Made it to Aviary this evening...
Arrived at 5:30, 11th in line. Admitted about 6:15, with less than a dozen queued behind me at the time.
A terrific eating/drinking experience. The bites and drinks were of great quality. This isn't Black Truffle Explosion or a Maloney Negroni made by Toby during the heyday of the Violet Hour, but they are absolutely the next best thing and worth every penny. In particular, the size of the pours on the cocktails is significant. Service, while helpful and very attentive, was not exactly up my alley, but it will certainly only get better.
I was solo, which I expected to be less than ideal, and was asked if I wanted to stand in the cage to have a close-up view of the chef-tenders. I thought that was as good an option as any, and I certainly didn't want to take up a seating area reserved for a larger party. I didn't mind standing, but the show wasn't as exciting as I had expected. The chefs work with assembly-line efficiency. There are a lot of pre-batched mixes, such that it's hard to tell what's going on at any given time. Part of this may be down to some novel techniques that are being employed, but all-in-all the bar area was for the most part quiet and serene, dare I say a bit boring. Separated by several feet of bar, a walkway and the wire mesh decoration, the chefs were in their own world, and not particularly interested in or perhaps even aware that they had an audience. As advertised, there was no interaction with them. This drove home the point for me that Aviary is a lounge, not a bar.
Before I got too far into the menu, an amuse arrived featuring bourbon, grenadine, mint and "maple ice" (which was genius, by the way) and before I'd taken a second sip of that a pour of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year appeared (this, I'm guessing, as a result of my acquaintance with the chef). Here I met the first of a number of service quirks where I am probably one of very few people who would notice or care. One of the captains (not my normal server, seemed to be a higher level) brought out the bottle when he presented this and said something to the effect of, 'the 20 year aged bourbon from the Pappy Van Winkle Distillery'. Now, I'm not trying to be a hard ass, but such a place does not exist. If you're going to project an attitude about cocktails and liquor, I expect there to be a base level of understanding that you're building on, which was not yet on display here. If this had been the only instance of such a faux pas, I wouldn't even have mentioned it, but there were more to come.
Bourbon in hand, I was just starting to warm up from having waited in the cold for 45 minutes, but wasn't quite there, so I figured a Hot Chocolate was a good idea. It arrived in short order. So short, in fact, that I was still working on my amuse and the Pappy. The hot beverage demanded my attention, so I ended up rotating between the three drinks for some time. Not ideal, but I can think of many worse ways to spend an evening. The Hot Chocolate was smoky, beguilingly minty and rich. I pegged El Tesoro as the smoke (confirmed by my server) and Fernet was bringing it's minty-chocolate menthol goodness. The server inquired how I liked it, and I mentioned that the smokiness was profound, to which she replied, 'Yes, that's the Fernet. I didn't know what to think of it at first, but they say it's an acquired taste.' Now, Fernet is a lot of things, but smoky it is not. Later she claimed to have tasted every product they use at the bar, which is a little hard to believe. One doesn't tend to forget ones first Fernet.
The attentiveness of service was really something...so much so that it could certainly be misinterpreted as an attempt to increase sales/consumption. I'm sure they're still working on pacing, but with the speed at which the kitchen operates, there's really no need to be inquiring about the next drink when the first is only half gone. As it was, I was trying to pace myself, given the three drinks that landed on my table nearly simultaneously. But, with the frequency at which I was asked about what was going to be next I couldn't help but get the impression that I was taking up valuable real estate and should place my next order post haste. I took the opportunity to open a dialog and ask my server whether I should go for Pineapple or Ginger. Ginger, I had seen, was an absolutely gorgeous concoction, keeping one of the kitchen staff more or less fully employed, as he was preparing the multitude of garnishes for this drink and only this drink the entire time I was there...sadly, for the liquor snobs out there, the base spirit is lowly vodka. Pineapple, on the other hand, is crafted around Green Chartreuse, with Sanbitter and mint. My server pushed Ginger, hard. I ordered Pineapple.
But, first the captain arrived again, this time with the bottle of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye...there was some small talk, which was slightly strained given that he kept asking me technically nonsensical things like how familiar was I with the Van Winkle Distillery, while I smiled and nodded as I didn't really feel like getting into the minutiae of American Whiskey history at this point in my evening. Fortified as I was, I worked up the courage to inquire about the proceedings "downstairs". I was informed that they are not currently operating The Office, focusing their energies on getting Aviary up and running at full speed. Perfectly reasonable, but perhaps it was obvious that I was a bit dismayed. Seeing this, I was offered a tour, which I wholeheartedly accepted. But, first, Pineapple. If not for the Sanbitter, it would be Tiki-esque. More than anything, it reminded me of the Vellocet from Rogue Cocktails, but this was creamy and just a touch piquant. I love Green Chartreuse. If you do, too, you'll love Pineapple.
What can I possibly say about the Office? Well, speaking of Green Chartreuse...there's a bottle from the 1940s down there. That's all I needed to know to profess that I would happily slog ice up and down stairs or dutifully fill a spot in a line of shaker-boys a la Ramos for the chance to spend more time in that room. I've had dreams of buying a small little space and opening a 10-seat bar, operating by appointment only, where I can make drinks that I like for whomever I like...Grant Achatz beat me to it. I have no idea what it will be like once it's operational, but in the abstract it's the bar of my dreams.
While I'm not sure why you'd go to Aviary and order neat spirits, there is a list (which I haven't seen mentioned, so a snapped a quick photo). I inquired, and the Old Potrero listed is the 18th Century...a wonderfully harsh, oak-bomb of a 100% rye mash whiskey that shouldn't technically be called Rye.
Food-wise, I had the foie, wagyu, potato, crab, chowder and pork belly. The wagyu and potato were very good, as was the chowder. Foie was excellent, dessert-like almost, but pork belly and crab were standouts. The pickle and tomato with tempura battered crab was unique and playful, my favorite of the night.
ETA: Forgot about the "mignardise" cocktail, a mini Cynar flip. Nothing outlandish about this, just rich creamy, bitter artichoke with a bit of spice over the top. A bold, traditional (perhaps not in the grand scheme, but certainly compared to what came before) closer.