Among his other innovations, Grant Achatz is a pioneer in menu typography. At Alinea, in Chicago, courses on his tasting menus used to be printed in a long, snaking column; sweeter dishes drifted out to the right margin, and more savory ones swayed left.
At the Aviary, the willfully atypical cocktail lounge he founded in Chicago in 2011, the name of each drink is preceded by a bird silhouette like the ones on the endpapers of Roger Tory Peterson’s field guides. The nearer the silhouette is to the name, the more the cocktail will resemble something Nick and Nora Charles would have recognized. The farther away the bird, the weirder the drink.
During my first flight at the Aviary’s new Manhattan incarnation, my server pointed to the entry for Bring Another Smurf, a mezcal and coconut drink. “If you look over here,” he said, sliding his finger left, “the bird is all the way out.”
Is a cocktail improved when its bird is all the way out? The question pecked at me each time the elevator let me out on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental New York, site of the Aviary NYC and its quieter, shadow-filled sibling, the Office NYC. It also is originally from Chicago, where Achatz and his partner, Nick Kokonas, have built one superb, genre-bending establishment after another.
For years they have flirted with New York. It took a hotel deal to get them here. The cloned Aviary and Office are undeniably expressions of Achatz’s aesthetic, with his fondness for Rube Goldberg devices, audience participation, old ideas tilted off their usual axis and novel ideas launched into orbit.
The wildest notions are reserved for drinks in the Aviary. Achatz’s food plays second fiddle in both rooms, and plays it beautifully. Yet neither space really shows off his full powers. In this perch above Central Park, the bird is half-out — or, if you look at a different way, half-in.
Like many Aviary drinks, the one called Science A.F. (ostensibly a reference to microbiologist Alexander Fleming) is made at the table. A small blue flame compels Scotch and other ingredients in the lower chamber of a vacuum coffee maker to ascend to an upper chamber filled with fruit tea, as dry-ice fog carpets the table. This took about five minutes and produced something that tasted like the fruit punch that might be served at a convention for designated drivers.
It does not quite give you your bird’s worth, I think. On the other hand, I admired the balance and complexity of the Wake and Bake, a mutant rye manhattan made with coffee- and orange-flavored vermouth. What I can’t imagine ever loving is being asked by a server to stick my head inside the inflated plastic bag in which it is served, to see that it really did smell like an everything bagel. It did, but it was a moment when I felt like a parent helping the Aviary staff to complete a science fair project.
After a round or two, the alert drinker may become gun-shy. A friend I’d invited for lunch gamely sipped a Boom Goes the Dynamite, which had never cooled below tepid despite having fumed vigorously from the dry ice inside its laboratory flask. Leaving a third undrunk, she asked for a Bloody Mary.
“Our Bloody Mary is very unique,” our server said brightly. “It takes about 15, 20 minutes to make.”
“Is it served ... cold?” my friend asked, hope flickering weakly in her voice.
It was. A few minutes later, a relatively traditional Bloody was poured over many tiny ice marbles inside the bowl of what looked like a small spittoon. Around the spittoon’s broad brim were arranged five garnishes, or side dishes, or condiments, including chopped razor clam with celery sorbet and a little pillbox of horseradish jelly.
When we were alone again, she sighed and said, “I was hoping for a glass.” The Aviary’s Bloody Mary, by the way, costs $38.
We had come to try the daytime menu the Aviary recently introduced after two months or so of nighttime-only business.
While the drinks gave us a bumpy ride, all was smooth once we embarked on the three-course, $45 lunch, starting with a roasted squash soup and a salad. Both had pieces of fruit and vegetable that had somehow been talked into tasting like more than they were. Finally, there was a sandwich of fried, buttermilk- and yuzu-brined chicken thigh with pickles and shredded iceberg lettuce on a bun with more sesame seeds to the square inch than I’ve ever seen. The dressing was a toasted sesame sauce, and, like everything else about the sandwich, it was excellent.
Apart from a fried pork rind the size of a dish towel, the items on the evening menu are generally wispy: a single, wonderful tempura shrimp with slices of yuzu-scented pear; an octopus croquette under streamers of bonito. There is one of Achatz’s earliest inventions, the raviolo filled to the bursting point with black-truffle broth. It is still a marvel. There was only one dish I did not like, but boy, did I not like it: cold pork belly in a bland goo of banana curry, sandwiched between flat discs of iceberg lettuce.
These plates run from $11 to $29. Two or three would make for an interesting postcard from the inside of Achatz’s head. Ordering the whole roster would leave you a couple hundred dollars poorer and no wiser, though. The menu is not designed for that kind of eating.
Neither is the Aviary, although it’s hard to say just what it is designed for. Deals between chefs and hotels invariably entail compromise, but Achatz and Kokonas may have given up too much here.
Sunk a few steps below the hotel lobby and dominated by a view of the Central Park skyline, the space is an awkward combination of destination and waiting room. Achatz devotees who paid for their spots weeks earlier through Kokonas’ reservations and guest-tracking service, Tock, may find themselves at curved leather lounge chairs next to hotel guests taking phone calls between meetings.
There’s no sense of arrival, nothing to suggest you’re entering the domain of a restaurant group that has always refused to do things the usual way.
You do get that sense when you enter the Office. The Chicago Office is downstairs from the Aviary; in New York it is behind a wooden door past the Aviary’s cocktail-assembly station. There, faceless hotel luxury gives way to leather club chairs, parquet floors, clothbound books, manual typewriters, contemporary art, eccentric antiques.
The two Offices are usually called speak-easies. This one looks to me more like the library of stately Wayne Manor.
The theme is tradition. This being an Achatz project, the theme is pushed to its limits and beyond. Micah Melton, the beverage director of both lounges (in both cities), scours auctions and private sales for old bottles of spirits. Some of the older ones go here for $500 an ounce or more, straight up. Others are mixed into what the menu calls “dusty bottle cocktails.”
As a way to get rid of money, this is both alluring and appalling. I couldn’t bring myself to order a $475 Old-Fashioned stirred from bourbon bottled in 1969. But I couldn’t resist learning what happens when 75 grams of shaved truffle soak in a bottle of Chartreuse. (It’s fascinating, but not more delicious than untruffled Chartreuse.)
The short food menu appears to have been printed by letterpress. On it are a number of time-honored plutocratic pleasures, such as cold oysters, foie gras terrine, and a really fine and forcefully seasoned tartare of ivory-veined rib-eye.
Steamed mussels in cream with leeks and bacon are $35. If any pot of mussels is worth that much money, this is it. Vegetable crudités may sound like nothing. They’re very much something, a miniature forest of fruits and vegetables treated this way and that, then set on chipped ice with a dip — a harmonious, understated vadouvan-squash cream the last time I went.
The contortions that Melton and Achatz put liquor through at the Aviary are as imaginative as cuisine gets; they probably have more freedom than they would if the place were a restaurant. But rather than asking how a Bloody Mary, say, can be improved, or what its essence is, they seem to ask: How would the Aviary serve it?
The answer always seems to require equipment. The bird-all-the-way-out drinks especially are like elaborate magic tricks with metal boxes into which the beautiful assistant will vanish. Somehow, the boxes upstage the assistant. The cocktails at the Office are more like close-up card tricks. My favorite is: Mix me a drink and I’ll make it disappear.