There is no doubt in my mind that Next, the new restaurant from Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas, Dave Beran and company has all the moxie it needs to be a huge success without any additional help. Nevertheless, much like Tickets, the new restaurant in Barcelona from Albert and Ferran Adria, which has the Adrias’ cutting edge cocktail bar 41º directly adjacent to it, Next cannot help but benefit from having Achatz’ Aviary directly adjacent to it and vice versa. It’s a synergistic match.
We were invited to slip in to Aviary after our dinner at Next – Paris 1906, something which I believe is a standard option for Next diners. The vibe at Aviary is different than in Next. The only time and place it is really striving to emulate is the here and now of contemporary Chicago. The room is dark and populated centrally by a number of high backed sofas and tables arranged in such a way as to afford a semblance of privacy amongst those fortunate enough to sit there.
My wife, our friends and I, were given a standing table in the “cage.” Perhaps the area has a more formal name, but that is what it reminded me of, especially given the cocktail bar’s name of Aviary. The real question though is who is actually in the cage and who is outside. A large wall of metal mesh separates the commensals from the producers. While the mesh curves up and over the guests, the action is on the other side, where the cocktails as well as an impressive food program are being produced. There is a huge entertainment factor watching the pros on the other side of the cage putting together their creations.
An even better form of entertainment is actually eating and drinking those very same creations. Shortly after we arrived at our table, four small meringue like morsels placed upon the old hearts of palm pedestals from the earliest days at Alinea were set before us. It was suggested that we pop them into our mouths. These semi-solid, melting drops turned out to be Pisco Sours. They were delicious and delightful.
The cocktail menu also took a page from its older sibling. Much like Alinea’s menu includes a code for savoriness versus sweetness as well as substantiveness, Aviary’s menu has a similar code for simple versus complex with the order of the drinks listed in a hierarchy of sweeter to dryer as one descends the page – a helpful format.
Each of the four of us ordered a different cocktail, based primarily on a gestalt of the listed ingredients and some recommendations from others. My wife ordered a “Pineapple” which was minimalistically described as containing mint, sanbitter and Chartreuse in addition to fresh pineapple juice. What wasn’t described was its presentation. It came out in a sort of tall, tilting volcano glass that was broad at the bottom and sloped inward and upward in a cylindrical fashion. The bulk of the drink was actually frozen on the inside of the glass with only the center remaining liquid. As time wore on, the ice melted, leaving a constantly cool, delicious and refreshing cocktail. Despite the fact that the drink was located fairly high on the menu’s sweetness scale, it was well balanced and not overtly sugary. The drink was fixed in the middle of the complexity scale.
Amy ordered the “Ginger”, a couple of notches down from “Pineapple” on the sweetness scale and a bot further to the left (more) on the complexity scale. It was served in an Old Fashioned glass with a lot of what appeared to be crushed ice along with herbs and colorful bits. Described as Ginger, Paychaud’s, shiso, lime, vodka, the clear liquid came in a small carafe on the side with instructions to pour into the ice mixture. This was a drink that was delicious and kept evolving as one sipped it. Again the balance was impeccable.
Tom’s drink was the ultra-complex, though simple looking “Truffle” which was also written to have campari, sweet vermouth and gin. This was located near the very bottom of the menu heavily toward the dryness scale. The essence of truffle dominated but did not overwhelm this cocktail. It was delicious, but required slow sipping with the truffle shaving there to be eaten as a reward for finishing the drink.
I ordered the medium complex, dry-ended “Root Beer” which included vanilla, sassafras and kirsch. The appearance of this cocktail was one of absolute simplicity. It was clear and poured into an ice-filled highball glass. If a showy appearance is desired this is not the cocktail for that. The fact that it was clear, however, was impressive from a technique point of view as neither root beer nor any of the other ingredients are typically served in a clear state. That’s all pretty cool, but the reason to order this drink is because it was pretty damn delicious.
Having just finished an extended and marvelous dinner at Next, we were in no condition to eat any more, so we didn’t try any of the dishes being plated in the kitchen even though the ones we saw pass by looked good. Truth be told, we weren’t really in much condition to be drinking a lot either, but we couldn’t resist doing the sampling we did. Had we had any more room we would have sampled further. We watched some pretty amazing and fun looking cocktails being made on the far side of the cage. The “Blueberry” with verjus, sweet vermouth and rye did not appeal so much to me on the menu, but watching them being made and then drunk at the table next to us made them very appealing . A boatload of fruit and botanicals was beautifully placed inside on one half of a clear canteen. The other half was screwed on, sealing the container. The alcohol was poured through an open spout allowing the drink to evolve with time and change its characteristics as it picked up and lost various aromatics. Next time for sure!
The “Rooibos” was another cocktail that intrigued but would have to wait for another occasion. This was a hot drink made using a Cona pot. The liquid is heated and rises into an upper chamber where it steeps over a number of ingredients picking up their volatile aromatics. It is an impressive display. This particular cocktail utilized lavender, almond, vanilla and gin , was considered quite complex and lay toward the bottom, dryer end of the menu.
Aside from the devilishly delicious and creative cocktails, I was particularly impressed by Aviary’s attention to detail. Of course, any serious cocktail bar today is very serious about its ice. Aviary is no exception, taking great pains to provide appropriately shaped high quality ice components to their beverages. Of course, the quality of the product used is top notch. That includes base spirits. If one were more of a purist and wished to forego cocktail creations, one could do so in style. Pappy Van Winkle is the current darling of the American whiskey scene and rightly so. One can partake of a Van Winkle vertical including 10, 12, 13, 15, 20 and 23 year old Van Winkles for a mere $150.
No Next doesn’t need Aviary and Aviary would quite likely do just fine on its own, but together they are truly flying high – even more awesome than they would be alone.