Call it better drinking through chemistry.
Last Saturday night at Ixia, molecular mixologist Tom Cusack chilled mojitos and beer with liquid nitrogen. Fog streamed down glasses and bottles onto the bar, and patrons slurped shots without glasses.
Baltimore isn't known for setting nightlife trends. But with Cusack behind the bar, that might change.
The 23-year-old Cusack (not related to the actors, by the way) works in neurobiology at Johns Hopkins Hospital during the day and tends bar at Ixia Friday and Saturday nights.
"My normal job as a scientist doesn't normally let me eat out," Cusack explains.
Recently, Cusack started working with liquid nitrogen and edible ingredients such as calcium lactate. Using elements of molecular gastronomy and chemistry, he developed a high-end cocktail list and set up a nitro bar at Ixia on Charles Street four weeks ago.
You can order a Banana Foster Dippin' Dots, an alcoholic version of the BB-shaped ice cream; shots encased in edible pouches instead of glasses; a sorbet frozen on the spot with liquid nitrogen; and a few other specialty drinks. It is one of the wildest, most innovative things I've ever seen in a bar.
My girlfriend, Amie, my buddy Young and I went last Saturday and were amazed from the start. Free parking was easy enough to find on Charles Street because we arrived about 9:30 p.m. to be among the first people at the nitro bar.
With its high ceilings, chandeliers, hardwood floor and royal blue-painted walls, Ixia is semiformal and a little stuffy, but the odd portraits and blood-red paint in the hallway to the bathrooms add a quirkiness to the place.
Restaurant-goers usually dine at the tables in the front of the building, and the bar patrons hang out in back. Last Saturday, I'll bet most of the people on the plush lounge chairs by the bar had no idea what they were missing.
Since Cusack and the other bartenders are still refining the craft, you can only order nitrogen cocktails at the section of the bar nearest the dining area. They plan to expand it to the rest of the bar.
We grabbed a couple of seats by the nitrogen bar and Cusack dipped some popcorn in liquid nitrogen and put it in a bowl in front of us. He urged us to eat it before it warmed up. I hesitated, until I watched him eat some first and exhale a plume of cold fog.
Amie ordered the "REAL" Magic Mojito, which cost a whopping $16. Expensive, I know. But most definitely worth it.
One of the bar staff took a tuft of homemade pink cotton candy from a nearby glass jar and set it in a large martini glass. Ixia's martinis are served in 10-ounce glasses -- noticeably larger than average. Then, he poured a mixture of mojito ingredients on top of the cotton candy, which melted and turned the drink pink.
After the cotton candy dissolved, our server ladled on some liquid nitrogen, which bubbled and made a layer of foglike vapor flow over the glass' rim and onto the bar. It looked like something straight out of a science lab.
Once the liquid nitrogen had boiled out of the drink (which took a minute), it was tasting time. The mojito was delicious, too -- crisp and not too sugary. Typically, simple syrup is used to sweeten mojitos, but I liked the cotton candy a bit better.
The non-adventurous Young went for a dark German wheat beer. For kicks, Cusack poured some liquid nitrogen into the bottle. The nitrogen, he explained, chills the drink without watering it down the way ice would.
"Ice cubes are so boring," Cusack said. "They just melt and dilute your drink."
Last Saturday, there were three glassless shots available for $7 each. I went for the Georgia Peach, a smooth and rich mixture of Peach Schnapps and Southern Comfort wrapped in an oval membrane much like an egg yolk. The casing was made from calcium lactate and sodium alginate and garnished with some fresh diced peaches. You eat it by pressing it against the roof of your mouth with your tongue, which creates an explosion of flavor.
"It's not uncommon for us to have people laugh out loud as they enjoy the drink," Cusack said.
Ixia hasn't marketed the nitro bar. Instead, it has let news of it spread by word of mouth.
Owner Un Kim, who also owns the Papermoon Diner, is a little worried the nitro bar will turn into a gimmick and overshadow Ixia's renowned menu and extensive martini list. I don't think she should fret -- a liquid nitrogen bar only magnifies Ixia's eccentric elegance.
Tom Cusack runs the nitrogen bar 8 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights at Ixia, 518 N. Charles St. Call 410-727-1800 or go to ixia-online.com.