Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Aviary

I will describe this night as the most mind-blowing unreal experience I ever had. Seriously. Without kidding. I get chills as I think about it.

And this is the night of July 26th 2012. In Chicago. At the Aviary. An unusual cocktail bar that brings the ethanol to a level that no one will have ever thought of. The Aviary was opened by three michelin starred chef Grant Atchaz and his partner Nick Kokonas. Chef Atchaz and his team have the talent to destabilize and surprise the man's five senses and I guarantee you that each of these senses will have their series of orgasms through the night. No kidding.

Through extensive knowledge and understanding of each ingredient, the team of Aviary redefines creativity. The use of sometimes scientific equipment, sometimes custom made tools elevate their execution to extreme precision. All of their dishes are made to specifically accommodate the uniqueness of the drink and dish. Each detail from the shape of the ice in your glass of water to the meltability of a grain of salt is monitored closely. The team works in tandem, communicating to each other through a discreet mic; you would think they all telepathically understand what each customer needs, when and how.

The Aviary is located in a corner of the city where factories mingle with quiet streets. Connected directly to Atchaz's other restaurant, The Next, The Aviary is a popular spot for diners to conclude their evenings. Although the bar accepts walk ins, it is highly suggested to reserve to prevent any deception. In our case, we emailed them one month in advance to reserve the kitchen table. The kitchen table is directly in the bar/kitchen where you can see all of the action live and up-close. It includes a 10 service tasting menu of cocktails paired with some bites. Each evening has two seatings at the kitchen table for 2 or 4 people priced at 165$ pp. Of course, it is not cheap. However, considering it is including 10 full sized cocktails along with food, it is well worth the experience!

The name of The Aviary is inspired by how, back then, men would go into bars to pick up 'chicks' (now too actually!). Some might consider it sexist, but I found it clever that they used the term 'Aviary' as this cage where people mingle, drink and perhaps flirt. As a matter of fact, the bar itself is set inside a metal cage where the patrons are enclosed inside while the bartenders work their magic outside of the cage. And the kitchen table is indeed outside of the cage as well.

As soon as we mentioned our reservation to the doormen, we notice right away how the staff coordinates discreetly everything from how they bring us in to how the table is perfectly prepared for our arrival. The kitchen table is extremely well lit and pleasantly ideal for food photography. The design of the bar is well thought; each of the bartender works in his vicinity with every alcohol, garnish, tools within arm-reach. Each drawer behind the bar can have different temperature to closely control the degree of every element. More details about the bar can be viewed in the video here.

So here goes:

Amuse bouche - Pisco Sour
Egg white, pisco, lime, angostura

This typical South American drink is a refreshing start to an intense marathon of cocktails.  Air has been incorporated to the egg white to create a foamy and light result while the crunchy angostura added a nice contrast.

1. Blackberry
Sparkling rose, star anise
Pairing: Chips
Polenta with coffee, chimchurri, nori, bonito flakes, saffron, rice pudding, cheddar, parmesan

An elegant marriage of sparkling rose, distillate of star anise and blackberry syrup, this luxurious drink is served with an unexpected bowl of chips.  However, these are an upgraded version of your everyday bag of snacks.  Some will be familiar with the cheddar and the parmesan chips flavor while the bonito flakes or the chimchurri will surprise the palates of many.  Among them, the addition of ground coffee to the polenta chips elevated its complexity while adding a subtle bitterness.  Some of the chips were thin and crunchy and others were puffed and crisp. A bowl filled of surprises and pleasant flavor combinations.

2. Lychee
Basil, maraschino, rhum

Served wrapped in a paper bag, this drink gave us the impression of drinking beer in an alley, illegal yet so exciting! The lychee was freshly juiced and felt fresh on the palate with its mint and basil pairing.  The maraschino completed the sweet profile while the 4 years old rhum added a depth to the drink.

3. Moscow Mule
Ginger lime snow, pickled lime, zest, flakes of chilis; Sidecar: shiso vodka

Pairing: Chips and Guac
Pressed Cornmeal, sour cream and chili, avocado cream

This course was definitely one of my fave! Presented so beautifully, this Aviary version of the Moscow Mule is simply orgasmic.  The execution of the drink is partly done by us which totally adds up to the excitement! Ginger juice, lime juice, water and sugar have been sprayed from a canister into liquid nitrogen which resulted into an ultra fine snow.  Along with zest and flakes of chili on top, we are instructed to pour the mixture of shiso vodka on the snow.  And we use the provided lemongrass stick to roll it between our palms as scouts will do with woods to start a fire! It not only mixes all of the ingredients but it also gives the drink a slight aroma of the lemongrass. Even though most the ice has been dissolved, there is still a crunchy texture left in the drink.

The pairing with the chips and guac was absolutely fabulous.  The pressed cornmeal wrapped the incredibly unctuous avocado cream; eaten together with the ginger drink made each of the ingredients stand out even more.  Sweetness from the cornmeal and the buttery flavors from the avocado are perked up by the ginger and lime aromas of the moscow mule.

4. Bitter
Bourbon infused barrel, torched, cognac, tequila, three Italian amari and bitters

Pairing: Whitefish
Dipped white crouton, pickled onion, mustard greens

Genius! Absolutely genius! They created a drink which taste and smells like bourbon without any in it! The coaster is actually a piece from a barrel where bourbon is typically aged.  The wood is infused with whiskey and then charred to create this campfire sensation.  Before serving, the coaster is torched to generate smoke which builds up on the glass that is upturned on the wood.  The accumulation of the bourbon smoke comes play with all of your senses and tricks you into thinking that the poured mixture of cognac, tequila, amari and bitters contains bourbon!

