22 July 2011

30/66 Chicago: Part 2

After rinsing off all the sand and sweat from hours of Spikeball, we all piled into M’s car once again and headed down to Fulton Market. I’d done my research on how to score a reservation at The Aviary and was delighted when I received a confirmation email that afternoon. We scored a table for five at the 6pm seating. We turned our keys over to the valet and checked in with the doorman. He told us to have a seat on the snazzy outdoor couches for a few moments while they finished preparing our table. We took a few group photos and then a hostess led us to our table.

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From left to right that’s M’s girlfriend Me, M, Z, and myself (and yes, I do realize M looks like Satan in that picture, that's why I wanted to share it with all of you.) We all really dug the décor inside, with Me and M falling in love with the huge piece dominating the wall behind us.

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Our waitress couldnt’ve been nicer or more accommodating and she went over the menu in detail while our amuses were brought to the table.

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I’ll be honest, this thing was not good. We simultaneously downed them and I just gazed around the table as every face went from momentary pleasure to unfortunate distaste. The tiny puddle in the middle was warm and salty and didn’t work with the watermelon at all. Luckily, the cocktails were much, much better than the disappointing amuse.

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We all decided to order a few a la carte cocktails as well as a cocktail flight and just pass them around the table. Our waitress said the practice didn’t break any strict cocktail laws, so we proceeded with our order. We were told that the a la carte cocktails are listed in terms of sweetness, the top being the sweetest. I went with the ‘Blueberry’ with verjus, sweet vermouth, and rye, and the Mrs. (recounting fond memories of the Carousel Bar) ordered the Pisco Sour with (what else) lime, angostura, and pisco. M ordered the ‘In The Rocks’ with demerera, angostura, and bourbon, and Z went with the ‘Rooibos’ featuring lavender, almond, vanilla, and gin.

The tasting menu was split into three groups, providing a choice of one from each group, for $45. Looking over the choices the first course appeared to be light and refreshing, the second smokey and robust, and the third sweet and creamy. Since all of our choices had to be made up front, after a short table discussion we went with the ‘Rhubarb’ with lemon balm, tonic, cocchi, and gin, the ‘Ginger’ with shiso, peychaud’s, and vodka, and finally the ‘Cold Chocolate’ with ecuadorian chocolate, fernet, and bourbon (I think the intriguing combination of chocolate and bourbon sealed the deal on this one, otherwise I probably would’ve opted for the ‘Root Beer’.)
I refuse to provide exacting details on my voice memos because these beverages were simply too complex for my relatively inexperienced (in terms of cocktails, anyway) palette to do them justice. After a little searching on the internet, I found details on a few of the beverages that I will happily plagiarize for you.

The succinct menu description doesn’t even begin to hint at what The Rooibos truly is:

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It’s basically a mad scientist’s spin on a Hot Toddy (which I’ve never had before.) A combination of Rooibos tea, lemon peel, orange peel, almond, vanilla, lemon verbena, mint, saffron, lavender, peppercorn, cardamom, Hendrick’s gin, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, citric acid, simple syrup, and water (whew) is placed in a glass pot over top a beaker under which sits a small bunson burner. As the liquid heats it rises up into the top chamber infusing with all of those aromatics.

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After the liquid dissipates from the beaker, the server stirs the beverage with a cinnamon stick, charred tableside, before finally releasing the valve at the bottom, causing the contents to be filtered back into the beaker below. The drink is then poured into a darling little glass for your sipping pleasure.

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Had this beverage tasted like it smelled it would’ve been my favorite by far, but unfortunately (my complaint most teas) some of the aromatics were lost in the brew. It was still great though—definitely a spicy citrus-forward belly warmer, the perfect drink to sip with a loved one on a crisp autumn night or in front of a chilly spring beach bonfire.

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The ‘In The Rocks’ was just your standard Old Fashioned (albeit an extremely well-crafted one) the spin on this drink was the way it was served. The cocktail was encased in a sphere of ice and the waitress provided a wooden ring that fit perfectly onto the top of the glass. Attached to the ring was a thick elastic band with a metal weight attached to it. You hold the wooden ring down with one hand and slingshot the weight into the sphere, breaking it and mixing the ice shards into the cocktail.

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Finished with a little orange peel, this was a very clever way to serve the beverage on the rocks. The Old Fashioned itself was made of 10-year Eagle Rare Bourbon, demerera syrup, Angostura bitters, and a little water. It was perfectly smooth and slightly sweet. Truly one of the best Old Fashioneds I’ve had to date.

The Blueberry was probably the prettiest drink of the evening, and my personal favorite of our first round.

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It is presented in a metal and glass canteen (designed by Aviary’s very own glass master) and the waitress makes a point of positioning it right in front of the candle to create an excellent stained glass effect.

