(Click the image above for a quick video of the two cocktails I sampled.)
It might be tempting to call Aviary a cocktail lounge, but that would be like describing the Queen Mary 2 Ocean Liner as a boat.
Aviary is from Grant Achatz of Alinea fame and sits next door to Achatz’s latest restaurant, Next. Actually it’s around the corner, and if you didn’t know it was there you probably wouldn’t notice it (although you might wonder why a stylishly dressed doorman is standing outside).
Inside looks like a cocktail lounge, albeit one without a bar. Instead, there is a kitchen/laboratory with a crew of chefs working behind a sort of cage. (I’ll pause for those of you who have worked in restaurants to insert your comment here.)
Achatz, of course, is known for his work in molecular gastronomy, and at Aviary he and executive chef/master mixologist Craig Schoettler apply the same scientific principles.
Take, for example, my selection, known as the Ginger. It’s a take on the cocktail known as the Moscow Mule, which is made with vodka, lime juice and ginger ale. At Aviary, the fresh ginger juice, lime, sugar and water are placed in a canister and charged with nitrous oxide, then it is sprayed from the canister to create fine crystals of ice that resembles a small mound of snow in the tumbler. It’s served tableside with a glass of Karlsson potato vodka (the only vodka served here) and a stem of lemongrass with one end frayed. The server instructed me to pour the vodka over the slush and then take the lemongrass, frayed end in the liquid and rub it back and forth in the palms of my hands. The “propellers” blended the ingredients. It was cool and refreshing and I could have had two more right away.
My friend ordered the drink called In the Rocks, which is Aviary’s take on an Old Fashioned. As you might guess from the name, instead of being served over ice it is served in ice -- actually inside a perfectly round frozen sphere that filled the tumbler. After placing the drink on the table, our server took a slingshot that had been made specifically for this purpose, rested the ends of the rubber bands on the rim of the glass, pulled back the metal band in the middle and gave the sphere a thwack. It cracked it just enough to free the bourbon inside but not enough to shatter the ice ball.
There’s food here, too, but don’t expect a filling meal. The “bites” list has such items as chowder, pork belly, foie gras and lobster. But each is a creation worthy of Achatz and is a stylized creation that results in a bonbon sized nugget that has the appropriate flavors. They must be ordered in sets of three -- I figure that’s because if anyone ordered just one they’d never find it on the plate. I had the chowder, foie gras and pork belly. Good, but the cocktails are the stars. (We were also served an amuse bouche of tomato confit that was actually more flavorful than the bites we ordered.)
Aviary’s menu has a flock of birds on the front in various formations. When the tri-fold is opened, each bird can be seen flying away from one of the cocktails on the list. The farther away the bird is, the more complex the cocktail. Something to keep in mind as you make your selection. It’s all about the complexity here, so you might as well get your money’s worth.
And by the way, the drinks are pricey but not outrageous, considering what’s involved. Most are $14 to $18, although you can order a tasting of three for $50 and a flight of seven for $125. The bites range from $3 to $5 and really are just one bite, as much as my companion and I tried to share them.
The atmosphere is classic cocktail lounge -- low lighting, moody music and votive candles.
When the Aviary opened in April a line started forming early and some people waited six hours to get in. Yep, it’s that hot.
Aviary is at 955 W. Fulton Market, Chicago.