The paired white fish has been smoked as well to complement the bitter.  The fish is wrapped in Meyer lemon leather which adds an impressive soft and citrus touch.

5. Rob Roy
Scotch, Pedro Ximenez 1982 sherry, lavender air
Pairing: Tater tots

This drink also brought oohhhs and ahhhhhs at the table. Dried lavender and lavender oil were added to a vaporizer to create lavender air.  This air was introduced into a bag in which rest a glass of scotch and vintage 1982 Pedro Ximenez sherry.  As the bag is carefully opened in front of you, you inhale the floral scented air.  Since the sense of smell is so strong, your nostrils are still filled with the lavender aroma as you sip into this classic New York cocktail.

The tater tots is a sweet recall of the popular childhood dish.  But oh so creamier on the inside. Oh so crunchier on the outside. And oh so much more potato-ey.

6. Chai
Evolving cocktail: Chai tea, grapefruits, ginger, apricots, thyme, Tequila, saint-germain, whisky

Pairing: Wagyu
Wagyu beef, smoked paprika toffee, pumpkin seeds, yogurt and thyme

Do you see it? Can you see it already? How that single drink can evolve into THREE different ones?!?! Woah!!! How crazy is that? The Aviary team used chai tea along with ingredients that infuse at different rates such as thyme, ginger, grapefruit, apricots.  First, just take a look at the glassware.  Specifically designed for them, it clearly shows each and every component of the cocktail on each side changing with time.

The cocktail is poured every few minutes to let every ingredient steep appropriately.  The first is light in colour and subtle in taste. The tea is softly infused with notes of the spices in the chai and the grapefruit.  The second glass is more of an orange hue and is more concentrated reflecting the spicyness of the ginger and the sweetness of the apricots.  Finally, the third glass is red and showcase the thyme with a stronger chai profile. The intensity of the mix of alcohol is affected as well depending on the concentration and combination of the flavor.

The wagyu beef was a pleasant surprise! The cattle is bred in luxurious conditions in which they are massaged and fed beer to optimize the quality of its life resulting in a extremely marbled meat.  The meat indeed melt under the tongue with very strong umami taste.  The toffee added an unexpected twist as it enhanced the saltiness of the meat and paired wonderfully with the whisky.

7. Punch
Grenadine, orange, white burgundy

Pairing: Passion Fruit
Sable buttercookie, sweet cream, passion fruit gel, concentrated coffee

A simple yet well executed service! The ice cubes are made of pineapple and strawberry juice which adds in to the cocktail as they dissolve.

The components of the sable were small but oh so full of punch! The concentrated coffee extract was equivalent to three espressos! The sable was perfectly tender and buttery and the cream added a richness while the passion fruit gel linked the dessert back to the punch.

8. Horchata
Cinnamon, rhum, tequila
Pairing: Lollipops

Wow wow wow! The presentation by itself is already ASTOUNDING! But wait for it!!!! The horchata is served in a styrofoam cup in which rice milk, tequila, rhum are mixed and its ice cube are composed of cinnamon and cayenne pepper to add a kick! Everytime you bite into a lollipop and take a sip of the horchata, the drink taste differently.  Example: take a bite of the frozen banana dipped in peanut butter and dehydrated bananas, the horchata's cinnamon profile is enhanced.  A taste of the meringue over pineapple will make the rice notes come out more.  Other lollipops included:
- Balsamic fluff over raspberry
- Chocolate from Hungary and candied hazelnut
- Passionfruit gel dipped in smoked salt and fennel pollen (!!!)
- Confit Lemon and lemon rind simple syrup

9. Daiquiri
Frozen, strawberry, rhum

Inspired by ice cream trucks, the daiquiri comes served in a paper cup with a wooden spoon! Real strawberries, lime juice and rhum make this frozen treat very concentrated in alcohol.  Again, the ice is done perfectly.  Fine, homogeneous crystals which melts immediately at the warmth of the tongue.  There is actually a person specialized in making ice at the Aviary.  There are over 45 kinds of ice ranging from flavored ice to shaped ice to hollow ice! Talk about dedication!!!

10. Cold chocolate
Menthol, almond, wheat whiskey
Pairing: Chocolate
Chocolate brioche

The menthol is on the right side and the chocolate beverage on the left.  Menthol is an ingredient often used in molecular cuisine as this compound not only offers a cooling effect, but also is solid at room temperature but melts under heat.  With these properties, the Aviary team designed the glass so that as soon as you hold it on the menthol side, it melts under the temperature of the hand and mixes in with the chocolate side giving it a minty taste!!!

The breaded chocolate brioche is first dipped in milk, frozen, then dipped in chocolate to create this unique crunchy texture.  In addition, a little brioche is added to the top.

Now, after 10 cocktails, I can guarantee that you might feel the world around you turning a little, your cheeks a little warmer and everything inexplicably funnier and merrier.  If you are still able to walk and drink more, you might be lucky enough to be invited to their private speakeasy bar: The OFFICE.  On invitation only and locked behind huge doors, the Office seats only 15 people and is the IN place where the chefs hang.  The barman can either whip out one of the cocktail out of the menu or custom create one to your own preferences.  We were fortunate enough to get a view of the office during our visit but stayed only briefly as the bar closed at 2:00.  

All in all, the Aviary is a must stop for any cocktail lover that is seeking a roller coaster of emotions! The service is absolutely stellar; every single staff member is dedicated to make your experience the best you never had. I am repeating myself but again, this visit was sincerely one of the best nights I had in a long time. Please. You don't want to miss this!

The Aviary on Urbanspoon


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