Friday, July 1, 2011

The Aviary Kitchen Table Experience (Chicago)

Ten cocktails, paired small bites, and over 2 hours of watching The Aviary bartenders and chefs in action inside the kitchen - or as they call it, the cage. That's the Kitchen Table experience at Grant Achatz's new bar, The Aviary.

Since I wasn't able to snag a reservation at Next Restaurant on my last Chicago visit, I opted for the Aviary's $165 10-course cocktail tasting at the Kitchen Table. While the main lounge area featured plush booths and dim lighting, the kitchen table (inside what's dubbed "the cage") is a tall metal table and two stools facing the minimalist kitchen and "bar" (with perfect lighting for photographs, I may add).
Inside "The Cage"
Even though this was a cocktail tasting, they still wanted to start off with a sparkling wine, so Course #1 was an Alsace sparkling wine with strawberry puree, which was paired with Compressed watermelon with soju, topped with sesame seed.
Compressed Watermelon
I had begged my companion to come here with me even though he can't drink much alcohol. I'll drink his share, I said. But when they saw he wasn't finishing his first cocktail, he told them he doesn't really drink, and Aviary decided to do a non-alcoholic version of the tasting for him. In some cases, that just meant water instead of liquor. In others, it was an entirely different drink (that still pairs with the bite).

Course #2: Rhubarb cocktail with Peychaud ice
Rhubarb Cocktail, Peychaud Ice
Instead of adding a dash of bitters, those ice spheres you see contain Peychaud bitters which release flavors as the ice melts instead of diluting.
This was paired with Cantaloupe compressed in champagne and topped with prosciutto, an elevated version of the typical prosciutto and melon.
Compressed Cantaloupe

Course #3: Pisco sour with angostura bitters (the server noted that this was invented by an American bartender; I never knew that. Wikipedia says one account of the invention was that the drink was invented in Lima, Peru by a bartender born in Salt Lake City, Utah)
Pisco Sour at Aviary
Ever since I visited Peru, I had been a big fan of pisco sour and this was a good (albeit frothier) rendition.
My companion had a nonalcoholic version made with pistachio orgeat, which we both really enjoyed.
This was paired with a hot Clam Chowder bite.
Clam Chowder Bite

Course #4 was a mixture of Ginger snow, Peychaud bitters, fresno chili, mint, and shiso. This was served with a side of vodka which you pour into your snow mixture and stir with a lemongrass stalk
Ginger Snow Cocktail
Stirred Ginger Snow
As you stir the vodka in, you can smell the various aromas and watch the liquor and the snow turned into a soft slushy consistency. In the mouth they felt like smooth clumps of snow. (For my companion, he used water instead of vodka and his mixture just became more like melted ice).
This cocktail was paired with Crab Louie bites tempura which also had a bit of spiciness to match the Fresno chili in the cocktail.
Crab Louie Tempura Bites

Course #5: Dark and Stormy. Everything tastes better served in glass bottles hidden in paper bags.
The bite pairing for this was one of my favorites: Pork belly with thai chili, sandwiched in lettuce. The pork belly was very rich and just melts in your mouth, but your palate is refreshed by the crisp lettuce. The heat from the chili goes is heightened by the carbonation from the ginger beer.
Pork Belly

Course #6 was their "beer cocktail": Scots pine ale (made with pine instead of hops) with Yuzu and St. Germain.
Scots Pine Ale w Yuzu and St Germain
This drink led me to a bit of researching. Apparently the Scots were brewing "beer" some 5000 years ago, but at that time their region had no hops, which was first used in brewing around year 400 in Babylon. Even when the use of hops became widespread, many of the Scots stuck to making pine ales. Now, as I'm not big on hoppy beers, I of course really enjoyed this. The beer cocktail was light, sweet, and refreshing. Of course part of the sweetness is due to the yuzu and St. Germain so I'd like to try a pine ale on its own soon.

They couldn't really make a nonalcoholic version of a pine ale cocktail, so my companion got a Fruit Swizzle, which we also really enjoyed. Very refreshing and not overly sweet. I'm in Scotland, and he's on a beach in Hawaii.
Fruit Swizzle

These were paired with some Potato Bites, but the texture and flavor inside the crispy shell reminded me more of cheese and tofu.
The thing about watching the bartenders making all the drinks for other guests is that you end up wishing for particular ones and anticipating them. Luckily, I got one of the ones I had my eye on! Course #7 is a Rooibos cocktail, made with brewing rooibos tea, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, vanilla, crushed almonds, mint, verbena, lavender and an orchid for good looks. All this is brewed in a vac-pot using Hendricks gin nand maraschino liqueur.
Inside Rooibos Pot
The heat under the pot makes the liquid rises to the top compartment, infusing it with all the ingredients above.
Rooibos Cocktail in Vac-PotInfusing Rooibos Cocktail
Rooibos Cocktail 2
Remove the heat, and the liquid goes back down to the pot. It's a pretty reddish-orange color and the lovely herbal aroma was very calming. In this particular case, though, I liked the nonalcoholic version made with water and lemon. Probably because I'm a big tea drinker, I prefer the one that tasted more like tea.

