi tuna tartare ($11) is rolled up in thin strips of cucumber and sprinkled with black sesame seeds. Silky gnocchi ($15) benefit from a subtle lamb ragù, while small clams have a spicy white-wine broth with bits of chorizo and fennel. An architectural mousse Napoleon ($6) joins sweet and bitter chocolate pretty marvelously.
Boudreau's assertive, often herbal drinks can quarrel with the food's diverse flavors; suggested pairings, as at Licorous, would be nice. Still, it's all a very bon voyage.