Clever, Very Clever
Sitting at his Mid-City bar Clever, Jon Smith points out the libations in view.
He’s working on a Sazerac. The man sitting a few stools away is sipping a Japanese white ale called Hitachino and his companion has another cocktail in front of her. Near the end of the bar, someone is knocking back a Belgian framboise. Meanwhile, the bartender prepares another round of Old Fashioned cocktails, vigorously moving the cocktail shakers above her shoulders like dueling maracas.
"So you see cocktail, beer, cocktail, beer, cocktail, cocktail?" says Smith. "Remember, I opened this as a wine bar, right?"
Clever is a wine bar. Wine is part of its DNA and the bedrock of its design. Smith, after all, is first and foremost a wine merchant, and he started Clever late last year as an extension of his wine shop Cork & Bottle, located right next door in Mid-City’s American Can apartment building. The shop and the wine bar are connected by a new passageway cut through the building’s thick concrete walls. Even the name Clever is a reference from the world of wine, drawn from a quote attributed to the ancient Greek dramatist Aristophanes: "Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine so I may wet my mind and say something clever."
Still, Clever has lately developed into a cocktail destination as well, thanks in part to the addition behind the bar of Kimberly Patton-Bragg, a redheaded spitfire and a player in the city’s emerging craft cocktail scene. As with a handful of other bartenders around town, she believes the cocktail can be more than just a mixed drink, that it can be made with as much care and quality as a dish from a fine-dining kitchen.
"Yes, I actually make my own grenadine. I am that nerdy," she admits.
But at Clever she and her fellow bartenders also make drinks like the "oriole," mixing gin, Chartreuse, lemon juice and St. Germain, the liqueur made from elderflower, or the "grandfather clock," another original with two types of bitters, lemon and sprigs of thyme joining a glass of prosecco.
It’s an upscale style for cocktails that belies the fact that Clever is essentially a small, intimate neighborhood bar, though one that is steadfastly grown-up and low-key. For bar snacks, the staff can usually produce artisanal cheese plates. It’s a cool room of concrete walls and contemporary design with sofas and tables arranged off the bar for small groups. There are no video poker machines, there are no buckets of Budweiser and smoking is allowed only outside on the small covered patio.
There is minimal outdoor signage to alert passersby that Clever is even here, but an interesting mix of people have nonetheless found it. The place gets hopping on Thursday evenings during the Mid-City Green Market, the farmers market that Smith created last spring and runs in the American Can building parking lot. It’s common to see shoppers dropping their market bags for a post-grocery glass of wine here, and after the vendors fold up their tents at 7 p.m., some head up to Clever for a drink as well.
As the drinking style has evolved here, so too has the schedule of events. On Tuesday evenings starting at 6 p.m., freelance chef Daniel Esses prepares tapas at Clever and on Wednesdays the bar serves wine flights, or small servings of several related varieties presented together.
Another side of Clever’s identity comes up on Friday and Saturday nights, when local bands and performers take the small corner stage. This month, look for gypsy jazz from the Courtyard Kings, country blues from Washboard Chaz, post-bop jazz, bluegrass and other styles in the intimate, upscale room.
With all this going on, Clever is still very much about wine. The bar’s wine list includes about 30 wines by the glass, but the realm of possibilities runs much further than that. Wine is what Smith knows best, after all, and he is willing to field special requests at the bar from his 400-plus selection of wines next door at Cork & Bottle.
Clever, 3700 Orleans Ave., 483-6860.