Like New York critics before him, New York Times critic Pete Wells was not dazzled by the first-ever New York City project from Alinea’s Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. The Aviary and the Office, a pair of bars that first opened in the Alinea group’s home city of Chicago, get a tepid two stars from Wells inside their second location at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
Wells says the Aviary and the Office are “undeniably expressions of Mr. Achatz’s aesthetic, with his fondness for Rube Goldberg devices, audience participation, old ideas tilted off their usual axis and novel ideas launched into orbit.” In Chicago, Achatz and Kokonas took the same approach to cocktails as they did to food at Alinea, “a world-renowned gastronomic playpen where chefs send out fried chicken liver mousse made to look like volcanic ash, and where patrons suck the helium out of green apple taffy balloons,” as Eater NY critic Ryan Sutton describes it. Cocktail innovations, like the Porthole, which let guests watch infusions as they occurred in the glass, broke new ground.
But, at the Aviary at the Mandarin Oriental, the familiar aesthetic doesn’t translate to excitement. At the more adventurous of the two bars, “there’s no sense of arrival, nothing to suggest you’re entering the domain of a restaurant group that has always refused to do things the usual way,” Wells writes.
Drinks were both good and bad. The Science A.F., which Wells presumes is a reference to microbiologist Alexander Fleming, “took about five minutes and produced something that tasted like the fruit punch that might be served at a convention for designated drivers.” Wells admires the flavors of the Wake and Bake, but not “being asked by a server to stick my head inside the inflated plastic bag in which it is served, to see that it really did smell like an everything bagel.”
The Office, the Aviary’s classics-focused counterpart, was more impressive. “The two Offices are usually called speakeasies,” Wells writes. “This one looks to me more like the library of stately Wayne Manor.” But, the luxurious atmosphere comes at a cost: older spirits are as much as $500 per ounce. The food, also pricey, was worth the money, according to Wells: “Steamed mussels in cream with leeks and bacon are $35. If any pot of mussels is worth that much money, this is it.”
In Chicago, the Aviary is a defining experience, but in New York, this isn’t quite the case. Wells compares the two bars to magic tricks: Drinks at the Aviary “are like elaborate magic tricks with metal boxes into which the beautiful assistant will vanish. Somehow, the boxes upstage the assistant. The cocktails at the Office are more like close-up card tricks. My favorite is: Mix me a drink and I’ll make it disappear.”
• Grant Achatz, Science-Minded Chef, Turns to Cloning [NYT]
• Look Inside The Office, Alinea’s Ultra-Luxe First NYC Venture [ENY]
• Inside the Controlled Chaos of The Aviary’s Opening Night [ENY]
• The Aviary Lacks Alinea’s High-Flying Thrills [ENY]