The cocktail steeps tableside and the longer the glass sits, the more the colors change and the flavors infuse the liquor. See?

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At first it tasted more floral and light with hints of rye and blueberry, but over time the frozen pomegranate seeds melted transforming the elixir ruby red and infusing their tart flavor. For the second and third pours, the blueberry was still present, but it was more of a lingering earthy aftertaste.

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A truly unique and wholly delicious cocktail. I jokingly asked our waitress if I could take the canteen home with me, I mean canteens are badass by themselves, let alone a metal and glass canteen built for infusing cocktails. She said that while I couldn’t have the vessel, they do offer them up for purchase for a measly $150. I regrettably declined and inquired if any had been sold yet. None had.

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The rhubarb was basically a flavored gin and tonic with lemon balm. The twist here was that the spherical ice cubes were actually frozen bitters (the cocchi?). Rhubarb being one of my favorite flavors, it was no surprise that I approved of this drink, even though I’m not huge on gin and tonics. After it had made it’s rounds and came back to me I fished out one of the ice cubes and popped it into my mouth.

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It tasted like mildly tart-sweet ice. I guess all of the bitters had already infused the beverage. A refreshing and tasty cocktail nonetheless.

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I felt the Pisco Sour was fine, but not quite as good as those our good friend Marvin made us down in NOLA. The Aviary’s version lacked that tart kick that made me fall in love with the drink in the first place, ultimately tasting very smooth, but slightly flat.

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My order of preference for those first five cocktails was Blueberry, In the Rocks, Rhubarb, Rooibos, and finally the Pisco Sour. No sooner did I finish relishing in the last few drops of my cocktail when Ginger hit the table. We also took this opportunity to order a round of ice waters to ensure proper hydration.

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That's how our waters were served. They were filled from a pitcher tableside. Isn't that a badass hunk of ice?

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The Ginger is a deconstructed Moscow mule. A glass is filled with ginger-flavored ice, dotted with slices of pepper and herbs, and served with a swizzle stick fashioned out of lemongrass.

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Drinkers are instructed to pour vodka from a small glass pitcher over the ice and mix with the lemongrass. I was mesmerized as M spun the drink into a flurry of off-pink slush.

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He took one sip, then another, and immediately passed the drink to me saying I had to try it.  This is yet another instance when I feel like I must quote you my voice memo, because I can’t really describe it any better than this:

“The Ginger is the table favorite. It’s amazing. It literally tasted like an old Thai lady came in my mouth. Like an old Thai grandmother squirrrrted in my mouth.”

Yes, that’s really what I said. And I’m pretty sure that’s all you need to hear. If you go to Aviary you must order this drink.

At this point we ordered one more beverage to go along with our Cold Chocolate. I asked our waitress if there were any more unique cocktails we hadn’t tried yet, and she said while the rest were all pretty standard, the presentation of the Hurricane was pretty unique in that the cocktail is presented in seven layers, and when poured over ice they all blend together. So we decided to try that as my friend D swears by the Hurricane, and I regretted not trying one when we were down in NOLA.

Cold Chocolate arrived and it was definitely the least aesthetically appealing beverage of the night.

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It looked like a foamy shitshake. The cocktail itself was fairly straight forward, but what the menu fails to mention is the foam is scented with tobacco. Wow, now that was something I’d never quite experienced before. It was like eating a hot fudge sundae in a walk-in humidor.

After we collectively killed it, I couldn’t help but notice that the ice cubes were opaque instead of translucent. Upon closer inspection I noticed they were solid white, so I popped one into my mouth and chomped down. I guess, like most of the other cocktails here, it was meant to be enjoyed slowly so that the cubes could melt and infuse into the drink. Unfortunately, being the hellbent drunks that we are, that small feature was lost on us. It was still quite refreshing to snack on the slightly chewy, frosty, creamcube.

And finally, we have the Hurricane. The layers from top to bottom are as follows: Cranberry stock, passion fruit juice, blood orange juice, lime juice, Plantation 5 year rum, Banks rum, and a splash of Smith & Cross rum on top.

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While the presentation of the Hurricane was truly impressive, we all felt it was too sweet. That’s probably the nature of the beast when dealing with Hurricanes, but there were also complaints that it was too one-dimensional. I disagreed, as I could appreciate the subtleties of the different fruit juices they used.

So, to sum things up, we all really enjoyed our time at the Aviary. My final order of preference was Ginger, Blueberry, In The Rocks, Rhubarb/Cold Chocolate, Rooibos, Pisco Sour, Hurricane. It’s obviously a very hip and Chef Achatz and co. have obviously put a lot of work into developing the concept of their sidebar attached to Next. They do offer food, what they call bites, but since we had dinner plans immediately afterwards, we didn’t partake. From what I’ve read online they’re overpriced for what you get, but I’ll reserve my judgment since I didn’t experience them for myself.

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