The cocktails at Arbella, the new River North spot from the team behind Tanta, are all over the map—literally. The tagline for the bar is “drink the world,” and the menu is divided into five global regions. It’s heavy on the Americas, with Mexico, South America (and the Caribbean), and the U.S. constituting three sections; the other two are dedicated to Europe and Asia. The bar’s name comes from a ship that sailed from England to Salem in 1630, a six-week voyage on which the passengers and crew supposedly consumed nearly 10,000 gallons of wine.
It would cost quite a bit to order that much wine at Arbella, where a glass averages about $14 and most bottles are at least $60 (cocktails run about $15). The goal, according to the menu, is not just to celebrate “wonderfully staggering consumption” but to create drinks that spark wanderlust. The surroundings of the former flower shop, though—posh semicircular booths, modern-looking chandeliers, 20-foot-high ceilings—are more likely to inspire people to settle in.
The focus is on classic cocktails, and the menu provides brief histories of ones that patrons might be unfamiliar with: the recipe for the Airmail, for example, was apparently first printed in a Bacardi pamphlet in 1930s Cuba, celebrating the “modern achievement” of plane-delivered letters and packages. Other drinks, though, are more contemporary, playful, or just puzzling, as is the case with the Bridge and Tunnel, a concoction of vodka, rosé, and celery bitters. The Old School is peanut butter-infused bourbon with jelly ice. Two of the cocktails involve liquid nitrogen—which seems gimmicky, but it’s still fun to watch the fog emanating as the bartender prepares the drink. And I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Fraise d’Amor [sic], which is just cognac with strawberry puree, frozen with liquid nitrogen. The drink tastes like the essence of the fruit, beautifully balanced by the vanilla and oak flavors of the cognac. (See photos of it being made at the bottom of this post.)
Smoke makes its most notable appearance in the Chicago Fire Extinguisher: named for the grenade-shaped glass bottles of flame-smothering saline solution that once hung in local establishments. The cocktail, made with BenRiach Heart of Speyside scotch, Luxardo Amaro Abano, and smoked Angostura bitters, is served in a smoke-filled glass container with a cork, along with a glass containing a large, perfectly clear ice cube. It’s a neat concept but lacks depth; the smoke seems to mute the flavors of the whiskey.
I preferred the Funky Chicken—Mexican lollipops dissolved in rye, served with lemon puree, beer, and a Tajín rim—which tastes exactly like boozy, spicy Mexican candy: sweet, tart, and salty, with a chile pepper bite. The La Coqueta, with just a touch of mezcal smoke and some nice ginger heat along with yuzu and grenadine, is a slightly funky, dry cocktail.
There’s an assortment of snacks as well: bao, ahi poke, taro tacos, grilled octopus, crisp-skinned Korean fried chicken. They’re a cut above respectable, but with more than 30 drinks on offer, Arbella is, first and foremost, a cocktail lounge.
Arbella, 112 W. Grand, 312-846-6654, arbellachicago.com