We arrived early for our 6pm reservation, anxious with anticipation for what was to come. The Maitre D’ greeted us outside in the chilled air of Chicago’s Fulton Market. Although we were early, there was already a small crowd forming, tensely waiting to see if they would make the waiting list. The Aviary is very strict about reservations, typically notifying you at 4pm of the day of your reservation to confirm your seat. Luckily, since we were in town for the National Restaurant Association Show, they were kind enough to be sensitive and confirmed us weeks earlier. That said, I am pretty sure that there were a couple of people on the standby list that seemed pretty unhappy, thinking we were cutting the line. Once the Maitre D’ assured them that we had reservations, the tension subsided. Our guests for the evening joined us, and we made our way through the imposing wooden doors eager for the start of our experience.
The menu at The Aviary is not a typical bar menu by any means. This is not a place where you can walk up to the bar, ask for a rum and coke, and tip the bartender. In fact, when you first walk into the establishment, you see, off to the right, the staff behind a chain-metal gate working diligently at their stations, affectionately known as “The Cage”. Really, it looks more like a chemistry lab than a bartender station, with each member of the staff working diligently and quietly to render the each uniquely handcrafted concoction. Access to “The Cage” is permitted for those who reserve the 10-course tasting menu.
The bar itself, is understated, with light colored, curved banquettes that flank low-profile cocktail tables and streamlined modern chairs. We are shown to our table, and the magical experience begins. The menu structure itself is simple and to the point. There are several options, one being a prix fixe menu. You are able to choose one of 4 drinks from 3 different categories. Luckily for us, since we were a party of 4 we were able to sample all 12 of the drinks on the prix fixe menu. So let’s talk about some of our favorites.
One of the most whimsical drinks was the El Bulli Pina Colada. This lovely concoction was made with a coconut milk base in which lovely orbs of rum float gently. The drink is topped with a pouf of cotton candy.
The drink is served with a shot of pineapple cider. Pouring the pineapple cider over the cotton candy melts it into the cocktail. Overall, this drink was fun, well balanced, and delicious. The El Bulli menu at The Aviary was a limited time offering, so we were very lucky to partake. This drink is part of a partnership between Achatz, and Chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Roses, Spain. El Bulli is now closed and Chef Adria is committed to changing the culinary landscape, having made his restaurant a ‘lab’ for other pioneers in the culinary field, a think-tank if you will, one in which Achatz figures prominently.
Another of our favorites at the table was the Huckleberry. To huckleberries in season, Achatz’ team adds port and rum. The ice cubes are infused with Angostura bitters. The presentation on this was eye-catching for sure, and was less sweet than one would anticipate. Additionally, as the ice cubes melt, the Angostura bitters figure more prominently.
The use of bitters, now considered to be a trend in mixology, harkens back to the days of the speak-easy. Another one of the Aviary’s drinks also plays on this trend. The In the Rocks, is Achatz’ version of the Old-Fashioned. The drink is arguably one of the most infamous drinks at the Aviary. The secret behind the In the Rocks, is ice frozen inside water balloons to -30 degrees. The ice “eggs” are then drained of water. A mix of Buffalo Trace bourbon, Demerara syrup, and house-made orange bitters is injected into the hollow ice cube and allowed to freeze. The adjoining table ordered this drink and we got a first hand account of the execution. When you order this cocktail, it comes with a slingshot that tops the cocktail glass. Just break the ice “egg” with the slingshot to mix a perfect old-fashioned right in your glass.
In addition to the Prix Fixe and a la carte menus, the Aviary does serve small bites. We started with a “chip” basket. This was definitely not your ordinary chip basket. We sampled anything from seaweed chips, to lotus root chips, puffed polenta chips and pork rinds. This was definitely and interesting assortment of colors, flavors, and textures. My favorite was the lotus root, and while I normally do not care for fried seaweed, this version was high on the umami and low in the briny seawater taste that you typically find in seaweed.
Next, we ordered the El Bulli tasting sampler. We chose the bacon and date, toast corn croquant flute with guacamole, and the passion fruit diamond. Each piece was an interesting interplay of texture, flavor and color. The bacon and date were essentially a little sandwich, with bacon and date paste for the filling. The richness of the crispy bacon was cut with the creamy sweetness of the date paste. The corn croquant with guacamole, had a very interesting texture, starting out crispy crunchy, and melting away to the creaminess of the avocado. Rounding out the trio was a passion fruit diamond. The passion fruit gelee was topped with a dot of espresso syrup, which we found to be an interesting counterpoint, although it was commented that the passion fruit had a note of artificiality to it; fair enough I say.
The final course in our small bite menu selection was the lollipops. They included meringue, fennel pollen, dark chocolate, white chocolate, and meringue lollipops, all artfully presented on wooden skewers.
Overall, this was a great experience, filled with interesting and new points of view, intriguing ingredients and combinations, and understated ambience. It’s definitely worth a look-see, if you are lucky enough to get a reservation. So if you are ever in the Chicago area, and get the chance to sample the libations here, add a plus one for me. I would love to join you!