When a new food establishment pops up in my consciousness, I transform into a virtual tyre kicker, sniffing around for potential and perusing the menu surreptiously. If it holds promise, there is a semi-serious attempt to mentally file away the find with the vague hope that it’ll be dredged up at will to save the day when there is a requirement to try out “somewhere new”. However, every now and then, an establishment comes into my food psyche that evokes more than my usual response. It evokes a need.
This is the response I had when I learned that the Co-pilot was dining at Grant Achatz’s Alinea restaurant in Chicago back in 2010, without me. If it was a friend or colleague dining at an establishment high on my wish list, I’d be envious. But when that person is your partner, that envy comes with an edge of resentment. I really don’t like missing out – I’m a sore spectator. And the resentment only gets more acute when said partner calls you to gloat about the experience.
So, you can probably imagine the response I had when I learned that the Co-pilot was going to Grant Achatz’s new drinking establishment, The Aviary, again, without me. Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonos, owners and operators of Alinea and Next opened The Aviary in early 2011. This molecular cocktail bar is part of Next and has chefs, not bartenders or mixologists tend to the fanciful liquid creations and where patrons can indulge in a liquid degustation. Changes to the menu and cocktails change every few months with a new theme or inspiration being introduced and so far, “Paris”, “Thailand” and “El Bulli” are just some of the themes that have transitioned through. Despite being chained to a major work project, I had an overwhelming impulsive desire to drop all my work responsibilities and book a ticket to Chicago just to go with the Co-pilot. This need only grew in desperation when the Co-pilot showed me photos of the creations posted on The Aviary’s Facebook page and announced he had a booking at the kitchen table. Of course, rationally, I have the freedom, will and means to book myself a ticket to Chicago, but that’s not the point for a sore spectator. The need was the most acute when you know your partner is there and you are not.
I demanded he take photos, which with just a little muttering under his breath, he grudgingly acquiesced. I’ve posted them and his brief descriptions so you can live vicariously through the lens be a sore spectator too.
The kitchen table is a perfect spot to watch the flurry of action in the kitchen. At any point a variety of bizarre tools and ingredients are brought out to create the colourful concoctions, from stirrers and shakers to blow torches and vacuum flasks. Some of The Avaiary’s more popular drinks spotted from the kitchen table vantage point, but not sampled by the Co-pilot and his gang of three merry drunken friends are shown below. They included the Old Fashioned in the rocks – the Old Fashioned cocktail syringe injected into a hollow round ice cube and cracked like an egg at the table using a slingshot device; and a drink served in the Porthole, a flask designed for infusions and designed to tease both tastebuds and eyes. This is one of the many a custom designed pieces of serving ware at The Aviary designed by Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail, the designer responsible for much of the custom glassware at Alinea, The Aviary and Next.
The kitchen table menu offers guests a 10 course cocktail degustation for $165, and to start, they were served refreshing glasses of Celery, where a sparkling wine and distilled lime juice are poured over frozen celery iced into the bottom of the champagne flute – just one of the oh, astonishing 45 different types of ice produced at The Aviary…
The accompanying chips were part of The Aviary’s El Bulli inspired menu which debuted in early 2012 – a tasty heap of thin crisp rice, vegetable and squid ink chips, but the nori ones were The Co-pilot’s favourite.
The Clementine cocktail, (not pictured here) contained clementine, dry vermouth and rum all served in glass bottle swathed in a brown paper wrapper. It was tasty, but as the drink isn’t visually interesting, The Co-pilot decided not to photograph it.
The Ginger cocktail below featured bursts of popping colour on a white snowfield. This deconstructed Moscow Mule is created by spraying a mixture of ginger juice, lime juice, sugar, water and Peychaud bitters from a soda siphon bottle into a liquid nitrogen bath to create the ‘snow’. It comes with a side carafe of vodka which is poured into the snowy concoction mixing the shiso, finger lime jewels, Fresno chilli, and it conveniently comes with its own lemongrass swizzle stick. The snow doesn’t completely melt and retains an interesting Milo-like crunchy texture.
Ginger’s accompaniment was Corn, a wafer thin crunchy corn flute filled with guacamole and resting on a bed of the most delicious sweet corn powder. Other accompaniments included Potato, a take on a tater tot – a rich and almost gelationous, silky smooth interior crumbed in salt and vinegar crumbled potato chips; and Pancetta, another El Bulli inspired menu item, with date sandwiched between pancetta, a modern take on the devils on horseback.
The Bourbon Barrel is a flight of three bourban based cocktails impressively delivered in a halved bourbon barrel previously used in bourbon making and aging. The drinks are designed to be tried from left to right in the photo below with the first red coloured drink the bourbon and coke packed with tiny baubles of blackberry ice; a bourbon based sour topped with frothy egg white and bitters and an Old Fashioned cocktail on ice.
