[Editor’s note: executive chef Craig Schoettler was let go in summer 2012.]
Most people drink in cocktail lounges for reasons totally separate from those that drive them to eat in world-class restaurants. A mixologist can create spellbinding spirituous alchemy, but if he isn’t a natural in the art of personal engagement, he’s not going to form the companionly bonds that turn drinkers into regulars.
The bartenders—or are they chefs?—at this highly anticipated cocktail lounge cum restaurant could be perfectly personable chaps and lasses behind the stick (I know from personal experience at another bar that at least one of them is). But you’ll never know it from visiting, because they’re making your drinks behind a theatrically lit birdcage at the back of the room. And with cocktails between $12 to $28 (amuse and mignardise included), it’s unlikely the Aviary will ever be sort of place you hang out in so much that you’re invited to join the softball team.
In execution it’s much closer to Alinea than it is to the Violet Hour, the Drawing Room, Sable, or the Whistler. But—unlike Next next door—it’s probably more in the comfort zone of the Achatz fan who was alarmed the chef would try cooking like someone as retro as Escoffier. That’s the sort of person who’s more impressed by the tools and technique of the cool kitchen scientist than the brushstrokes of pleasure the Artist is known for.
But while there are plenty of cocktails to marvel at—executive chef Craig Schoettler’s test runs have been well documented on YouTube—drinking them can be frustrating for the average cocktail geek. That’s because no matter how well versed the many omnipresent servers are in the production of the drinks, they have little time to stand around and shoot the shit about them—or about much of anything else.
To help with that, the menu is plotted with a soaring bird motif indicating the relative complexity and sweetness of each. With pals, I’ve worked my way through most of the current ones, and while they skew toward a sweeter palate, in general they’re well balanced and delicious.
But that’s not why you came. Often the flavor and balance are subordinate to some redefining characteristic or story or eye-popping trick, and often you’re just left to wonder at things such as the fruits and botanicals infusing the 12 ounces of rye-based liquid in the porthole-shaped Blueberry, citrus peel, strawberries, and flower petals sweetening and deepening as it steeps. Or at the hot gin-based Rooibos, a riot of spices percolating in a vacuum coffeepot, and stirred with a smoldering cinnamon stick.
These are among the most theatrical of the drinks, turning heads whenever they’re marched into the room. Others are played to subtler comic effect, such as the server-shattered ice balloon that spills the contents of an old-fashioned into a rocks glass, or a Dark and Stormy in a bagged, capped beer bottle. Even the most straightforward have some redefining characteristic: the “martini” is a three-taste flight in which two glasses are poured with barrel-aged gin; the $28 Truffle may be the finest negroni I’ve ever drunk despite the expensive and not-altogether-necessary slice of fungus garnishing the bottom of the coupe.
Some of the most dynamic are dependent on the flavor-changing powers of dilution, for which many and varied ice shapes—and a dedicated “ice chef”—are employed. Roughly a thousand tiny cinnamon-flavored pebbles melt into the rum-based Tiki. Ice marbles made with Peychaud bitters infuse the tall Rhubarb, and red blocks of frozen ancho water loom in the margarita like red icebergs. Measure your sips and you’ll be drinking a completely different cocktail by the time you finish.
Sweet, heavy drinks tend to be my last priority, which is why I avoided the tequila-based Hot Chocolate and the rum-based Coffee, a decision I regretted after tasting the Popcorn, a thick creamy rum-based milk shake in a coupe glass that would be an ideal drunken dessert if dinner were easy to come by on this corner of Fulton Market.
Let’s just say Claudio the Tamale Guy is not going to add the Aviary to his route, which is too bad, because the ten “bites” on the menu are just tiny enough to make you hungrier. The tempura-fried crab croquette or rhubarb-jelly-and-foie-gras bonbon—somewhat reminiscent of Graham Elliot’s foielipop—won’t do anything to cut the wages of overconsumption when they come due in the morning. That’s unless the kitchen begins offering deep bowls of the corn-pudding-loaded fried chowder balls (at, say, $36 per dozen). Come to think of it, that would be a revolutionary move that could usurp the tater tot as the king of bar food.
There are options that can make an evening at the Aviary, a chef-centered performance that manages to encompass some higher levels of personal interaction as well. You can reserve the two-person kitchen table inside the cage and, for close to the price of dinner at Next, get ten drink courses with paired food. In the dining room a three-course version is offered for $50, a seven-course $125.
In the wrong frame of mind I could see how drinks at the Aviary might seem chilly, impersonal, and even a little sad. But with the understanding that your time here isn’t about you and your drinking buddies but about The Experience of Being Here, by Grant Achatz, it could become one of those rare but essential activities that, along with a game at Wrigley, a trip up the Willis Tower—or dinner at Alinea—are defining Chicago experiences.
E-mail Mike Sula at firstname.lastname@example.org.