leave your inhibitions at the door
Something old, something new. Flash versus substance. The good, the great, and the would-be-great if the restaurant didn’t charge a 400% markup on wine, placing it on the teetering edge of tourist trap designation. That sums up my food and drink experience on a recent mini-vacation weekend in Chicago, with this blog focusing on three establishments: Aviary, Sunda, and MK. My first post is on Aviary, but I’ll get to that other restaurant with the 400% wine markup a little later…
“Honey, try this ice cube,” cooed the woman to her husband at the table next to us. You don’t hear that one often. But at Aviary, it’s never just an ice cube. It’s an orange juice ice cube infused with smoked paprika, in a drink made with sweet potato liquor and tequila. Or it’s little, perfectly shaped sphere ice cubes infused with angostura bitters in huckleberry juice with port and rum.
Even the drinking water has special ice cubes—elongated and perfectly clear, with nary a tiny bubble. Meanwhile, the couple at the table on the other side of us was using a contraption that looked like a giant fruit bong. But instead of smoke, it emitted tea infused with fruit peels and brandy.
Culinary darling Grant Achatz’s Aviary puts flash over substance; but to be fair, there’s still a good deal of substance here. All-in-black waiters move noiselessly around high-backed, gray chaise lounges in the dimly lit, chic space (“no flashbulbs please”—oops). But get the wait staff talking about the drinks, and the too-cool deadpan expressions transform into enlightenment. They’ll patiently and happily explain the nuances of each drink, prepared in the cocktail “kitchen” (no bartenders here). The waiters have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid about Aviary, and want you to drink it, too.
So is Aviary worth its own hype? Well, I would go back, because it is cool, creative, and thoughtful, and despite some gimmicky failures (I’ve had better hot drinks in a Styrofoam paper cup at a U of M football tailgate than the “popcorn, salted caramel, and rum” drink for $15), I loved my very balanced drink with sweet potato liquor and smoked paprika ice cubes. So there is a lot of heart and soul, a.k.a. substance, behind the gimmicky flash, if that makes sense. Also delicious were a few of the “snacks” we tried that were borrowed from the famous El Bulli, the “bacon and date” and “toasted corn croquant with guacamole.” They are $4 a bite. Yes, one bite. So yeah, if you’re in Chicago for some fun, check out Aviary—it’s pricey, but it’s a cocktail experience I can guarantee that you’ve never had.