Rob Roy was an intriguing concept, and possibly one designed for visual display and olfactory gratification rather than taste. Pedro Ximenez and scotch are mixed and placed in an inflated pillow of vaporised lavender air, supposedly to infuse the cocktail with the lavender flavour. Guests are provided with scissors to cut open the bag at the table with releases a powerful gush of lavender scented air and the bag drops to reveal the infused cocktail. The Co-pilot certainly could smell the lavender, he wasn’t convinced he could taste it but he was impressed with the theatrics nonetheless.
The Bitter cocktail was the Co-pilot’s favourite from the flight. A piece of Kentucky bourbon barrel wood was torched till smoking hot before a glass was quickly placed over the heated wood to collect the smoke and the resulting smoke condensation. The Bitter cocktail mixture, containing cognac, apple brandy, amari and tequila was then poured into the glass and the resulting drink was infused with all the smoky, peaty flavours from the bourbon barrel without any addition of bourbon. And if you like the sound of that, you can get the recipe for the Bitter cocktail here!
The Raspberry was another interactive, theatrical delight designed to appeal to all the senses. A sealed bag containing a mixture of gin, maraschino, citric acid, sugar and water is heated in a water bath then poured into the bottom bulb of a vacuum flask whilst the top is filled with an appealing colourful concoction of rose petals, citrus rinds, mint, hazelnuts, raspberries and black teas. The bottom section acts like a filter and when the bunsen flame is turned on, the liquid evaporates and is forced into the upper part of the flask. After steeping for about 45 seconds, the mixture is muddled with a cinnamon stick, the flame removed and the infused drink drips back down into the original chamber where the infused tea is then transferred into espresso cups for the guests.
Impressive, except that it’s essentially a conical flask held by a retort stand heated over a bunsen burner. So maybe the 4 scientists at the kitchen table that day weren’t so impressed… The tea is fittingly served with sweet El Bulli inspired passionfruit diamonds.
The Huckleberry cocktail was another favourite from the flight. Not content with a cocktail that retains the same flavour profile over the course of the drink, this cocktail was designed to challenge that. The port and rum cocktail is filled with Angostura orange bitters flavoured spherical ice cubes (yet another of the special ices) and as they melt, they slowly infused their flavour into the drink thus changing the flavour of the drink with time.
Yet another El Bulli inspired accompaniment is served with Huckleberry, this time they come in the form of Lollipops flavoured with balsamic, fennel, dark chocolate white chocolate in the form of meringues, jellies, rice crisps and more.
The Horchata, like the previously overlooked Clementine doesn’t get it’s own photo. The Co-pilot reasons that it was because it was served in a styrofoam cup with a plastic straw. Fitting given it is a milkshake of sorts – rice milk mixed with agave nectar, tequila and rum served over cracked cinnamon ice. Accompanying the milky Horchata was a sinfully rich, slightly salty dark chocolate hiding a liquid brioche centre.
He had no real excuse for not having a photo for the Cold Chocolate cocktail however – other than the likely possibility that he’d imbibed a little much by this point. He recalls it being a very intriguing drink however, served in an acutely shaped slanted glass with a narrow mouth with a wedge layer of milk and menthol frozen onto the side of the angled glass. A moreish, delicious mixture of hot chocolate, whisky and almond foam is then poured into the glass and as you drink this cocktail, you get the most interesting sensation of cool minty menthol mixing with hot chocolate. The key is to drink quickly of course, but surprisingly, the menthol stayed frozen for longer than expected before eventually melting and mingling with the chocolate.
Some Tiki cocktails were offered as a complimentary flight to the Co-pilot’s crew. The three tiki cocktails included a sorbet-style Knickerbocker; a licoricey Zombie and a Mai Tai.
Hearing about the Co-pilot’s experience wasn’t satisfying enough and I still needed to make a stronger connection to The Aviary to make up for missing out. So when I recently got the opportunity to contribute to a few issues of the Entertainment Page for Inside Out magazine, a high-end Australian design magazine, I included it as my overseas feature story. Pictured below is the Entertainment Page from the current issue and an enlarged view of one of the more visually impressive cocktails on The Aviary’s menu, Cider, an apple flavoured offering from their previous autumn menu in their signature Porthole flask.
As a spectator, I can only comment that the liquid creations look and sound amazing, and I was only more impressed when I learned of the components, planning and meticulous attention to detail behind each cocktail. To put these creations in perspective, it seems hardly fair that I can throw a spirit and a mixer into a glass, throw in a few ice cubes and also call that a cocktail! The creations at The Aviary are certainly foreign to any concept of cocktail that I know of, and I look forward to seeing the trickle down effect of similar Aviary-inspired bars sprouting up all over the world. Hopefully, The Aviary will be a stratospheric level better when I finally make the trip to Chicago myself. Yes, when all is said and done, I am still a sore spectator. But for now, living vicariously through these photos will have to do…
West Loop, 953 W Fulton Market
reservations [at] theaviary [dot] com