Since the last time I was in Chicago, two cutting-edge venues opened right around the corner from each other in the West Loop area: The Aviary from Grant Achatz of Alinea—next to his aptly named Next restaurant—and iNG Restaurant from Homaro Cantu of Moto, which is also nearby. I scored a reservation for The Aviary at 8:00 and showed up early to try one of the famed “flavor changing cocktails” at iNG. I sat at a long red counter in the stark minimalist space and selected a Smoked Manhattan, made with Bulleit Bourbon, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters, with a rinse of Arbeg single malt Scotch, which is the “peatiest and smokiest of all the Islay malts,” according to the whisky’s website. The cocktail was indeed smoky.
My husband Jeb and my friend Kenan arrived, and we were handed the list of flavor changing cocktails, along with a bowl of cranberry cheddar popcorn. Head bartender Mario Catayong explained the concept behind this special menu: First, we sip our drinks to experience the original flavor, then we pop the “miracle berry” pill and let it dissolve, coating our mouths with the protein miraculin, which comes from a small African fruit.
The pill suppresses the tongue’s sour and bitter taste receptors, making the flavor of the cocktails change. To provide a sharp contrast, Mario gave us some lemon wedges, which tasted like hard lemon candy after taking the miracle berry pill. We ordered our cocktails, and Mario prepared the drinks in a laboratory-like room with a red porthole window.
I couldn’t decide between the Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie or the PB&J, but eventually opted for the latter. The cocktail featured Frangelico, rum, crème de cassis and vertjus (a tart green grape juice), served in a Martini glass with a rim of caramel and crushed peanuts. It was nutty and salty-sweet, but the flavor didn’t really change much after taking the miracle berry.
Kenan had the Skinny Margarita Under a Tequila Sunrise, which mixed Tequila, lime and orange juices—sans sugar—served with a “pipette” dropper. The sourness was definitely subdued, allowing the sweetness to come through.
After my friend Leah showed up, we sucked down our drinks and headed to The Aviary. Thankfully, the host was able to accommodate a last-minute addition to the party of three. I recognized the space from its old days as a bottle service-style nightclub called The Office. The current décor is a vast improvement, though it’s a little more “luxe hotel lobby” than “contemporary cocktail lounge” due to the high-backed booth seating, pewter upholstery and crystal chandeliers. No matter—we were there for the drinks, not the design. Instead of a bartender manning a bar, chefs prepare the cocktails in a kitchen that’s sectioned off by a steel fence.
The libation list is divided into two parts—à la carte cocktails and a three-course tasting menu. Since most of the drinks cost around $18, I went for the $45 prix-fixe (I’m always looking for a deal). The server delivered a complimentary round of amuse-bouche and glasses of water, each containing a single large ice shard—one of the more than 20 different types of ice used to cool and flavor the drinks. Our cocktails came out almost immediately. For my appetizer course, I chose the Quince, a light carbonated concoction of Pisco, quince juice and ginger syrup, served in a soda bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. Leah selected the Chartreuse, which comprised three small servings of Green and Yellow Chartreuses mixed with blueberry, honeydew and pineapple juices and chilled with mint ice cubes, presented in a Chartreuse V.E.P. box on a bed of fresh herbs.
Kenan ordered the Oolong, which is a mixture of gin and pear brandy that’s heated in a two-tiered glass beaker over an open flame at the table, then steeped with tea, herbs, nuts and dried fruit. Science!
Jeb got the infamous In the Rocks, which is an Old Fashioned inside a sphere of ice that must be broken using a mini slingshot. (I would have taken a photo, but The Aviary doesn’t allow flash photography, so I had to sneak shots when the staff wasn’t looking.) My main course was the Peach, a bold blend of wheat whiskey, white Port, peach purée, maple syrup and sweet annie, served in a highball glass filled with tiny frozen Angostura balls.
For his second drink, Jeb opted for the Cranberry, made with 12-year-old Bourbon and cranberry ice cubes, topped with chervil foam. It was very pretty.
And finally, my dessert course was the sweet, fizzy Cream Soda, a “distilled” combo of aged rum, Licor 43, vanilla and vanilla ice—Ice Baby!
The bill totaled $136 (tip included)—well worth it, in my opinion. In fact, I’m going again in December!
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