By Sari Kamin
At first glance, Booker and Dax may look like an ordinary bar. Perhaps a little minimalist in their aesthetic, but still traditionally designed with an L-shaped bar lining the perimeter of the room and a few tables occupying the middle space. The clientele is young and hip and people seem very content to be socializing with cocktails. Then comes the fire.
Anytime a drink is ordered off the "red hot poker" section of the menu, there will be flames shooting out of a pint glass. The effect is rather dramatic, but that is not the point. The bartenders don't mind the flair, but the goal is to heat the drink as quickly and effectively as possible, without relying on hot water that would normally cause diluted flavor. It may seem an excessive way to produce a hot drink, but it is all part of the method of madness that takes place in front of and behind the scenes at Booker and Dax, the one-year-old bar attached to Chef David Chang's restaurant, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, in New York City's East Village.
Booker and Dax is owned by Dave Arnold, host of Cooking Issues at HeritageRadioNetwork.Org. Arnold is an internationally acclaimed modernist cuisine chef and inventor. Most people think of food when they hear the term avant-garde or molecular gastronomy, but Dave insists it has applications in the world of mixology too. His bar is proof positive of this assessment. In addition to standard paring knives and shakers, there is also a centrifuge, a rotovap, red-hot pokers, and liquid nitrogen. Despite the complicated equipment, the cocktails are surprisingly straightforward and the only think magical about them once constructed is how good they taste.
Last week, Booker and Dax bar manager Tristan Willey came to the Heritage Radio Network studio to talk with Damon Boelte, host of the cocktail focused program, The Speakeasy. Damon described the experience of entering Booker and Dax as analogous to "walking into a mad science lab, but with booze." That may sound like the best place ever, but Tristan insists that there has been a struggle amongst the staff to make sure the bar still felt like more of a bar than a laboratory. The initial instinct was to hide all the equipment but eventually that proved too difficult for the bartenders who were committed to making their drinks in "real time." Once they were confident that the drinks were coming out correctly, they decided there was no reason for them to hide their process and the vision of how they got there.
As simplistic and basic as they insist their methods are, it is well understood that they are handling dangerous equipment. There is extreme attention paid to the handling of the tools and the safety of the customers. In the wrong hands, working with fire and liquid nitrogen can be perilous and unfortunately, accidents have happened. Last year, a woman in a London bar was served a cocktail improperly made with liquid nitrogen and she suffered a perforated stomach after consuming the drink. Both Dave Arnold and Tristan Willey agree that although the tools they use may be complex, it is remarkably irresponsible to misuse them. On a past issue of Cooking Issues, Arnold remarked that, "at Booker and Dax, we never ever serve actual liquid cryogens to people or food and drinks that are so chilled that they can cause frostbite upon consumption... The trick is knowing what you're doing and having some common sense and respect for the safety of your customers." Arnold likened the incident in London to taking chicken nuggets directly out of a fryer dripping with oil and throwing them into someone's mouth-- something no food service person with common sense would ever do. Tristan assured me that all employees at Booker and Dax go through rigorous training with the equipment and are also required to retrain every other employee so that they are constantly revisiting the safety procedures. He says, "whether you work in the kitchen with hot fry oil or behind the bar with liquid nitrogen it requires diligence, attention, and a constant reminder that you are a professional using powerful tools. A sharp knife is common place in the hands of a chef and bartender, but that doesn't mean you don't learn how to respect and use it properly."
Despite the exceptional techniques used at the bar, the focus at Booker and Dax is always the customer. This goes back to the initial tension the staff found between the equipment they used and the atmosphere they wanted to create. The fear was their practices could be perceived as gimmicky. Arnold acknowledges that may be the motivation for using liquid nitrogen at some bars, but in the case of Booker and Dax, the impetus is "to get the best, freshest infusions by doing liquid nitrogen muddling at the bar or by chilling glasses, where it's clearly technically the most superior way to do it but has nothing to do with gimmickry."
I encourage skeptics to see for themselves; the bartenders at Booker and Dax are warm and generous with their suggestions and explanations of the drinks. The drinks themselves are flavor forward and perfectly balanced. The clarity of the ingredients have been heightened by the methods in which they are made. I was more affected by the excellent hospitality than I was of any fancy tricks happening behind the bar. That is until the red-hot poker came out and a drink appeared to burst into volcanic flames. In that moment I had to agree with Damon Boelte who said, "everybody likes to see fire behind a bar. Come on, it's like the coolest thing ever." Indeed it is. Especially when the result produces a delicious cocktail.
Listen to the interview with Damon Boelte of The Speakeasy and Tristan Willey of Booker and Dax here.