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Bar Review: What Is The Aviary, Exactly?

Robert Simonson visits the New York branch of Grant Achatz’s celebrated high-concept cocktail bar—that is, if it can really be called a bar at all.

A bronze candle is placed on the table and lit. Nice touch. Romantic. But nothing is done with so mundane a motivation as mere ambiance at The Aviary NYC, the new Manhattan branch of chef Grant Achatz’s and beverage director Micah Melton’s celebrated high-concept Chicago bar.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, a server arrives with a masted ship in a bottle, sealed with the contents of a cocktail made of Batavia arrack, pineapple and lime juices, hazelnut orgeat and bitters, which gently slosh up and over its glass bow.

He then holds a bowl behind the candle and aims an atomizer containing a mace tincture at it. A flame erupts, coating the cavity of the bowl with the spice’s aroma. The bowl is then filled with the bottle’s contents, which are as smooth as the road getting to it is winding: aromatic, creamy, vaguely tropical—a sort of piratical ambrosia.

Depending on how many different cocktails you order during a seating at The Aviary—and there are indeed seatings, which must be reserved online with a deposit—a piece of stagecraft such as this arrives tableside roughly every 15 minutes.

The original Aviary opened in 2011 and, six years later, the debate goes on as to what it is, exactly. Achatz has said he thinks of it as a drinking version of his famous restaurant, Alinea. But when it’s discussed, it’s usually in the context of the greater craft cocktail movement—lumped in with what is usually referred to (still) as molecular mixology, a lab-like approach to compounding drinks whose few surviving active proponents are primarily located in London, including Ryan Chetiyawardana at Dandelyan and Tony Conigliaro at 69 Colebrooke Row. (New York’s most notable practitioners, Dave Arnold of Booker & Dax, and Eben Freeman, of WD-50 and Tailor, are currently in hibernation.) Achatz and Melton seem to understand the London connection, as they poached Dandelyan’s head bartender, Aidan Bowie, to be bar director of the New York branch.

I tend to think of The Aviary reflexively as a cocktail bar. That said, my relationship to it is nothing like the relationship I have with any other cocktail bar. Some elements are familiar: reservations needed and no standing allowed (both hallmarks of the bygone, trailblazing Milk & Honey); specialty glassware; drinks made with smoke, flavored ice, butterfly pea flower. I’ve been there. I get it. In other ways, though, it stands alone: the lack of contact with bartenders, the fine-dining courtliness of the service, the otherworldly completeness of the drink creations.

More than anything, it’s the lack of casualness that makes it not quite a bar. I’m not saying The Aviary isn’t fun. It’s tons of fun. But when you are there, you are 100 percent there. Other bars are backdrops to whatever mood or energy you choose to bring to them. The Aviary is the mood.

That mood is much lighter in New York than it is in Chicago. Physically, the space is an improvement over the original. In New York, every seat has a gorgeous bird’s-eye view of Columbus Circle and Central Park by way of the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental—quite a contrast to the street-level, curtained cocoon that is the Chicago space. Furthermore, the bartenders, largely unseen in Chicago, are here on full view, working their wizardry behind a glass partition. This is mainly owing to the conducive shape of the dining room. You still can’t interact with them, but it’s a step toward removing the firewall that separated patrons from the magic factory. (Melton adds that the glass was also designed to reflect the view of the city during the day.)

The drink menu is divided between original creations—all bearing punning, tongue-in-cheek names, like Cloche Encounters of the 46 Kind (Maker’s 46 bourbon is involved) and Wake and Bake (featuring a plastic pillow filled with breakfast aromas)—and a much shorter list of classics. It’s tempting to ignore the classics, which go by their typical names, in favor of their brashly titled brothers. But don’t.

“Here is the most famous Bloody Mary in the city,” declares the server as he sets the enormous spherical cocktail down. Bold claim, given the place had been open only a few weeks, and the bar is just a few blocks away from the King Cole Bar, the spiritual home of the drink. But he may soon be right. The brick-red cocktail sits in the hollow central base of what resembles a mini glass-topped table. The elaborate garnishing one expects from a Bloody Mary comes in the form of five exotic bites arranged around the well. You take a bite of the Worcestershire- and tapioca-topped cracker, and then a sip of spicy, savory heirloom tomato and gin mixture. (Vodka and tequila are also base-spirit options.) You swallow a steamed littleneck clam with celery granita and spicy cucumber juice, and you slurp a couple of the marble-sized ice spheres lurking within the drink. Some are just water, but others are flavored with pickled banana pepper and Cubanelle pepper, or Fresno chili and mushroom dashi. They are tiny globes of dynamite.

