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May 8, 2008 at 4:21 PM

VesseI: Is the ice slippery at “Best Bar in America”?

About two weeks ago, a well-connected restaurateur sent me an e-mail asking, “What’s up with Vessel?”

Rumor had it the high-end cocktail lounge in Seattle’s historic Skinner Building was going to close.

Vessel — famous for its decor, its ice cubes and a disdain for vodka, just named among the “Best Bars in America” by Esquire magazine, home to Seattle Magazine’s “Best Bartender” Jamie Boudreau, imported from Lumiere in Vancouver, B.C. — closing?

boudreau2.jpg

The next night, I’m out having dinner, when I heard it again — this time from a chef: “Hey, did you hear the rumor Vessel was closing?” I asked. “It’s not a rumor,” he said. Follow-up calls to a Big Name in the cocktail industry suggested that, at the very least, something was up. “The owners have split up, and the one with the money is gone, leaving the other to try to deal with things on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

And that’s when I figured: I’d better get over there quick and have a fancy cocktail. Because if Vessel is, in fact, one of the best bars in America, and if, as rumor had it, it wasn’t long for this world, then how can I let it close before I had a chance to see what was so great about it in the first place? Though it’s been open since October, 2006, I’d — gasp! — never been. So, on a quiet weeknight last week I stopped in, took a seat at the bar downstairs (it was Deadsville up in the lounge), and had my socks knocked off by a drink involving fire and rosewater.

Seattle’s Best Bartender was off that night, but his 25-year-old replacement, Zane Harris, seen here working mixological magic below, was, by my measure, a worthy successor to the title:

In my rosewater haze, after a lengthy conversation with several women who shared stories at the bar, I left, thinking: Blow me over! Esquire’s right! And praying that those rumors were unfounded.

And then, the very next day, a friend got the following rather terse e-mail from Seattle’s Best Bartender. Apparently, Jamie Boudreau had gotten the memo and decided to exit, stage right. His blanket e-mail read: “Just a note to all that I am no longer affiliated with Vessel in Seattle. Any future contact with me should be made via my hotmail address and not through my Vessel email. As I anticipate a barrage of questions regarding my next step, the answer is: I don’t have a clue at this time.”

It was signed, appropriately: “Cheers, Jamie Boudreau, Cocktail Whisperer” (Cocktail Whisperer? Don’t you just love that? And can’t you just see Brad Pitt playing him in the movie?)

And then, this afternoon, came an interesting rejoinder — er, press-release — from Vessel, offered here in its entirety:

VESSEL is “Best Bar in America,” Esquire

Ownership and staff changes very positive

SEATTLE, WA, May 8, 2008 — Vessel’s owner, Clark Niemeyer, is fully enjoying the irony of having his establishment named one of Esquire Magazine’s “Best Bars in America,” while only three weeks ago his business partner in charge of finance, Coleman Johnson, quit unexpectedly, leaving an accounting mess to untangle.

“What can I say,” comments Niemeyer, “It was a surprise, but we’re dealing well with it. Now that the issues are almost fully resolved, Vessel is so much better than before. The staff is very happy and cohesive, and business is booming.”

Another twist is the recent departure of bar manager Jamie Boudreau, who Vessel sponsored to come to the U.S. from Canada to set up their cocktail program. “We were in contract negotiations with Jamie prior to Coleman’s disappearance, so his departure was merely coincidental. Vessel was conceived and developed prior to hiring Jamie. He was hired to develop the cocktail program, train our staff, and develop the recipes. We have a huge library of them. He did a marvelous job, and we wish him well. It was a mutual agreement for him to move on.”

The men now behind the bar are manager Jim Romdall and Zane Harris, both passionate and experienced bartenders prior to coming to Vessel, and both mentored by Boudreau. “Jamie taught us so much about mixology,” says Romdall. “We were lucky to have him as a teacher. Zane and I are confident that we will continue the great traditions established at Vessel. My plan is to stay on the cutting edge with our cocktail program, while making all aspects of the bar more well-rounded. We serve much more than cocktails. Vessel has the best selection of premium spirits in the region, wonderful wines, champagnes and beers, and fantastic bar food from chef Charles Bradfield.”

Niemeyer has plans in place to make Vessel thrive. He has applied to add outdoor seating, will expand the offerings of champagne by the glass, and promote the space as a stylish, sophisticated locale for private parties and meetings. “Vessel is better than ever. These changes are nothing but positive.”

And you can read more about Jamie, whose departure sounds like far less of a love-fest than you’ve just read above, right here on his blog.

Well? That’s what I know about Vessel. What do you know?

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