One of this year’s biggest bar opening so far eschews many of the trends popular in splashy openings: Existing Conditions doesn’t have tons of plants. It doesn’t have a bunch of cutesy neon signs, and the glasses that the drinks arrive in are unlikely to garner Instagram likes.
But behind the simple wood bar and painted white brick walls, the bar opening on Monday night at 35 West 8th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, is flush with complex tools for drink-making methods unlike any other spot in town. Bartenders spend hours using techniques like clarifying, centrifuging, pressure cooking, and fat-washing to prepare ingredients for the night’s beverages. A custom-made carbonation system keeps drinks bubbly throughout the night; a pump filled with an ethanol solution circulates to keep the drinks at negative seven degrees.
That obsession for technique and eye for science is what owners Dave Arnold (Booker and Dax) and Don Lee (PDT), along with third partner Greg Boehm (Cocktail Kingdom) and their whole crew of bartenders, have become known for in the cocktail world. Walk into the bar, though, and they still want you to feel like it’s just a neighborhood spot.
“We’re not trying to change the way you drink. We’re trying to change the way we make the drink,” Arnold says. Lee says: “We want the surprise to be, ‘This is so delicious,’ not ‘Wow, you did a lot of science.’”
It’s an ethos that brought a cult following to Booker and Dax, Arnold’s project in the back of Momofuku Ssäm Bar that closed in 2016. With the addition of Lee, a lot more collaboration (and friendly arguing) happened in the creation of the menu, meaning that some drinks here never would have shown up at Booker.
Arnold, for instance, hates pebble ice in cocktails, but a tiki-inspired drink called the Remedy comes with it. Lee had decided to pressure cook condensed coconut milk, making what they describe as a vegan dulce de leche, and the team immediately experimented with it for their take on a painkiller, adding two kinds of rum and an acid-adjusted orange juice. When they compared a crushed ice version to a cubed ice one, even Arnold agreed that crushed was the way to go. “I’m excited by it because I disagreed with it, and it’s on the menu,” he says.
Carbonated drinks make up a big chunk of the offerings, a way to make use of that fancy custom carbonation system hiding behind the bar. Like with everything else on the menu, the options pull from familiar flavors, and the twists come in the production: There’s a carbonated version of a strawberry margarita, where the strawberry juice is clarified, and there’s a paloma, but the water comes from a well in Saratoga Springs, picked for its particular salinity.
If a custom carbonation system sounds like a whole lot, it is. (Should a piece break in the middle of service, it would require far more work to get it replaced since it’s custom.) But Lee explains the benefit like this: In a typical rum and coke, coke typically goes on top of room temperature rum; only the soda adds carbonation, and mostly the ice makes it cold. “It starts losing carbonation very quickly,” he says. At Existing Conditions, everything in the cocktail gets carbonated and reduced to that negative seven degrees. They’re also pressurized, theoretically making every cocktail feel as carbonated as the first sip from a fresh bottle of soda.
Everything costs $15, even the non-alcoholic cocktails, which underwent just as much experimentation and scrutiny as the boozy ones. One called Stingless gets its sweet edge from a stingless bee native to Mexico, smuggled in and then carbonated. For the Doyenne, they’re importing Comice pears from New Zealand. Once ripe, the pears are juiced and centrifuged, and bartenders steep a Greek tea in it. It’s carbonated; the effect, Lee says, is a dry juice that “drinks like a sparkling white wine.”
The non-alcoholic cocktails aren’t just about playing with ingredients, though. Existing Conditions wants to be inclusive, and that meant offering something for people who don’t drink alcohol, Lee says. Besides drinks, they’ve brought in Josh Eden, an alum of Jean-George, for snacks like latkes with pear purée and horseradish cream, crispy cauliflower florets with aged cheddar and bacon, and crab dip, as well as heartier options like a steak sandwich.
“We’re not here to shock and awe anyone. We’re not here for people to be challenged,” Lee says. “We want people to come in and feel comfortable as if its their living room.”
Existing Conditions is now open from 5 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday, until 1 a.m. on Thursday, and until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Take a look at the full menu below.