Food

At Grant Achatz’s First New York Outpost, Spirits Takes Flight

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The only person who made pumpkin anything seem interesting this fall was Grant Achatz. With one Instagram picture of a crystal clear slice of pumpkin pie, the Chicago chef behind Alinea, Next, and the Aviary got the attention of the food-obsessed and Vogue. This is the man whose flagship restaurant serves you an edible balloon filled with helium: If you expect to see a gelatinized distillation of pumpkin poured into a classic pâte brisée on anyone’s feed, it’s his.

That’s why New Yorkers began to salivate over the prospect of the Aviary, his cocktail bar, alighting in the city earlier this year. The Eater headline began “Holy Crap” because Achatz is arguably the most celebrated chef in America. Finally, with the arrival of this not-so-humble cocktail bar, you wouldn’t have to hop a flight to Chicago to experience his vision. Now gastro-adventurers can enjoy Aviary classics on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Columbus Circle, where a stay can run you up to $14,000 a night. Micah Melton, who started at the Chicago location as “ice chef” in 2011, now serves as beverage director of both locations. You can reserve your à la carte, three-course ($110), or five-course ($165) tasting, but note that single-seat reservations aren’t allowed. 

A key aspect of the Aviary’s appeal, which opened in Chicago in 2011, has been that the bartenders are held to the same standard as Alinea’s Michelin-level chefs. When he opened the original, Achatz said he wanted to create the drinking version of his famed restaurant. We could arguably give the bar credit for making the presentation of a cocktail as important as its flavor, or use its success to explain why high-end chefs are now collaborating with spirits brands, like Olmsted’s Greg Baxtrom with the Botanist Gin and Michelin mainstay Alain Ducasse with Grey Goose. Which is all to say that while the bar’s arrival in New York is new, little about its experience feels fresh. That’s what happens when you change an industry.

The bar sits just below the hotel lobby, open to it. Most of its 90 seats are plush couches and chairs situated over low glass tables, accented by gold light fixtures. This could be any old hotel bar until you notice the glass wall behind which the bartenders are working, filling vessels with drinks; it’s the only part of the room that looks truly contemporary — a lab lined with booze instead of beakers — despite a complete renovation. Then you’re brought a dark-red amuse-bouche with deep hibiscus flavor, like the most pleasant cough syrup you’ve ever tasted. This isn’t a regular bar, you remember, not even a very fancy regular bar. This is what their website calls “an interactive journey.”

They’ve changed the menu up in this edition to playfully mirror local customs. In the Wake and Bake ($27), the flavor of everything bagel replaces the original oatmeal, with orange, coffee, and rye rounding it out. In the Rocks (NYE Celebration) ($29) allows you to pull back on a mini slingshot to crack open an ice sphere mimicking the Times Square ball; it’s a boozy one with a kick, bringing together scotch, bourbon, champagne, and cassis with a bit of Szechuan peppercorn. There’s also a New York Sour Eh? ($18) featuring egg white, red wine, spiced pear, and rye. My friend, who’s a bartender at a different Manhattan hotel, pointed out the clever fact that they’ve listed flavors first and spirits last under each drink, forcing you to consider the cocktails as a whole before making a quick judgment based on your go-to booze.

We went with the three-course pairing, leaving our selections of cocktail and small dishes up to the staff. Their riff on the Michelada, the Micahlada, with miso, yuzu, coriander, Japanese whiskey, and Evil Twin Bushido beer, came out first, presented in a footed pilsner glass. The whiskey gets lost, and — despite being bright and juicy, with a pleasantly salty finish — the cocktail is essentially an $18 brunch drink. It was paired with what’s listed on the menu simply as Pineapple, which sees the fruit served two ways, cold and hot, with a smattering of mole; the two approaches are most delicious when tasted apart.

The Heart of Stone, a classic from Chicago poured a bit at a time out of a clear, custom-made canteen called the Porthole that allows you to see all the drink’s ingredients as they steep, combines pistachio, peach, Fresno chile, lapsang, and bourbon. You only find the satisfying nuttiness on the nose, and as the drink sits, its initial softness makes way for the heat of the chile and smokiness of lapsang; when paired with a salty, fatty bite of coconut and heart of palm with avocado (or yellowtail, if you’re not vegan) in their ceviche, the combination becomes pleasantly beachy.

Then there’s the Boom Goes the Dynamite, with rooibos, vanilla, violet, verjus, and rum served in a smoking orb, which comes together as a floral rum hot toddy. It’s served alongside their Not Ramen (named for its lack of pork) dish, and the flavor marriage doesn’t fully jell. My friend was brought the Carrot Cake Ramos, a well-shaken feat that truly puts all the elements of the cake in a glass, but we couldn’t quite wrap our heads around why it was served with noodles.

Upon paying the bill, we were taken over to the Office, the speakeasy set behind the kitchen. This is another transplant from Chicago, for which you can make a separate reservation or ask for a peek, and it does feel like a well-off old man’s home office, with typewriters and books for decor and the bartenders in more classic suspenders-and-mustache attire. The small selection of house cocktails run $23 apiece, and you could blow a hefty chunk of cash on any of their other drinks made with old, precious booze, like the $600 Wet Martini (featuring pre-Prohibition selections) and a $355 Daiquiri (starring Jamaican rum from 1943). The list — including Cynar and other liqueurs infused with black truffle — is focused on dusty bottles, which is how you get those prices (though even a vanilla sundae for two runs $35, and three of the four beers available are priced at $20 or above).

In an evening of new-to-us cocktails that nonetheless felt uncannily familiar, one of the best moments was when bar director Aidan Bowie decided to bring over our drinks and spilled a Carrot Cake Ramos on my friend’s pants, after which he apologized profusely and brought over the manager’s card in case my friend would like to have them dry-cleaned on the house. Instead of dashing off back to the kitchen, he crouched and chatted a bit, his accident having created a moment of unexpectedly pleasant human interaction. It was like being at a bar.

The Aviary NYC
Mandarin Oriental
80 Columbus Circle
theaviarynyc.tocktix.com

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