Consider the possibility of a margarita cocktail on a spoon, with ingredients like salt air and dehydrated Cointreau powder. Eddie "Lucky" Campbell has.
On Thursday, Parliament, the inconspicuously situated bar he runs in Uptown with partner Andrew Brimecome, will debut a "molecular cocktail" menu of four cocktails deconstructed and transformed into edible, hors d'oeuvre-size form. With ingredients like "salt air" and "bitters edible glass," the move marks an ambitious and laborious turn - even for Campbell, who in the early years of Dallas' craft-cocktail scene was the guy who'd show up to competitions with a cotton-candy machine.
"We're doing this solely because we believe we should do this, by offering our guests the most advanced cocktails we're capable of making," he said. And with each priced under $10, they're not going to have you worrying about your credit card limit, either.
Among the local scene's pioneers, Campbell has long had a reputation for bartending's more flamboyant and inventive side. The gravel-voiced, fedora-topped barman is a natural storyteller, and anyone who's attended a special event at one of his bars is accustomed to the sight of him standing atop the counter, delivering greetings or spinning one of his tales for the crowd.
But Campbell is more than show; he's an intense student of bartending craft and tradition. Some years ago, he noticed bartenders enhancing drinks using elements of so-called "molecular gastronomy" -- for instance, adding foams or floating bubbles.
Since then, he's dreamed of making such a program a reality. But rather than simply enhancing cocktails with such elements, like Tucson's Highwire -- which features a pair of drinks with floating tequila bubbles -- or transforming a cocktail into one edible ingredient, like a gummy bear, Campbell and his team have completely rebuilt drinks like the Margarita or the Moscow Mule in the form of sudsy foams and caviar-like globules. It's a move he hopes will raise the bar's national profile.
Molecular mixology, an extension of so-called molecular gastronomy, or modern cuisine, was pioneered by chef Ferran Adria of legendary Spanish restaurant El Bulli and U.S. proponents like Wylie Dufresne and Thomas Keller. The practice incorporates technologies and methods that intensify flavor and allow chefs to present dishes artistically in the form of gels, foams, sprays, powders and more.
For instance, one of the more common techniques, called reverse spherification, involves submerging liquids into a sodium alginate bath and other substances to create jellified spheres. Molecular mixology kits are even available online, and with some patience, as well as the right ingredients and tools, you can enjoy creations such as the Aperol, Rosemary, Honey, Scotch Paper and Gel cocktail at home.
As the craft-cocktail renaissance began to flourish, such chefs began applying such methods to their bar programs. Indeed, bars that have regularly incorporated such practices have typically been the projects of high-end, reservations-only restaurants - like the Aviary, part of Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago, or Booker and Dax, at David Chang's Momofuku Ssam in New York. Seattle bartender Jamie Boudreau and Toronto's Frankie Solarik, who runs a bar consulting program called BarChef, are also leaders in the field.
Campbell used to obsess over Boudreau's illustrative YouTube videos. They inspired the ginger foams or Angostura-bitters-flavored cotton candy that he made to enhance his own cocktails.
At Parliament, he hopes to bring a fuller such experience to a more general public by offering completely reimagined classics -- in forms you'd expect to find only in fancy restaurants -- in the bar's elegantly homey Uptown location.
Nestled within a warren of apartments near the intersection of State and Allen, Campbell is not one to back down from a challenge; Parliament already offers a Ramos Gin Fizz, a notoriously labor-intensive classic, during its happy hour. That same classic will be among Campbell's molecular cocktail menu that takes the busy neighborhood bar's populist-minded offerings even further.
This was not the kind of program one could roll out lightly. Campbell considered his first challenge translating each drink's ingredients and flavors into forms that could be presented attractively and making sure their tastes echoed those of their inspirations.
For example, while one can find a Mojito sphere, where the entire drink has been condensed into spherical form, "if you have mint and lime but you can't taste the rum, that doesn't really work," he said. "It has to be not only tolerable but just as delicious as that cocktail."
