Wednesday, January 4, 2012
A Visit to Aviary
Last October I visited Aviary, the Grant Achatz and Craig Schoettler Chicago bar that has been attracting a lot of positive attention from both critics and bartenders (not to mention the public) since opening last April. My briefly sketched impressions were published in this month's GQ, along with some equally concise thoughts on the barrel-aged cocktail programs at Clyde Common in Portland and Saxon + Parole in New York.
A place like Aviary can not, or course, be captured in 300 words, so I thought I would elaborate on my two-hour, multiple-drink visit in this space.
Aviary is very much a liquid extension of Achatz's culinary philosophy. It is a hybrid of the bar and the laboratory. Mixologists—called Bar Chefs—have "stations," which look like expensive, shiny versions of the lab tables you used in chemistry class in high school. Here, the bar chefs execute the complex drinks Schoettler and Achatz have devised, and deviation from the formulae is not permitted. Soldiers are required here, not personalities. There's no bar, per se, and nothing you can belly up to—no stools. (There is limited seating in the lab area, and, from what I understand, standing is allowed.) Instead you sit at tables in the airy and expansive dining room, which is decorated in muted colors and sheltered by walls of curtain. The feel is very much restaurant-like, with perhaps a page taken, design-wise, from Violet Hour, the Chicago cocktail bar pioneer.
As with the bar chefs, customers are not encouraged to wave their flag at Aviary. The menu is the menu. It's been painstakingly put together and you're expected to order from it. So don't come in and request a Martini, a Gin & Tonic or whatever your usual is. They won't make it. And don't ask for specific liquor brands; the spirit in each drink is pre-ordained.
All of the above encompasses the sort of precious tomfoolery that turns a lot of people off to the cocktail movement. But three things save Aviary from it's own arch seriousness, and make it one of the best bars in the country. One, the cocktails are, for the most part, very good. Two, the air of genial hospitality couldn't be bettered. And three, the bells and whistles accompanying the presentation of many of the drinks—which arrive in all manner of glassware, are often prepared at the table, and sometimes require assembly on the part of the drinker—leads to an amusing experience one can't help but enjoy.
A good example of this is Avairy's take on the Old Fashioned, called In the Rock. The whiskey, bitters and sugar are injected into a partially frozen ice egg, which is placed in a rocks glass. On top of the glass is rooted a circular sling of sorts with a ball bearing in the middle. (Aviary has many devices, as well as glasses, custom made for specific cocktails.) You pull back on the ball, let it fly and crack open the ice ball. The cocktail flows out and what was once in the rock is now on the rocks. Activating the sling might be the most fun I've ever had with a drink. And the Old Fashioned that resulted was excellent. (I have since been informed that, owing to a patron accident, the servers now operate the sling. This is a shame.)
Another example: Oolong. This drink arrives in a sort of coffee percolator. A cocktail base of Clear Creek Pear Brandy, Tanqueray gin, water, citric aicd and sugar is heated up until it bubbles up into glass container filled with pistachio, applewood, Oolong tea, orange peel, brown sugar, lemon peel and lemon balm. Thus briefly infused, it flowed back down as a complete cocktail that is warming, woody, tannic and smelling and tasting of potpourri. (That may not sound good, but, believe me, it is.)
The drink called Cider (many of Aviary's cocktail have refreshingly simple and straightforward names which belie the difficult path they take from kitchen to glass) is similar to Oolong in that it involves exclusive equipment and a complex infusion. Apple brandy is poured into a kind of two-sided glass disc full of spices, apples and other items. To pour yourself a glass, you tilt the disc on a pivot until a spout releases some liquid. Since the infusion continues to do its stuff, every new dose tastes slightly different from the last.
Sometimes the concept is more interesting than the drink. The cocktail named Chartreuse features three drinks nestled inside a wooden Chartreuse box stuffed with herbs. The trio of libations are blueberry soda and yellow chartrese; honeydew, lime and green chartreuse; and pineapple, green and yellow chartreuse—each with an ice cube made out of mint. In all cases, the flavor of the drink was one-dimensional, expressing mainly the fruit in question. The Amari also had an impressive roll-out. An upside-down glass filled with smoke sits on bourbon barrel stave that was recently set aflame; the glass puts out the fire, thus capturing the fumes. This is meant to act as a sort of rinse to the mix of house-made root beer amaro, dry vermouth, Cocchi Americano, and tequila that are poured into the vessel when it is turned aright. But mainly the drink tastes of smoke. The Aviary's take on the classical cocktail Vieux Carre, meanwhile, is basically the drink delivered inside its own personal flask. This is cute, but not exactly an interpretation.
On the whole, though, Aviary's drinks succeed. Among my favorites was Quince, in which sous-vide quince rests with white wine and sugar for eight hours. The liquid is strained, and combined with ginger syrup, Noilly Pratt Dry Vermouth, white wine, and Don Cesar Pisco, and then carbonated, bottled and served in a brown paper bag. It is beautifully simple, tasty and refreshing; a good aperitif. Also carbonated is Aviary's version of the Negroni, which is served with a White Lady (minus the Cointreau) as half of an expermient called 2 in 1. Both drinks are delicious alone (the Negroni, which comes in a Sanbitter bottles, actually tastes a bit like Sanbitter). But you are meant to pour the Negroni over the White Lady, where it floats in between the egg white and the White Lady. Flavor-wise, the two are something delightfully different than the sum of their parts. (Schoettler said this drink came about by accident.)
Also good is Pear, a mild, lightly creamy mix of gin, pear cider and brioche syrup which comes is a beautiful tall highball glass that tapers off at the top. An ice cube the exact shape of the cavity sits inside. (If you're interested, they accomplish this by filling the glass with water, putting it in a circular chiller, freezing the outside of the inside of the glass, and dumping out the liquid center, thus achieving an ice cube that's hollow. Once the cocktail it made, it is poured inside. Think that's a bit much? There's one guy at Aviary who just makes the ice globes for the In the Rock cocktail.)
Instead of one big ice cube, the drink Cranberry has 1,500 one-quarter-inch, frozen spheres of cranberry juice, which cool down a blend of Elijah Craig 12 year old, ginger, orange and chevril foam. It's a delicious, over-achieving Cobbler.
Aviary's menu allows you to order a single drink "a la carte," or three—one each from three columns (fruit, "meat" and dessert drinks)—as a prix fixe. Cocktail prices hover in the upper teens. But considering what you're getting, from concept to ingredients to accoutrements to service, I'd say any item on the menu is a bargain. As I noted in the GQ piece, it's drinks and a show.
As I write this, it strikes me as somewhat odd that I should give Aviary coverage on a cocktail blog. In their way, Achatz and Schoettler are right—Aviary isn't strictly a bar, and it shouldn't really be rated against other, more conventional cocktail bars. It's its own animal, and comparisons to, say, Milk & Honey or Cure are pointless. Perhaps in the future, there will be a few more Aviary-like bars in the U.S., and such comparisons can be attempted with validity. However, I'm not sure multiple, high-end, molecular bars is something I'd welcome—it would dilute the magic of this Chicago original, and needlessly complicate the cocktail movement. But I'm certainly glad there's one.