There are plenty of surprises at The Aviary in Chicago. This haven for luxury cocktails, helmed by Grant Achatz, takes the art of mixology to a new level.
As we sat in The Aviary’s luxurious, dimly lit lounge, we marveled at Grant Achatz’s mecca for fancy cocktails. Since we are wine and beer aficionados, mixed drinks don’t normally excite us.
Drinking at The Aviary bar is no bargain – our two luxury cocktails and one dessert cost us $82. That’s a hefty price even in Chicago.
We paid the bill without much of a thought as do many who worship at the Chicago temples of the star chef. You have to give Achatz and Nick Kokonas credit. They have built a blockbuster luxury dining brand, and diners will pay exorbitant prices for their restaurants, us included.
The Aviary is proof that the cult of celebrity chefs now extends to luxury cocktails.
How did we get to The Aviary, you may wonder.
Our road to The Aviary started when we booked our tickets to Chicago. Our heads whirled as we considered the overwhelming number of dining choices in the windy city. Of course we would have hot dogs. No, we didn’t have time for deep-dish pizza (been there, done that). We only had three dinners on our own, so we had to be picky. Going to a Paul Kahan restaurant was a must. Schwa looked intriguing. But what about Alinea, the behemoth of Chicago dining and one of the most respected restaurants in the world?
This was the question everybody asked us: Are you going to Alinea?
After much consideration, we decided that we didn’t have time for Alinea during this trip, plus the tab at Alinea would practically pay for the new SLR camera that we desperately need to take our photography to the next level. Since dinner at Alinea is out of our current budget, going to The Aviary was a unique way to dip our toes in the Grant Achatz pool. Making the reservation required us to purchase non-refundable tickets using Alinea’s innovative, slightly controversial Aviary reservations system, where last-minute cancellations are not an option.
Our Experience at The Aviary Chicago
So how was it??? Even though we’re not normally cocktail people, our Aviary experience was very cool – a sort of show where dining borders on the world of entertainment, with chefs and servers as the entertainers.
The industrial, Chicago West Loop meat-packing district exterior gives no hint of the sophisticated lounge living inside. With its dark, plushly upholstered interior, The Aviary’s atmosphere is both luxurious and romantic. Our ticketed reservations landed us in a prime spot on one of the high-backed couches. Surrounded by other couples as well as an exuberantly excited threesome from San Francisco, we were quite comfortable as we perused the bar’s list of unique liquid creations.
Although the Aviary cocktail menu offers tasting options including three drinks for $65 or five drinks with food for $135, we opted to order from the a la carte menu. This turned out to be a good call, as our Aviary drinks were quite potent. One of each alcohol concoction was more than enough for us, plus it was a good way for us to manage the relatively steep Aviary prices.
Our Aviary experience started with a slushy amuse bouche made with pisco. We’ve had many an amuse bouche in our culinary experiences, but this was our first semi-liquid version.
Daryl went out on a limb and ordered the most expensive drink on The Aviary menu for $28. He wanted a rum-based drink, and the Jungle Bird spoke to him as the server described the drink with two types of rum, pineapple and Campari. The ingredients are layered (don’t ask us how), which looked rad even in the dark room. To us, the drink was elevated to ultra-cool status by the wide glass straw and the rum balls floating in the middle. We took turns slurping the rum balls through the glass straw, and we both delighted as they burst in our mouths with sweet alcohol flavor. It was like drinking the best bubble tea ever.
Mindi ordered the In The Rocks cocktail without even knowing about the slingshot since she was attracted to the drink’s ingredients of absinthe, tart cherry, vermouth and rye. For this clever cocktail, cracking an ice egg is necessary to get to the strong yet delicious drink, and that’s where the slingshot comes to play. With the server’s instructions, Mindi skillfully executed the slingshot to crack the ice egg.
As the ice melted, the alcohol escaped into the glass. Given the interactive slingshot experience, this drink was a relative bargain at $21.
We couldn’t go to a Grant Achatz restaurant, even one that specializes in mixology, without sampling the artistry of the food. That would just be crazy, and we’re (mostly) not crazy. We ordered the rhubarb crumble with cardamom and caramel so that we could experience the work of the culinary artists working behind (or in front?) of the birdcage. In true Achatz fashion, the rhubarb was presented in five different ways, surrounded by “snow”.
What are the five ways that culinary artists prepare rhubarb? They are chips, gel, poached, ribbons and raw. Eating the complicated yet tasty dessert was a tease of what we could have been eating at Alinea – an intermingling of flavors and textures that combine to create a complete dish where a simple ingredient, in this case, rhubarb, is deconstructed in classic molecular gastronomic fashion.
We don’t regret spending $82 for two luxury cocktails and one dessert since it was a once in a lifetime experience. That’s what Achatz and Kokonas are banking on. It’s a show for which diners will pay top dollar, in advance, as we did, for the chance to try one or more Aviary Chicago drinks.
Next time we’re in Chicago, though, we plan to take the plunge into the deep end and eat at Alinea. We better start saving now.
The Aviary is located at 955 West Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607, United States. Click here for hours, reservations and pricing.
Hungry for more? Take a short walk to Au Cheval for one of the best hamburgers in Chicago.
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