Inside The Aviary NYC

The Micahlada (named after Melton) is equally fascinating, even if it’s perhaps the most conventional of the bar’s unconventional twists on classics. It is made with Bushindo, a Berliner Weisse-style beer made for The Aviary by Evil Twin. The beer is mixed with Japanese whisky, hot sauce, calamansi syrup and yuzu juice, while the salt rim is toasted coriander seed and soy sauce. It’s a fascinating oxymoron: a deep-thinking Michelada, with untold layers of savory and sour. I got to the bottom and still hadn’t quite got to the soul of the drink.

While all of the drinks stray far from an historical precedent when it comes to presentation, they are often based on classic formulas. The How Does Snoop Dogg Use Lemongrass?, for instance, is the bar’s Moscow Mule, served in a rocks glass with a swizzle stick made of lemongrass, which you use to agitate “ginger beer snow” while the server pours in vodka. It’s much better than your average mule—more potent, and spicier; and those pieces of ginger ice periodically boost the drink’s kick.

The food, by Achatz and executive chef Dan Perretta, is—no surprise—as good as the drinks, and sometimes better. The $90 three-cocktail food pairing will get you the best of both worlds at a reasonable tariff. (The prices of the individual drinks are high, ranging from $18 to $29, but they are not, by any stretch, unreasonable, given what you’re getting.) If you can only spring for one appetizer, go for the enormous salt-and-vinegar crispy pork skin. You’ll regularly see them sailing through the room, like shark fins, headed toward diners who have figured out they are the perfect sponge for soaking up all the fancy booze. Just the sight of one, accompanied by some steaming, fizzing or surreal potion, is enough of a reminder that New York, for all its wealth of cocktail choices, has been missing something since its homegrown centrifuge crowd retreated. Ironically, it took a Chicago import to fill that gap.

While each drink possesses its own magic, order enough and you notice certain patterns. Audience participation is common: You blow bubbles in a glass pipe to activate the color-changing butterfly pea flower tea in the Bring Another Smurf!; the Heart of Stone, a glass porthole filled with whiskey, port and a potpourri of spices, tea and fruit, is meant to be sampled every few minutes as the infusion grows more intense. And ice is rarely what it seems. Often (maybe too often) it houses various flavor components, from the raspberry liqueur spheres in the Zombie Panda to the cucumber ice coating the inside of the glass holding the Gin & Tonic.

Another thing many of the drinks have in common is that they taste good. That may seem like a humdrum thing to point out. But the reputation of The Aviary is, firstly, in peddling shock and awe—the idea that a sense of wonder should accompany the drinking experience. Yet that wonder does not come at the expense of deliciousness. They manage, in their way, to deliver both.

In no other drink is this more apparent than their calling card, the In the Rocks, a drink that began as an Old-Fashioned, but has taken many liquid forms since. The debut iteration at The Aviary NYC is the most complex to date, a collaboration between Chicago’s Melton and London’s Bowie that landed, appropriately, in Manhattan. (Most of the menu is a joint effort between Melton, Bowie and assistant bar director, William Peet.) Subtitled “New York Celebration,” it offers all the components necessary for a solid New Year’s Eve toast. The ice sphere is filled with bourbon, Scotch, Champagne syrup and a green Sichuan peppercorn tincture. It sits of a bed of crème-de-cassis granita, while a small glass of Champagne plays sidekick.

It is, to my mind, the ideal Aviary drink. While it starts as a dual tribute to the Old-Fashioned and the Kir Royale, it is, at its heart, an original—boozy, spicy, effervescent, a drink whose contents match its packaging in terms of intrigue. If it was an offering at a regular bar, it might become my usual. But The Aviary isn’t a regular bar. The New York branch, like the Chicago one, is a special-occasion destination, and it will continue to be no matter how many Aviarys are opened around the world (there are plans). And that’s okay. Even a top drinking town like New York can always use an extra stratum of specialness.

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