A World Away (or, just down the hall)
While the lobby bar hosts an array of Monday night businessmen having a casual beer and some mixed nuts with colleagues, buoyed by a soundtrack of classical and jazz piano tunes, just down the hall and through a set of doors is the entrance to the Mason Street Grill. It’s an entirely different world, and easy to forget it’s a part of the hotel at all, were it not for the high-class service and ability to charge your meal back to your room.
Camel leather and stools and high-backed bar chairs with milk chocolate wood legs, dotted with brass rivets, ring several tall tables and line the bar. There are red leather couches and an easy chair in a half-circle by a fireplace, next to walls with built-in bookshelves lined with jacket-less tomes. Interspersed among the tiles are vases, decorative boxes, glass votives that vary in shape/height/color, and even a worn leather lunchbox. Dark wood walls and ceilings are adorned with rectangular light fixtures to provide an ambient lighting that is warm and glowing. All this evokes an executive dining room or perhaps the Chicago office of a corporate attorney. But the crowd is clearly there for varying reasons.
Two guys in shorts and golf shirts keenly pay attention to the Yankees vs. Reds game on the TV above the bar (4 to 1, Yanks, top of the 3rd), while Nicholas the bartender, smoothly pours them wine refills using that classic one-handed style of thumb placed neatly in the groove at the bottom of the bottle that indicates someone who knows how to pour wine. A woman practices the art of maneuvering through a crowd, avoiding a stray barstool, while tapping urgently on her Blackberry and never once looking up. A father-daughter duo plays catch-up over martinis. Another woman sets down on the bar a giant binder, stuffed to 4″ thick, while post-its and labeled tabs stick out in a way that appears haphazard but is methodical and deliberate, indicating serious business.
Meanwhile, near the apex of sitting area and wall of windows, there stands a black grand piano. Placed on top of the piano’s closed lid is an enormous martini glass – the kind I used to see a guy holding as he wandered around East Town’s Jazz in the Park, the glass filled to the brim with some sort of aqualescent cocktail. The tips in this particular glass show appreciation for each evening’s featured musicians. Currently a lone guitarist stands, strumming out a finger-style tune that sounds like a popular jazz tune, but is clearly styled in the classical Spanish way.
Soon, a singer joins him. The sound shifts to something more Bossa Nova, a la João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos (“Tom”) Jobim. Her voice is pure jazz: rounded and full, with her words clearly enunciated as she rolls around the tones of a soft horn of bass, spiked with occasional flute-like sopranic rises. Her shoulders shrug in time with the beats of the soft mallets she wields on a set of bongo-type drums, eliciting a quiet “conk,” reminiscent of tapping two hollow coconuts together and reinforcing the musical ambiance of a Caribbean seaside patio or Latin beach cabana bar.
The duo turns out to be Pam Duronio and Tim Stemper. A married couple who originally met at a rehearsal while Pam was in town from Buffalo doing some contract voice work, they have often performed as “Pam and the Players” with various other Milwaukee jazz musicians, such as smooth jazz master Warren Wiegratz. Pam particularly enjoys putting the Latin flair to the classic jazz tunes she was trained to sing classically years ago, working with Mark Murphy out of San Francisco. Doing this to Norah Jones’ “I Don’t Know Why” creates a toe-tapping, upbeat, and catchy rendition of a song that is generally a little more melancholic and wistful. It’s at home with “Besame Mucho” but then creates a near-unrecognizable, yet wonderfully unique, ” ‘Deed I do.”
As Tim takes up the guitar again, solo, the patrons’ murmuring dissipates to a background purr, or soft rumbling, that could be the surf crashing over pebbles if you closed your eyes. I enjoy my glass of white wine – a 2009 Fred Loimer Grüner Veltliner out of Austria, titled “Lois.” The peachy, citrusy aromas are not too fruity, dry or crisp, simply airy and light. It perfectly complements my Tuna Tartar Tacos (only $5 at Happy Hour, an incredible bargain!!) with their fat chunks of tuna, boasting a sliver of avocado, artfully lain atop each tiny taco, over mixed greens and a spicy mayo.
Pam steps up to the mic, says “This one’s for Maureen and Chris,” and like breathy, whistling reeds, she softly launches into a Patsy Cline tune instantly recognizable to all: “I’m crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely…”