On my first pilgrimage to Deep Ellum's Black Swan Saloon, I walked right past the place, thinking the small, windowed room was just an extension of La Grange. There's no sign to speak of; I had to consult my iPhone ("Siri, where the fuck am I?") and double back to find it.
Eventually I stepped inside the tiny bar and took a seat at the curved bar; Clint Eastwood kept a watchful eye from a painting overhead, gun drawn, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Old blues played over the speakers. The room was dimly lit, just two iron lamps hanging over the shiny wooden bar.
Various concert posters lined the back wall; some of the barstools were held together with duct tape, probably the result of overzealous patrons. A bearded and tattooed guy a couple stools down nursed a Miller Lite; meanwhile, the barman on duty muddled cucumber slices in a shaker, added a dash of simple syrup from a squeeze bottle, and topped it off with gin. A couple shakes for good measure, and it reached its final destination not in a fancy Collins or martini glass, but in a lowly clear plastic cup.
To my delight, there was no sour mix to be found behind the bar; there was, however, an impressive selection of canned beer, including Stella, Modus Hoperandi, and Crispin cider. Large apothecary jars full of various bourbon infusions lined two shelves: pear-ginger, apple-cinnamon, vanilla-pecan.
Yes, they do house-infused liquors, use fresh fruits and juices, and make their own syrups, but don't get it twisted -- Black Swan doesn't toot its own horn about "mixology" or "craft cocktails." This isn't some formulaic attempt at emulating a Manhattan "speakeasy"; there's no ridiculous shaking rituals, no lengthy diatribes on the history of the Negroni, no fancy hand-chipped ice; there's not even really a cocktail list to speak of.
You just tell the barman on duty your liquor of choice and your preferences.
"I like gin, I like fruity and herbal, but not sweet," I said, and wound up with a Berry Balsamic, one of the Swan's most popular drinks. It started with fresh strawberries and basil leaves, muddled together in the bottom of a shaker. Fresh lime juice, simple syrup and Citadelle gin were added, then the kicker: half a cap full of balsamic vinegar. If you've ever enjoyed strawberries drizzled with balsamic vinegar, you can likely imagine the taste on your tongue; it gives the strawberries a beautiful, jammy depth, an intensity that was perfectly accented by the hint of sweet basil and lime.
I drank every last drop from the depths of that plastic cup, and pledged to attempt an at-home version as soon as possible (although for a mere six or seven dollars I might as well just come back and have it here).
Jesus, was I the last person on earth to know about this place? It's been open less than two years and has received four Best Of Dallas awards; then again, the fact that I was able to snag an empty seat at the bar on a Friday night despite the "Maximum Occupancy: 49" sign must mean that it's still flying somewhat below the radar.
Black Swan could charge twice as much for their drinks if they used fancy glassware, printed up a wordy cocktail list, and made fedoras mandatory. Thankfully, there's no flash and no pretentiousness; just a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere and damn good, inexpensive drinks. I'll be back very soon, and I will not be bringing a crew of my friends. They'll have to stumble across this place on their own; I would like to ensure there's still an empty stool for me next time I return.
This post originally stated that the Swan has been open less than a year. It's been open for almost two.
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