"Have you guys figured out a way to tell people about Sunday without sounding like you're bragging?"
It was a valid question posed by one of my friends a few days after the Sunday in question (April 10th). The consensus answer- 'No.' This was one of the coolest nights of my life, and there's just not really a way to downplay how fortunate we were to experience it.
Apparently securing an opening weekend ticket to Next didn't use up the entirety of my good luck for 2011. There was just enough left to somehow stumble into a tour of the underbelly of Next & Aviary led by Grant Achatz himself AND
end up sampling cocktails at Aviary during a friends & family test run.
Given the generous wine pours during dinner, details are a bit difficult to remember...this is a best effort recollection.
As we were finishing our coffee and tea, we asked one of the servers if we could see the kitchen. One of those 'it never hurts to ask questions' inspired by the fact that we'd seen a few other tables get up and go in that direction. The response was that they'd check and see what was going on back there.
Shortly thereafter we were led to the kitchen, and introduced to Chef Beran and Chef Achatz.
We marveled at the kitchen, as Chef Beran explained the duck press.
And thus, we shook the chefs' hands, personally thanked them for the meal, and snapped a couple quick pictures- perfectly content to end the evening on that note. But through some turn of events that none of us can explicitly recall, Grant offered to show us around the restaurant.
I'm positive the shock was visible on our faces. Somebody had the presence of mind to say yes, and we were suddenly following him downstairs to the prep kitchen, and then into the ice room. We were introduced to one of the of the Aviary chefs who showed us some of the things they were doing with ice- the hollow egg used for the In The Rocks cocktail, milk pre-frozen onto the side of a glass, cinnamon stock ice pellets, and some other custom molds.
Grant told us about the giant walk-in cooler that was too expensive to tear out, so it was left in. Humorously, its only current function is to chill glassware.
We were brought into the liquor stockroom, where he singled out a few rare spirits, and explained why they were excited to use them.
Throughout the entire tour, Grant's passion and excitement about these two projects was visible. He was eager to talk about the inspirations for rethinking the usual approach to bars & cocktails and willing to answer any question we posed. This was most evident in the science lab/office.
This machine is a Rotary Evaporator
...most often found in chemistry labs, here it was currently being used to extract a root beer essence.
The next stop was the speakeasy room, which will be called The Office. This is a completely separate drinking environment- invite or private party only. Drinks will be crafted by a bartender, armed with a variety of tinctures that will be on display behind the bar.
Grant stepped away for a moment, and then returned with a cardboard box full of glass jars containing tinctures. He opened up a couple of them for us to smell.
Finally, he led us upstairs into The Aviary, which was having a friends and family test run.
As you probably know, Aviary has no bar. Drinks are made by the chefs/mixologists behind this grate, and you do not interact with them.
There is a standing area, The Gallery, with a few tall tables at the entrance. The rest of the room is sit-down.
As Grant explained some of the ideas behind Aviary, this contraption was brought to the table:
It produced a warm rooibos tea based cocktail that was very comforting.
After finishing those off, we were told there was a table available for us, if we wished to stay for another drink. Not being fools, we accepted that invitation as well.
The chandelier, as viewed from our table:
This is the menu we were shown. Obviously, it might not be the menu Aviary opens with tonight, but it's probably close.
We looked over the menu and asked our fantastic server (whose name I unfortunately can't remember) for her recommendations- settling on a POPCORN, TIKI, and STONE PINE.
Before those arrived, an amuse was delivered to the table. It definitely involved ancho chile in the ice cube, probably had a watermelon element to it, and might have been built upon a cucumber infused vodka. Not particularly spicy, it was actually very refreshing...seemingly perfect for a summer's day.
POPCORN: butter, creme fraiche, rum
TIKI: macadamia, cinnamon (in the form of some 1,000 ice pellets), swizzle, batavia
STONE PINE: yuzu, elderflower, tequila
Our fourth party member wasn't drinking, so she ended up with the CHEESECAKE bite.
I suppose it's too easy to say that everything was delicious, so I'll try to conjure up some specifics. The Popcorn was creamy and buttery, though it never felt heavy or overly rich. The Tiki's inherent sweetness was nicely balanced by the cinnamon. I think I only had a sip of the Stone Pine...its presentation seemed to invoke a pint of beer, and there were been some hints to that in the flavor too...the tequila did not overwhelm the other ingredients. Actually, I think well-balanced is a good way to describe all the drinks- carefully chosen components working together in harmony.
The Cheesecake was a nice light (it may have been a foam), creamy, & sweet bite, with a little kick from the balsamic.
Chef Achatz sat at one of the tables behind us, seemingly relaxing after a long day, but also continuing to work. Craig Schoettler would bring various drinks and bites to his table, and then sit down to discuss them.
As midnight neared, our server informed us that that would be closing time. Since it was a friends & family test run night, everything was complimentary, but she would still bring a bill to a table to fully simulate a normal evening. We left a tip equal to the service charge listed on the receipt, thanked Chef Achatz for the hundredth time that evening, and stumbled out into the night- giddy from an amazing meal, an unexpected tour, and extraordinary drinks...feeling like four of the luckiest people in the world.
"Ah, lamentably no, my gastronomic rapacity knows no satiety" - Homer J. Simpson