Inside the otherworldly creations at NYC’s The Aviary.
By now, New York has convinced us all we know everything there is to know about cocktail culture. We’re privy to the usual cast of ingredients, unimpressed by ooh and aah antics of pyrotechnics and liquid nitrogen. But what Grant Achatz is doing has set all those notions aside and buried them six feet under. The Chicago-based chef whose Windy City restaurant, Alinea, remains a permanent fixture on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, has brought that same Michelin-level of shock and awe to his Colombus Circle cocktail bar, The Aviary. That is, if you can consider it a bar at all.
What originated and still stands as a speakeasy-style lounge in the Meatpacking District of Chicago has recently sprouted its own set of East Coast roots—perched high on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental, overlooking Central Park. Achatz, alongside Alinea Group co-owner Nick Kokonas and Beverage Director Micah Melton, spent several years planning their New York debut after being initially approached by the hotel in 2012. Ultimately, the project came to fruition this past fall and the success of The Aviary thus far has left many of us, including myself, wondering why Achatz didn’t bring the business here sooner.
To define The Aviary as a bar is to call Thomas Keller’s Per Se a restaurant—it is both neither and so much more. What can be best and only described as alchemy, The Aviary will make you feel as if you’ve been transported back to chemistry class. Avant-garde presentations can include anything from boiling flasks to Bunsen burners and cocktails come with tongue-in-cheek names like “Science A.F.” and “Cloche Encounters of the 46 Kind” — made with Maker’s 46 bourbon. While it can be tempting to jump past the more classic offerings, it is perhaps the most exciting to see something so familiar, become so new.
Their already famous “Bloody Mary” for example, drinks (and eats) more like a meal rather than a boozy beverage. Guests aren’t served a tall glass but rather a rounded bowl with a flat, table-like rim that’s adorned with appetizers instead of garnishes. Spheres of frozen ice lay at the bottom, except some are made from water and others pickled banana peppers, Fresno chilis and Cubanelle peppers. The concoction is poured over top and and you’re given a straw to sip it down.
The Aviary’s so-called “Ice Program” is a signature at both locations, where they create over 20 different types of ice, each with their own unique taste, shape and purpose. The best display of Achatz and Melton’s madness at work is the “In the Rocks” cocktail — where the liquid is actually inside of a hollowed piece of rounded ice. The water itself is poured into small balloons and then chilled using a technique similar to sous vide cooking. Once the exterior is solid and the interior still liquid, they carefully drill a hole and use a syringe to extract the water and inject the cocktail combo.
When it comes time to serve, champagne is given as a precursor and crème de cassis granita is shoveled into a glass in the style of a Kir Royale. The sphere goes in next and a rubber band-like instrument is fitted across the top. Inspired by New Year’s Eve in New York City, guests are expected to pull the band back and crack the cube open, simulating the iconic ball drop. A mix of Szechuan-infused scotch seeps out into the granita and hypothetical fireworks fill the air.
The ode to the Big Apple is evident in more ways than one with The Aviary’s “Wake and Bake” cocktail that’s exclusive to this location. It’s their interpretation of Manhattan in the morning, made with single barrel rye whiskey and Vermouth that’s infused with coffee and orange. The cocktail is enclosed within a pillow pouch that has been scented with the aromas of an everything bagel. The package gets sliced open tableside and you’re immediately back in your kitchen, tasting and smelling notes of breakfast.
The food, which was conceptualized by Achatz and Executive Chef Dan Perretta, caters to all-day diners with small plates for breakfast, brunch and lunch, as well as larger-scaler offerings in the evening. Achatz brought over cult culinary offerings from Chicago like the “Not Ramen”—which is actually ramen—and Alinea’s “Black Truffle Explosion.” This one-bite-wonder was a dish Achatz developed early on in his career while he was working at The French Laundry. Based off a soup dumpling, a single ravioli is stuffed with an intense truffle broth and sprinkled with parmesan cheese and romaine. Eaters are warned to keep their mouths closed as the warming eruption quickly takes place.
Due in large part to Achatz’s mastermind reputation, The Aviary delivers on a kind of promise—where nothing is as it seems and everything is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, heard of or could’ve imagined.