There are many things I like about the Aviary. Of course, I like the drinks and the food. I always like spending time with the wonderful people who work there. And I like the feeling of watching the Aviary grow and change, from opening weekend, to the development of tasting menus, to the introduction of the Kitchen Table. It’s fun to know that with each visit, there’s the chance to experience something new.
Then, a petite Rhubarb, light and tart, with ice made of Peychaud’s bitters. I hadn’t before realized that the ice was pink because of the bitters; discovering details like this on the second or third try is another reason to keep coming back.
A classic Pisco Sour arrives next. I never really liked Pisco Sours until I had the Aviary rendition, which is perfectly balanced and has just the right amount of lime and light-as-air egg white foam. After this, it might be one of my favorite drinks. With it came a bite of briny “chowder”, a fried ball filled with a soupy center.
The Ginger has been on the menu since day one, but it’s now made with finger limes, so there are clusters of tiny, juice-filled cells that crunch and pop like tobiko – a surprise in an otherwise familiar cocktail.
The Dark and Stormy is wrapped in a paper bag, a tongue-in-cheek presentation that really stands out against the meticulous elegance of the other cocktails. It’s a little silly, but it does make me smile. The drink itself is the first Dark and Stormy that tastes like the ones I had in the Caribbean – very spicy, a little sweet, and generous with the rum. I’m a big fan of whoever makes the Aviary’s homemade ginger beer.
Next to appear is a small Scots Pine. It’s always amazing to me how tequila, yuzu, and elderflower can end up tasting like beer, but they do. Perfect with salty, creamy potato bites.
|Dark and Stormy|
The Bitter is presented theatrically, with glasses upside down atop a smoldering barrel stave so they fill with smoke, before a cocktail of cognac, amaro, and apple brandy is poured in. To me, the residual faint aroma of wood smoke evokes sense memories of winter nights in the mountains at Tahoe.
Rooibos appears next, its complex apparatus now familiar. I wonder if it will stay on the menu into the summer, since “comforting and tea-like” probably isn’t a profile most people look for in hot weather. On a cool spring night, though, it’s lovely to sip.
|Rooibos being prepared|
The Rooibos serves as a transition into dessert, along with the subsequent course, a small glass of New Glarus Belgian Red served with a bite of brioche. I hadn’t heard of New Glarus before; it’s a small brewery in Wisconsin that doesn’t distribute outside of the state, so having it in Chicago is considered a treat. The Belgian Red, made with Door County cherries, is tangy and complex.
|New Glarus Belgian Red|
The bright and sparkling Rootbeer (fka Sassafras) does a good job of waking up the palate for the home stretch. We lingered over this course a bit, sipping slowly to let the vanilla-infused ice melt into the drink.
By now, the area outside the cage was crowded with eager patrons and orders were coming in quickly. The atmosphere in the kitchen remained cool and confident – no panic, no stress, no mistakes. I found it a little disconcerting to have strangers pressing up against the wire of the cage to peer inside (or against the window); I suppose it’s something the chefs get used to ignoring quickly.
The final course is Cold Chocolate, the frozen milkshake cousin of the Hot Chocolate. The inside of the glass is coated with an icy layer of something creamy and vanilla, and a cold mixture of chocolate, tequila, and fernet goes into the center before being topped by frothed milk. It’s a decadent way to finish the meal.
All that remains is a miniature final cocktail, a Cynar flip of sorts, which everyone at Aviary receives at the end of their visit. Ours was delivered along with a menu commemorating our Kitchen Table experience, which listed this course as the “Lagniappe”. No, that’s not the name of the drink, as I thought it might be; turns out it’s a New Orleans word that roughly equates to the thirteenth donut in a baker’s dozen, a little something extra. Considering that I can divert myself for hours looking up etymologies in the OED, perhaps discovering a new word was the perfect, unexpected way to end the tasting.