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New York Didn't Know How Much It Needed Booker and Dax

Eater's critic looks back on the legacy of Momofuku's East Village bar

Everything you need to know about a bar is usually on the walls. The Rose Bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel is gilded with Warhols, Hirsts, and Basquiats; it’s a museum with a velvet rope, where the well-heeled can ogle paintings that cost more than a townhouse while sipping $19 ginger fig martinis. At the original Cutting Room, run by Sex & the City’s Chris Noth, a painting of the actor and his eyebrows watched over the room. It was not a place to pull a Fredo and order a banana daiquiri; you drank either bourbon or Scotch, an assertion I feel comfortable making because that’s precisely what I once saw Noth drinking beneath his own portrait.

Then there was Booker and Dax, adorned by a single gigantic photo of co-owner Dave Arnold holding a medieval shield, weathering an attack from an automated flamethrower. This was not a place for Johnnie Walker Blue. During winter, you’d often see Arnold plunging a glowing red poker into a heavy-bottomed glass, setting the mixture ablaze. You could go ahead and order that banana rum, though; you’d be handed a glass of what was effectively a consommé, a slurry of Ron Zacapa 23 and bananas that had been clarified by a centrifuge spinning at 4,000 times the force of gravity. The drink was clean, elegant, and after a squeeze of lime, even a bit tropical.

If you asked nicely, maybe the bartender would even turn it into a banana daiquiri.

The New York dining landscape is littered with the carcasses of restaurants that tried to do things differently: WD~50, Tailor, Varietal, Alder, Gastroarte, pretty much any venue run by Paul Liebrandt, and now, Booker and Dax. The city’s only true bastion of avant-garde bartending closed earlier this month to accommodate an expansion of Momofuku Ssäm Bar, the restaurant that housed it (the dining room just reopened). It’s a setback to anyone who understands that advancing the deeply rooted American history of bartending is about more than producing yet another well-balanced cocktail that we’ve tried time and time again.

Making better cocktails means developing techniques, adapting underused methods, and chasing after new ideas to fuel the entire process. And it’s hard. Arnold, in an effort to serve hot beverages in the style of a pre-revolutionary flip (and you thought pre-prohibition cocktails were old), tried dipping 800-degree rocks into his drinks. The mixtures had a tendency to explode. He then tested blowtorching copper rods, which worked, except that the product tasted like pennies. Finally, he settled on corrosion-resistant nickel-steel alloy sticks, packed with helix wires that would heat up to 1,500 degrees. The purpose of this wasn’t just showmanship; the poker was so hot it would set the drink ablaze, caramelizing any sugars while burning off excess alcohol, leaving behind a spirit’s potent flavor while reducing its harshness.

More practically, he developed nitro-muddling, a technique for pummeling an ingredient so finely that every molecule would perfume and color the cocktail in question. Arnold also used liquid nitrogen to expeditiously chill cocktail glasses without ice; he acid-adjusted citrus juices, allowing him to produce a perfectly fragrant and creamy Julius without diluting the orange aroma; and he leaned on a dozen other small tricks, barely noticeable to the untrained palate, like milk-washing Darjeeling-infused vodka to moderate the tea’s astringency in a alcoholic Arnold Palmer. Booker and Dax may not have been first bar to carbonate a cocktail, but I can’t think of a single other venue that has reimagined a gin & tonic as a glass of Champagne, poured into a flute and undiluted by ice.

Arnold wasn’t experimenting just for the intellectual challenge. He wanted drinks to be more efficient to make — important in a world where getting a cocktail often means a 10-minute wait — and more delicious to consume. Rather than mix an infinite and inscrutable amount of base spirits and cordials into a coupe and have the imbiber try to make sense of it all (we’ve all been there), a bartender at Booker and Dax would often simply pour a drink into a glass with single, immaculate hunk of ice. That’s it. That’s the drink, served in seconds.

Locally, Booker and Dax had no equals.

Booker and Dax, in short, was Momofuku’s most exciting and groundbreaking property. My companions and I frequented it the way we would Ssäm Bar back in 2006 — with fervor, and with the belief that we were inhabiting something new and undiscovered. That’s not to downplay the importance of Momofuku’s other properties, which have spawned oodles of competitors, reshaping the New York dining scene.

But locally, Booker and Dax had no equals. As head bartender Nick Bennett, now at Porchlight, explained via phone earlier this month, the cost of the venue’s equipment and the complexity of its techniques meant it was never going to become the "most influential bar in New York." Its drinks, even the famous centrifuged banana rum, weren’t copied like Cronuts or pork buns; they were available nowhere else but Booker and Dax. And while Bennett is a full-fledged acolyte of Arnold’s acid-adjusting techniques, I dare you to find a New York bartender that nitro-muddles. If anything, the closest counterpart to all this is 800 miles away, at The Aviary, the chemistry experiment of a bar run by the team behind Alinea.

Despite the destination-worthy potables, Booker and Dax remained one of the city’s most reasonably priced high-end cocktail bars. As lesser venues charge $16 for saccharine tipples that look like they were thrown-together by a 21-year-old liquor rep holding a frat party, Booker and Dax charged $14 for drinks that contained nearly as much R&D as the Apple Watch. Accessibility, of course, isn’t just a product of price, it’s a product of making guests truly feel welcome, which is all the more important when they’re about to spend money on something truly novel. In a moment where many formal bars forbid standing as if it were a crime against the cocktail papacy, Booker and Dax followed a more relaxed restaurant-style policy: If there was room, you could wait inside (!!!) and sometimes even order a drink while space opened up at the bar.

Sure, Booker and Dax had an ego. But it also had a heck of a lot of hospitality. It’s where I took a Russian couple visiting from Moscow to spend their final night in New York (we all got drunk on too many Banana Justinos). It’s where I’ve taken countless dates, good and bad. It’s where I was introduced to the concept of a "snaquiri," a snack-sized daiquiri a bartender might hand out to fellow staffers and regulars. It’s where servers would occasionally hand out small pours of fig-centrifuged bourbon as a liquid petit four or amuse. It’s where I often enjoyed a regular Sunday night cocktail to de-stress before a long workweek at my old job. And it’s one of two New York cocktail bars I’ve ever taken my parents to.

New York has lost, temporarily at least, its last active practitioner of culinary modernism.

Arnold says he’s actively looking for a new space, and the Momofuku website, rather than describing the venues as "closed," lists it as "moving." One hopes. Here's the thing: Resurrecting even the most reliable restaurant isn’t as certain as Easter Sunday following Good Friday. You find a space, you find some investors who don't like the space, you find a new space, your investors pull out, you look for new investors, you take a job as a consultant somewhere in the interim, you find a final space, and all of a sudden your new investors are like, "Why don't we just serve frozen margaritas?"

I’ll be among the first to return if and when Booker and Dax reopens, but for now, Momofuku has lost the edgy, innovative outlier in its growing empire — the most cogent practitioner of Momofuku’s core values of affordability, intellectual ambitiousness, and sheer deliciousness — and New York has lost, temporarily at least, its last active practitioner of culinary modernism. And that really sucks.

Booker and Dax at Ssäm

207 2nd Avenue, New York, New York 10003
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