Sunday, July 22, 2007
a girl, a bar, and molecular gastronomy
Whoever told you not to play with your food when you were little was probably right. However, please DO play with your cocktails. In fact, I urge you to, after the round of tasting I had this weekend at the new Nitro Bar at Ixia. It is like dinner theatre, without the dinner, replaced instead by a most involved and entertaining show of cocktail construction, with liquid nitrogen, certain chemical agents, and a knowledgeable drink scientist as the stars. Oh yes, and fresh fruit purees played a strong supporting role.
There were four of us, primed and ready to go, after entrees and a few rounds of martinis and champagne. I was instantly transported back to high school chem lab, but this time with alcohol and none of the G-rating. First was a glassless shot of peach puree and alcohol, enrobed in a gelatin-like casing, presented on a chinese soup spoon. The casing is achieved by the reaction that takes place between sodium alginate, a common emulsifier used in the food industry (you'll find this in McDonald's gooey apple pie) and calcium lactate. The shot is mixed with a bit of the latter, then dropped into a bath of water and alginate, and voila! a chemical reaction ensues in which the sodium (Na2+) in the alginate is replaced by the calcium ions (Ca2+)to form flexible chains, which then eventually link together to become a gel. Thus a barrier forms between the dropped shot and the surrounding medium.** Science is awesome isn't it... Texturally speaking, the result is much like an enormous caviar when it enters your mouth and explodes with a single bite. My only complaint is just that, the one bite didn't last long enough!
Second to taste was a hot/cold cocktail of passionfruit jus and Maker's Mark (I believe), a juxtaposition of molecular states, not to mention senses! The cocktail is first chilled and poured, then covered with a layer of warm passionfruit foam. It reminded me of swimming in a pool at midday, when the top layer of warm water covers the chilly lower half. It was surprisingly creamy. Next, the sour cherry takaki with lemongrass- a shot of cherry liqour flash-chilled in liquid nitro, and sliced to resemble fresh toro sashimi. How to describe? It was like eating semi-frozen jello. Lastly, there was the Hitachino bellini nitro, an imported Japanese brew mixed with peach puree, then chilled. Kiuchi Brewery in Ibaraki, Japan proudly produces Hitachino Nest beers, a family of 10 award-winning ales. The brew that was used last night, the Pale Ale, has a mild hoppy flavor with subtle hints of fruit. Very interesting. Peaches, meet beer. Beer, meet peaches. Lovely match. (The iconic owl cartoon on the label is both retro and kitchy, a creative choice you would not expect for a Japanese company to make.)
On the good graces of our drink scientist, we were offered a round of something that was not on the menu, something he had been tinkering with, an upside-down espresso. Essentially a potent coffee foam, this demitasse is served inverted on your saucer, then eaten with a spoon. With all the creamy goodness of the foam from a well-frothed cup of cappuccino, it still remained light on the palate and pleasantly ethereal. My only suggestion would be to serve it with a sprinkle of coffee nibs for added flavor and contrast in texture. Being the espresso lover that I am, I really enjoyed this bit of whimsical pick-me-up.
The nitro bar menu changes, pending on the hypotheses and the experimental success of the mad scientist. If only chemistry class in school could have been like this, I probably would have paid more attention (and perhaps developed a premature alcohol dependancy). The drinks range from $7-$15. Though you may not need to bring your labcoat or goggles, be well equipped with a strong curiosity for the novel. The regular martini list, however, is pretty much set this season. There are certain stars that definitely rule the roost, including a summer-inspired strawberry basil mojito, cilantro lime mojito, and for ginger lovers, the shoga bomb, made with fresh ginger juice. Veuve Cliquot is now served by the glass too, at $18 a pop. Just keep an eye on your bar tab, as you may get a little carried away when the bar menu looks this good.
Alas, it's unfortunate I didn't have my camera and thus couldn't take any photos! I had to snag these ones you see here. Though the strawberry mojito looks very similar.
518 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
**I have read that Burger King uses this process to make its onion rings, which in my opinion, are pretty subpar. They mix a paste of grated onions with sodium alginate, and send it through a ring-shaped press to make the characteristic shape. As the rings fall out of the extruder, they drop into a calcium chloride (or other calcium containing compound) bath where they firm up. The rings are then dried, breaded, and frozen...ready to be shipped to a BK chain near you! It is a business, after all, and what counts is the bottom line. This process helps to lower labor costs, to limit waste by using the whole onion, even damaged ones, and to produce a consistent and uniform product that franchises love. Next time you are at the King, take a look at their onion rings, and let me know if they aren't all just a bit clones of each other.