The pairing: Foie gras terrine with rhubarb gelee on pumpernickel and dark choc toast. At the same time savory and sweet, richly smooth and crunchy. The pairing goes together just as dessert goes with tea.
Foie Gras Terrine
After tea, it's coffee.
Course #8 is their version of the White Russian, made with double brewed coffee instead of kahlua and milk ice cube instead of milk or cream.
Aviary's White Russian
Milk Ice Cube
There's no artificial coffee flavoring here. The coffee and vodka mixture if light and smooth, the milk ice cube gave it a bit of creaminess and body without making it rich. Again, as the ice melts the taste changes - but not towards the bad watery kind.

This was paired with my favorite dessert of the night: liquefied brioche enclosed in chocolate.
Liquefied Brioche in Chocolate
Forget brioche french toast, get all the sweet creaminess all in one bite here.

Course #9: Root beer cocktail. And it's clear?
Root Beer Cocktail
This was made with a "distilled root beer stock" which is actually quite an involved process - boiling down sassafras, sarsaparilla, licorice, star anise, cardamom, peppercorns, vanilla beans, black pepper, birch bark and applewood in a rotary evaporator. The alcohol and part of the sugar comes from Kirsch. Despite simple syrup being added to get the sugar level back up to "normal root beer level", this does not taste cloyingly sweet as the soda. Seems like a lot of work for a "root beer" and one that I think you appreciate more once you know what goes into it.

The nonalcoholic course: Popcorn puree and nutmeg.
Popcorn Puree with Nutmet
I was skeptical about the popcorn puree (will it be too salty? Will it be like the Tibetan butter tea, which I so did not enjoy?). My doubts were gone after the first sip. There's a hint of salt and butter, an umistakable essence of popcorn, but the drink is sweet and creamy. Then I thought, hey, if sea salt works for caramel, why not a "popcorn shake" ?

These were paired with Cheesecakes encased in strawberry meringue, topped with freeze dried strawberry, and a piece of  balsamic gelee inside. It's that strawberry balsamic dish, only in an entirely new format.  Somehow, this little bite really brings out the "root beer" flavors of the cocktail.
Cheesecake in Strawberry Meringue

Course #10, the final dessert: "Cold chocolate" made with pureed vanilla ice cream, hot chocolate, foam smoked cigar tobacco, and JTS Brown bourbon.
Cold Chocolate

Thicker than most shakes (we needed a metal spoon to drink/eat this, the straw just wouldn't do it), it's really the cigar smoke foam that distinguishes this drink from anything else out there. "Adult milk shakes" made with just alcohol? That's child's play. Bourbon needs some CIGAR.

Most people would ask me, was it worth $160 per person (now $165)? Whether or not the drinks and small bites were worth $160 is debatable. The drinks are good and with all the food pairing, that's less than $16 per drink which isn't too bad. On the other hand, most people wouldn't drink ten cocktails in a row or spend $165 on drinks. But the experience is something worthwhile, just like Alinea in my mind was not just a meal but an entire experience. So if you have the money and time to spare, just sit there, enjoy your drinks and your surroundings, peruse the food and mixology books on that tiny shelf behind the kitchen table. Just take it all in.

The Aviary
953 W Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 867-0110
The Aviary on Urbanspoon



Wow - thanks for documenting this really cool experience. Were you stumbling out of there after all those drinks?


Not quite, but I was very very close to it :)

Joshua Lurie

10 cocktails is out of control, Fiona. Very impressive that you were even able to keep track of what was in front of you, especially by the end. If I end up going, I'll probably stick to a beer cocktail and "cold chocolate," and some small plates.


This sounds like A LOT of fun! I love getting plastered ;-)

Kung Food Panda

I'm jealous. I really want to check out the Aviary on my next visit to Chicago.


So after Kitchen Table, will we be hungry? Considering options post-cocktails ... thanks!


Hi Parafille
I think the Kitchen Table is certainly not enough for dinner so you should look for some post cocktail options!

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