Von Hauske, Stone, and Arnold. Photo: Hugo Yu

In the lobby bar of a high-end Manhattan hotel on a recent evening, Dave Arnold had a question, and nobody had an answer. He was curious about some white froth that sat on the surface of a satsuma margarita. He had ascertained that it was vegan, but neither he nor his companions — the chefs Fabían von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone — could figure out what was in it. The three flagged down a server, who also didn’t know. She committed to asking someone at the bar who might. By then, though, Arnold had already moved on to more pressing lines of questioning: Do you ever accidentally staple yourself? What’s the wine that, when someone orders it, you judge the most? Don’t you think caper berries are just … too big?

The three had gotten together to talk about Bar Contra, which will open this spring in the Orchard Street space that housed von Hauske and Stone’s popular tasting-menu restaurant Contra for the past decade. They’ll serve a menu of one-bite snacks, and Arnold will handle the drinks. The night was also a reunion: Sixteen years ago, von Hauske was Arnold’s intern when he ran the technology department at the French Culinary Institute. (Stone worked in the school’s nearby commissary kitchen.) Von Hauske’s first task was to purchase a duck from a live poultry shop on 126th Street. Arnold wanted to run it through a vintage press donated to the school by Daniel Boulud. Together, Von Hauske and Arnold would go on to distill vodka with canned pumpkin purée, turn potatoes into ice cream, and churn deodorized cocoa powder with freeze-dried tomatoes to make “ketchup chocolate” that, Arnold recalls, “everybody hated.”

Arnold left the FCI to open Booker and Dax, the cocktail laboratory in the back of the original Momofuku Ssäm Bar. It was as much a place to grab a drink as it was a showcase for Arnold’s interests; he still remembers the crestfallen expression on the face of his first customer, who chanced in and ordered a vodka tonic. “Give me 15 minutes,” he told her. “I just have to get out the carbonator.” Quickly, the bar found its fans, who still remember it — as well as Existing Conditions, which Arnold opened with Don Lee afterward — as a place where perfectly clear liquor would taste viscerally of fresh banana, Thai basil was was extracted with liquid nitrogen, and the art on display was a stark photograph of Arnold, shield in hand, facing off against a flamethrower. Along the way he became known as the bartender who would caramelize sugars in rye cocktails by impaling them with a 1,600-degree nickel-steel-alloy poker.

The theatrics weren’t surprising to anyone who knew that Arnold had gotten his master’s degree in performance sculpture. He regularly put on productions about “expressing autonomy over machines.” (A 1998 New York Times review describes one of the works as “a big welded-steel treadmill … a brutal Rube Goldberg–like contraption in which giant metal hammers threaten to clobber the runner who slows down.”)

In 2013, while Arnold was super-chilling Champagne coupes with liquid nitrogen at Booker and Dax, von Hauske and Stone opened Contra, where the $55 tasting menu was an antidote to Manhattan’s stilted fine-dining restaurants. They followed it up with Wildair and opened or consulted on a number of other projects, such as the Tusk Bar at the Evelyn Hotel, Ray’s Bar in Greenpoint, and Jac’s on Bond.

If there is still a market for real culinary ingenuity in the era of sandwich-flavored cocktails and TikTok sauce explosions, it will arrive in the form that these three have earmarked: à la carte and affordable, with the potential for shock and delight. This city is thick with men who threaten to “do something different,” but Stone, von Hauske, and Arnold are among the few players in the city who could actually pull it off.

The new bar will move into the former Contra space. Photo: Hugo Yu

They know what they’re trying to avoid: “We don’t want it to be conceptual, and we don’t want you to wait for an hour to get a drink,” says von Hauske. They also know that there’s a fine line between a bar that puts on a decent show and a gimmick. “A good story gets people through the door,” Arnold acknowledges, but they don’t want Bar Contra to be a place where drinkers are bogged down with technical jargon or long-winded descriptions of how certain drinks came to be. They firmly believe that everything they serve should taste good and make sense on its own terms.

So, what will they serve? Some version of homemade Dippin’ Dots isn’t out of the question, but they say they’ll remain in R&D mode until the last possible moment. “The menu is gonna happen like this,” Arnold says with a snap. “We’ll make something fun,” Stone says.

In the lobby bar, Arnold never did get any answers to his question about the foam. Instead, as they continued to debate Bar Contra’s eventual shape, von Hauske ordered a Sazerac, Stone ordered Cynar on the rocks, and Arnold got a glass of Champagne and when it arrived, maybe for the first time, he had no questions at all.

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