One of our favorite things about being back in the Midwest is our close proximity to one of America’s greatest cities. Arguably, it’s the second most urban, vibrant, and food centric-although I’m sure some West Coasters would disagree and I’d probably just simply say it is in the top 5. In any case, we have been to Chicago twice in 2011, once in the frigid temperatures of January, and just recently over the long labor day weekend. This post will by no means cover all the places we visited, nor all the discoveries we’ve made on these two visits. To set our Chicago agenda, we compiled huge lists from friends and websites like Eater and Serious Eats that report recent happenings in the food world.
I’ll begin with two places which are probably on the top of the list for any serious, adventurous, intellectual “foodie” traveling to the windy city. Grant Achatz’s highly acclaimed Alinea and his new cocktail lounge, The Aviary. (We didn’t get into NEXT, so if you were hoping to read about that, you can stop here.) We were actually lucky to get into Alinea (getting called on the drive up after being on the wait list) on our January trip. After learning about his new cocktail lounge, it was a major priority on our recent visit.
Walking into the restaurant, for someone who appreciates style, is in itself rewarding: subtle, crisp lighting, steely colors, and crisp accents. Contemporary, and in every sense-beautiful. We didn’t have our Canon EOS Rebel T3i camera at the time, so I’ll apologize for the somewhat uninteresting photos. There is really too much to say, and write about in such a large post. It almost deserves its own complete blog post, although in some ways reading too much about this experience would in my view partially spoil the fun for someone planning to go…so, I will be brief. It is probably one of my top 3 meals of all time. The combination of artistic presentation and complex flavors is essentially unmatched to anything we’ve had in a US restaurant to date. I think one of our favorite things about Alinea was the interactive nature of the service and the playfulness of each dish. They challenge you, yet, your mouth is always happy at the end.
A few of the highlights below: On the left the second level of an “Orb” that contained Rabbit parfait, rillette (in picture), and consomme. On the right, the final dish, when Grant himself came to a table prepped with cups and bowls, and painted this wonderful mixture of liquid nitrogen frozen chocolate, nougats, and chewy morsels of caramel and malted balls.
Wine pairings are a challenge for a Sommelier at a restaurant like this. In some cases too many complex flavors and unique textures can make pairings difficult. We had some really outstanding glasses of wine with our meal. The highlight being the Sherry we had with the dessert: Toto Albala Don PX Convento, Montilla-Morilles-Spain-1959. It is always humbling to drink something made well before your birth. This glass of sherry was fascinating in itself, surprisingly smoky and tart, and really needed no accompaniment. We are both excited about Grant Achatz’s new restaurant called NEXT, where one needs tickets and each meal is themed on a different time period or culture.
1723 North Halsted
Chicago, Illinois 60614
The Aviary is one of the most remarkable cocktail lounges we’ve ever been in, and probably now is considered Chicago’s and perhaps even America’s best. [Although we also loved Violet Hour which we attended on our first trip, and I’ll mention more about that below]. The way Aviary works is that you either need a reservation, which you obtain by emailing prior to the day and randomly get selected into time slots, or you show up at opening and hope you get in, on a first come first serve basis. We showed up at 5:45 pm on a Sat night, eager and ready, and we were in by 6:30. Again, Grant knows design, and it is no different at The Aviary. Excellent lighting, minimalist lines, and no distractions. The Aviary has no bar, so to speak, just a caged in kitchen that you can peer into and watch the drinks parade by as they are each carefully constructed.
Robin ordered the Prix Fix menu which comes with 3 drinks from a large selection of choices, I ordered al a carte. I started with a Hurricane: which came non-traditionally in a carafe beautiful layered into 7 distinct colors. Robin began with the Margarita: agave, fesno chili, tequila. The chili was frozen into the ice cubes.
Top: Aviary’s kitchen. Bottom Left: Small bites available as trios.
Bottom Right: Peach: maple syrup, angostura, white port, wheat whiskey
Our next cocktails were the Peach (above) and the In the Rocks. The “In the Rocks” includes demerara, angostura, and bourbon, but trapped into an ice sphere that you break- tableside in the glass to release the cocktail. While this was certainly fun, the cocktail itself wasn’t much more interesting on the palette than a many other whiskey drinks I’ve had in other places. The final round consisted of myself having a ”Truffle”: compari, sweet vermouth, gin, infused w/ truffle, (Below right) and Robin drinking a Cold Chocolate: ecuadorian chocolate, fernet, and wheat bourbon. The Cold Chocolate was kept chilled with solid, yet creamy ice cream cubes. We spent a total of 3.5 hours in The Aviary, enjoying each sip, people watching, chatting with our servers. We didn’t even touch the menu…there are vast selections of cocktails to chose from, and part of the fun was watching to see what your neighbor is opening or interacting with. The small bites are just as delectable and carefully planned as the food at Alinea. Any trips to Chicago in our near future will certainly include The Aviary.
953-955 W Fulton St
Chicago, IL 60607