At The Ice Bar

August 8, 2011

August in Los Angeles was bone-dry and dusty, but he left it behind in the parking lot as he made his way through the series of three doors, heavy and white, and into the frozen refuge of the ice bar. He was known, there, and the hostess greeted him with a sealskin robe, slipped over his shoulders before he had time to start shivering. The tip of her elegant nose felt icy against his own.

There was room for one more at the bar, and at a nod from the chef he took the seat gratefully. One often had to wait, stamping feet to ward off the cold. The chef slid the amuse-bouche before him as he unfolded his napkin, and it was exquisite in appearance: a translucent carpaccio of walrus blubber sprinkled with snowflakes. The snowflakes were not unique, in fact they came in precisely two shapes, one sprinkled on the left side of the dish, the other on the right. They made not-quite-imperceptibly different crunches as he ate them. It was touches like this that had made the chef’s name when he was but a young man just arrived from Nunavut.

For his first course the customer ordered a cube, thick and meaty. It was peasant fare, but here elevated to fine cuisine. The chef’s assistants trained for three years in the rituals of icemaking. They knew intuitively what temperature of water to use, how to swirl it through the fourteen squares of the traditional whalebone tray, how to tap the sides to dislodge bubbles. One of those assistants now brought the chef a steaming tray, fresh from the freezer, which the master raised overhead and brought down with a single practiced motion onto the stone slab before him, then raised slowly to reveal the unbroken cubes. He then sorted through the cubes with the point of his obsidian knife, whisking the thirteen imperfect ones onto the floor. The remaining one he slid onto a plate and into the toaster oven behind him.

Twenty-five seconds in the oven grilled the outer layer of the cube to perfection, liquefying a thin sheen of pure water across its surface without defacing the deep-frozen insides with cracks. The customer took it in one bite, seasoning it only with a tiny pinch of sea salt, then sucking appreciatively. (He never chewed, of course: you might hear starlets and pop idols crunching their ice at trendy bars on Melrose, but here such behavior would get you ejected permanently.) The ice in his mouth was frictionless, spinning with every slight touch of his tongue, endlessly reconfiguring itself into new shapes as it melted in his heat. The meltwater had the slight mineral tang of true cube-ice, reflecting both its origin in a remote New Zealand spring and the subtle influence of the seasoned whalebone tray, infused during its months-long deep freeze.

While savoring the final drops, he studied the chalkboard for the daily specials. He was startled to see qainngittunga on the list, as this delicacy was only very rarely found, and its availability in summer was practically unheard-of south of the 49th Parallel. Despite the ruinous expense, as a connoisseur he had no choice but to order it. He was not sure he had pronounced the name quite correctly, but merely ordering this challenging dish was enough to ensure the respect of the staff.

With a single grunt of approval the chef knelt and reached into the hidden freezer beneath the bar. His thickly-gloved hands reappeared cradling a cylinder of ice three inches in diameter and a foot long, which he placed on a small polar-bear rug placed on the counter by an assistant. The ice was a pure, intense blue, mostly clear but punctuated by thin dark layers. It was a core sample that had been painstakingly extracted from thousands of meters below the surface of the Greenland ice sheet. (Such drilling is forbidden by international treaty, but there are limited exemptions for scientific research, and some of the resulting cores do find their way out of geology laboratories and into restaurants.)

Using a small handsaw with a diamond-studded wire blade, the chef quickly sliced off a section measuring a perfectly even three millimeters thick and gently lowered it onto a plate of red pumice, then handed it to the customer. He did not garnish it, nor did the customer apply a grain of salt; nothing was needed. The customer merely raised the plate to his mouth and slid the disc onto his waiting tongue.

The experience was indescribable, transcendent, as it had been once before on that memorable evening in Svalbard. His tongue was covered by the freshly-cut side of the ice (this was essential), which had been sealed inside the glacier, untouched, for a hundred thousand years. Through those ages the intense pressure and cold had distilled every essence of the microscopic bits of dust, sand and pollen that had drifted onto the surface so long ago. He tasted a world where mammoths roamed, and saber-toothed cats. He tasted the smoke of his ancestors’ cave fires, the ochre with which they painted the tales of their hunts.

After a long interval he swallowed. Nothing was left now; the ineffable vapors of impossibly distant pasts were already consumed. Before, in Svalbard, Lena was with him and the sensations had lived on in echoed reflections in each others’ eyes — I felt it, did you feel it too? — but that was the past, and on this day he was alone. Two years ago was no less remote than the Ice Age, and Lena was no less dead than the Cro-Magnon cave painters.

After a dish such as that, there was only one thing left to order. He gestured, holding up nine fingers, and the chef bowed deeply in response. A moment later a waitress appeared with a small brass tube the size of a rifle shell. She unscrewed the end, and tipped out a small crystal onto a silver dish. The customer gravely accepted the dish, and she bowed and retreated. In a reciprocal gesture he bowed his own head and gently lowered the tip of his tongue to the dish. As the water of his saliva made contact with the entropically-enhanced synthetic crystal packing of the water molecules in the ice9 — an arrangement not found in nature, stable enough to remain solid at room temperature — its molecules too attached to the surface and froze, leading to a wave of crystallization that in two seconds had swept through his entire body and frozen it solid.

The staff quickly folded him into his voluminous sealskin robe, lashed it tightly shut with rawhide, and carried the stiff bundle into a remote corner of the basement. (But not before removing his wallet with tongs; the bill he left behind was quite considerable.)