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SCENES: Puff 'n' Sexy Stuff Dallas 2007 -

You couldn't turn on a Top-40 radio station this year without hearing Justin Timberlake's bold declaration: "I'm bringing sexy back." At first, his claim seemed silly. Sexy told us it loved us, and it made us breakfast. But then sexy never called. Actresses lost so much weight that ribs became the new breasts. We were forced to visualize Senator Larry Craig legislating all over some dude in an airport bathroom. And in a final, crushing blow, Jenna Jameson gave up pornography, for fuck's sake (or, rather, for not fucking's sake.)

But watching sweet J.T. slink across a stage or a television screen does remind us that once, there was sexy. The same thing happens when you walk into the Velvet Hookah. Oversized plush cushions cover the floor, surrounded by gauzy jewel-toned curtains. Dim lighting casts shadows on the elaborate, phallic glass hookahs on every table. (There are no talking caterpillars sitting atop mushrooms, but if you have enough 'shrooms before you go, there might be.) The music, a blend of house, lounge and world beats, snakes suggestively through the Velvet Hookah's three smoking rooms, coaxing conversation, not silencing it.

"Sexy never left," says Jei Baker, the Velvet Hookah's founder and self-described "brand architect." "It was just over here." Even at its busiest, the bar is serene. Hookah requires nothing more than sitting and smoking. Low seating encourages guests to lean close together. Soft-focus lighting works better than the best beer goggles.

Memo to Dallas' exclusive, swanky nightspots perched atop certain luxury hotels with one-letter names: Sexy isn't about shoving remixed Top-40 hits into people's ears, charging $11 for drinks and encouraging patrons to dry hump on the dance floor before they even get a chance to swap names. That's just Carson's Live with a bigger tab at the end of the night. Real luxury is about a unique experience. And there's no place in town like Deep Ellum's Velvet Hookah.

"We have the best shisha in the world," Baker says, using the aficionado's term for specially flavored hookah tobacco, which he imports from Jordan before curing and flavoring every batch himself. Baker started making the Velvet Hookah's special proprietary blends when the bar opened on September 4, 2002. In five years, Baker has created 169 flavors of shisha.

Some restaurants may have hookah, says Baker, but nobody does it like Velvet. That's because, he says, he started the business without "the pre-sets that become limitations." Baker's a guy from southern Dallas. He used to travel a lot when he worked for Club Med before opening the bar, but he knew little about Arab culture, in which the hookah was popularized. And so mixing liquor with hookah, something Arabs would never do, didn't seem illogical to Baker. The Velvet Hookah was born after Baker's original business partner tried to join the dot-com boom by selling hookahs online. The site didn't take off, and "we had a garage full of hookahs."

With hookah, there's the sense that what you're smoking is actually a gas, not a cloud of filtered additives. Shisha is three things: tobacco, molasses or honey, which is used for curing; and fruit flavors or essences. The tobacco isn't burned, it's baked. Velvet uses traditional Egyptian hookahs, with one or two hoses. That engenders conversation, which was the original purpose of hookah.

"If you have the hookah," Baker says late one Monday night when the bar is closed, "you have the floor." He takes a hit of an orange-flavored blend in a miniature hookah he carries with him. "Mo-bowl technology," he calls it.

The Velvet Hookah, in the heart of Deep Ellum at the corner of Main and Crowdus streets, is an anchor in an area besieged by controversy and economic hardship.

It's hard, he says, staying afloat while the city's tearing up the northern access points to Deep Ellum to put in a DART station. And the homeless people are a problem too. But, he says, "violent crime doesn't happen down here," thanks to an increased police presence. Baker focuses on the future Deep Ellum. If that means losing the grit and grime that some believe are the soul of the neighborhood, too bad. "Gentrification is what it is," he says. And the Velvet Hookah is about constant reinvention.

When tall, modern tables and stark décor didn't work, they went Mediterranean. Belly dancing was OK for a while, but not anymore. Instead, Baker says, he's bringing in a Cirque du Soleil-trained trapeze act. And starting this month, Baker began selling trademarked Velvet Hookah shisha blends online. A fine idea, but the communal Velvet Hookah experience is a difficult one to replicate.

"All week long we section ourselves off" in cubicles and cars, Baker says. That's why there's only bar service these days at Velvet, no table service. It creates flow, which creates conversation, which creates community. And forcing people to ask for shisha blends called "Floral Fixation" and "Le Petite Mort," well, that creates sexy time. — Andrea Grimes

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