When the Museum of Sex (233 Fifth Avenue, 212-689-6337) began toying with the idea of implementing some sort of food and beverage program, Emilie Baltz, the museum’s curator, spent a lot of time thinking about exactly what that would look like–and then a couple of years experimenting with some of those ideas. “We launched Oral Fix, a pop-up in the basement,” she explains. “We used it to test the concept of what food and beverage at the Museum of Sex should be.” And her group eventually settled on the idea of play: “Play offers permission and engagement. It gets you out of your head and into your body. That’s what this should be.”
And that planted the seed for Play, the new cocktail lair debuting tonight, where museum-goers and imbibers will be encouraged to lick, bite, suck, and crush a variety of food and drink offerings in a space as focused on experience and art as it is on food. “We wanted to offer sort of a playground experience that you normally can’t do,” Baltz explains. “We wanted people to connect with their senses. The food and drink are designed in such a way to be playful and interactive. There’s no right or wrong way to do anything. It’s a really sensory experience.” She offers, too, the metaphor of a garden of earthly delights, where growth, collaboration, and experiments take place.
Sensory engagement starts with the room itself, where dim red and black lights are pierced by video from Marilyn Minter that depicts women’s mouths licking a number of different textured substances. Books line shelves that create intimate nooks; take one of those volumes down, and you’ll notice it’s been defaced–you’re invited to defile it further. “People are encouraged to leave part of themselves,” Baltz says cheekily.
And then there’s the menu, a roster divided into the categories “Flirting,” “Fondling,” and “F*cking” that includes dishes like yuba chips with nori and togarashi, beef tongue with cauliflower and chimichurri, and red curry beef shortrib. The cocktail syllabus comes by way of Jim Kearns–who’s done time at Pegu Club, Death & Company, and Freeman’s–and drinks, so says the menu, “are carefully designed to take you on a roller coaster of tastes, from demure to kinky, flirty to funky.” Permanent mainstays include the Julia Childs’ Fan Mail–a blend of sherry, Navy strength gin, and celery bitters–and the 70% Cacao, a blend of ingredients that creates what tastes like a chocolate negroni with a strawberry garnish.
Perhaps the highlight of the program, though, is the pair of exhibited cocktails. “We’re borrowing from museum practices to curate this list,” Baltz explains, commissioning cocktails from local and international artists (most of whom have no cocktail experience) and running them for a few months at a time.
The first two specials come from Bompas & Parr–architectural food artists who started creating pieces out of gelatin and moved on to erecting things like chocolate walls and gin and tonic clouds–and Bart Hess, a Dutch artist who combines material studies, animation, and photography.
Bompas & Parr’s cocktail is called Crush Porn. For it, notable New Yorkers (Alan Cumming, Katherine Crockett, Sasha Frere-Jones, and Duchess of Ink, per the insert in the menu) smashed grapes with their feet; juices from which were sanitized and turned into syrup for bespoke cocktails created by the bar. And guests can choose, by the way, which star’s juice they want.
Hess applied his material fascination to his drink, starting with the drinking vessel itself. “Emilie asked me to think about a ritual of how you would drink the cocktail,” he explains. “I thought about the glass of a martini when you fill it up. For the first sips, you can’t lift up the glass. I wanted that feeling.” At the time, he explains, he was spending a lot of time thinking about skin, so to accomplish his desired effect, he created a plate ridged with wrinkles designed to feel kind of like the roof of your mouth. The cocktail, he explains, would be poured onto that plate, and then the drinker would have to lick the fluid off the vessel without picking the plate up.
And the cocktail, he explains, was designed to give contrast. “The plate feels quite alien-like, so I wanted to have a taste of the cocktail that is quite human,” he explains. “So I said, ‘Create a taste of kissing a mature guy who’d just been smoking.’ So you see something that’s not human but tastes quite human.” He also wanted to the cocktail to be very dense–“almost like a slime,” he says. Hess’s art will also play on the walls of the space while his cocktail is on the list.
And with these curated cocktails, Baltz hopes to draw an overt connection between food and art. “My mom’s French, and my dad’s American,” she explains. “I grew up in Joliet, Illinois, but we ate like French poeple, and in France, food is a fine art. I’m interested in is bridging those two cultures. If we treat food as an art, we give it more respect and reverence. That’s part of the evolution of American consumption. I think we’ll start to see that everywhere. Food and art coming together as one.”
Play opens for service tonight.