Parliament's cocktails break down each classic's signature ingredients into forms presented on or in tiny glassware or in the embrace of a spoon.
Take the Molecular Ramos Gin Fizz, consisting of what's described as sweet gin and cream spherification, citrus pop rocks and orange blossom air; or the Molecular Moscow Mule, presented in the form of a vodka and ginger gelee cube, lime caviar, "Copper Mug" gold leaf and micro mint.
Beyond that, however, Campbell considered his greatest challenge being able to offer such drinks on request in a busy neighborhood-bar atmosphere.
"Nobody's attempted to do this in a free-for-all setting," he said.
About eight years ago, Campbell visited the bar at The Mansion at Turtle Creek. There, he saw caviar-like "strawberry bubbles" floating in Champagne and an "edible Cosmo" served up by lead barman Michael Martensen, now co-owner of Dallas' Madrina and Proof + Pantry.
Campbell was transfixed.
"I went home that night and stayed up all night Googling 'molecular" and ordering all the books from El Bulli and Alinea," Campbell said.
Those ambitions would take a back seat to the many projects Campbell would take on in the meantime. He rose to local prominence at Oak Cliff's Bolsa, followed by stints at The Chesterfield, Sunset Lounge and Abacus before opening Parliament.
Eventually hundreds of hours would go into conceiving and perfecting the molecular menu; partner Brimecome enlisted the help of an unnamed molecular chef consultant to help figure out the chemistry needed to create foamy bubbles that didn't pop or to combine flavors in various forms. The team procured siphons, pipettes, dehydrators and scales that measure to a hundredth of a gram, along with emulsifying ingredients like sodium alginate and calcium gluconate.
Individual elements are pre-made during off-hours, much of it by "bar chef" Mary Christine Szefcyk, so that the cocktails can be built on request for customers.
In test runs with patrons, Campbell said people aren't at first sure what to do with the artful creations. "They look at it puzzled, like - what do I do with it?" he said. "They can't fathom they you just put it in your mouth and eat it. They just stare at it."
But once they do, he said, "you can just watch their eyes light up. When they start rolling it around in their mouths, they're like - oh my god, it's a Margarita. You can watch them get their brains around it, like it's something from the future."
Served up on a spoon, for instance, the Molecular Moscow Mule's lime caviar bubbles contribute tiny but intense explosions of tartness along with a Jello-like vodka-ginger gelee and a gold leaf evoking the drink's signature copper mug. Even more fun is the Molecular Ramos Gin Fizz, which plants a dollop of orange blossom "air" atop a tall shot glass with the other elements hunkered at the base; the creamy-sweet cocktail is consumed in one motion, with a lingering pop-rock tingle.
While the creations might evoke memories of Jell-O shots, they're much more sophisticated while using some of the same principles.
"There's no reason you couldn't take that (idea) and make five different components on a plate and use the gelatin as a carrier," said Dave Wengerhoff, an Illinois-based food science consultant. "The bar becomes kitchen. You could actually become more efficient at it if you put some effort into the pre-prep."
That's where Szefzyk comes in. Having previously run a soup company in Cleveland before pursuing photography and then bartending, she had some inkling of the processes involved.
"This is cocktail science," she said. "We have scales for weighing and measuring instead of jiggers. It's like baking - you have to be very precise. It's exhausting."
But the work, the Parliament team hopes, will be worth it.
"We will make these for the effort of being on the front line," he said. "It's a labor of love."
Whether Parliament's customers take to the concoctions and for how long is something Campbell is anxious to see. The alcohol content of the drinks is not high; he estimates the strongest among them might amount to half a typical shot of straight spirit.
Instead, he said, it's more about art and experience. The cocktails will be served nightly until they run out. "It's not like we can just make a bunch of Molecular Ramos Gin Fizzes in the middle of the shift," he said.
It's also about approachability, Szefcyk said.
"There's no reservations involved," she said. "With what we're doing, everyone can enjoy this and be part of this movement."