Category Archives: Food and Drink

Restaurant Review: Grant Achatz, Science-Minded Chef, Turns to Cloning

“Our Bloody Mary is very unique,” our server said brightly. “It takes about 15, 20 minutes to make.”

“Is it served … cold?” my friend asked, hope flickering weakly in her voice.

It was. A few minutes later, a relatively traditional Bloody was poured over many tiny ice marbles inside the bowl of what looked like a small spittoon. Around the spittoon’s broad brim were arranged five garnishes, or side dishes, or condiments, including chopped razor clam with celery sorbet and a little pillbox of horseradish jelly.

When we were alone again, she sighed and said, “I was hoping for a glass.” The Aviary’s Bloody Mary, by the way, costs $ 38.

We had come to try the daytime menu the Aviary recently introduced after two months or so of nighttime-only business.

While the drinks gave us a bumpy ride, all was smooth once we embarked on the three-course, $ 45 lunch, starting with a roasted squash soup and a salad. Both had pieces of fruit and vegetable that had somehow been talked into tasting like more than they were. Finally there was a sandwich of fried, buttermilk- and yuzu-brined chicken thigh with pickles and shredded iceberg lettuce on a bun with more sesame seeds to the square inch than I’ve ever seen. The dressing was a toasted sesame sauce, and, like everything else about the sandwich, it was excellent.

Apart from a fried pork rind the size of a dish towel, the items on the evening menu are generally wispy: a single, wonderful tempura shrimp with slices of yuzu-scented pear; an octopus croquette under streamers of bonito. There is one of Mr. Achatz’s earliest inventions, the raviolo filled to the bursting point with black-truffle broth. It is still a marvel. There was only one dish I did not like, but boy, did I not like it: cold pork belly in a bland goo of banana curry, sandwiched between flat discs of iceberg lettuce.

These plates run from $ 11 to $ 29. Two or three would make for an interesting postcard from the inside of Mr. Achatz’s head. Ordering the whole roster would leave you a couple hundred dollars poorer and no wiser, though. The menu is not designed for that kind of eating.

Neither is the Aviary, although it’s hard to say just what it is designed for. Deals between chefs and hotels invariably entail compromise, but Mr. Achatz and Mr. Kokonas may have given up too much here.

Sunk a few steps below the hotel lobby and dominated by a view of the Central Park skyline, the space is an awkward combination of destination and waiting room. Achatz devotees who paid for their spots weeks earlier through Mr. Kokonas’s reservations and guest-tracking service, Tock, may find themselves at curved leather lounge chairs next to hotel guests taking phone calls between meetings.

The Wake and Bake cocktail at The Aviary. Credit Cole Wilson for The New York Times

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.

You do get that sense when you enter the Office. The Chicago Office is downstairs from the Aviary; in New York it is behind a wooden door just past the Aviary’s cocktail-assembly station. Suddenly faceless hotel luxury gives way to a den of leather club chairs, parquet floors, clothbound books, manual typewriters, contemporary art, eccentric antiques.

The two Offices are usually called speakeasies. This one looks to me more like the library of stately Wayne Manor.

The theme is tradition. This being an Achatz project, the theme is pushed to its limits and beyond. Micah Melton, the beverage director of both lounges (in both cities), scours auctions and private sales for old bottles of spirits. Some of the older ones go here for $ 500 an ounce or more, straight up. Others are mixed into what the menu calls “dusty bottle cocktails.”

As a way to get rid of money, this is both alluring and appalling. I couldn’t bring myself to order a $ 475 old-fashioned stirred from bourbon bottled in 1969. But I couldn’t resist learning what happens when 75 grams of shaved truffle soak in a bottle of Chartreuse. (It’s fascinating, but not more delicious than untruffled Chartreuse.)

The short food menu appears to have been printed by letterpress. On it are a number of time-honored plutocratic pleasures, such as cold oysters, foie gras terrine, and a really fine and forcefully seasoned tartare of ivory-veined rib-eye.

Steamed mussels in cream with leeks and bacon are $ 35. If any pot of mussels is worth that much money, this is it. Vegetable crudités may sound like nothing. They’re very much something, a miniature forest of fruits and vegetables treated this way and that, then set on chipped ice with a dip — a harmonious, understated vadouvan-squash cream the last time I went.

The contortions that Mr. Melton and Mr. Achatz put liquor through at the Aviary are as imaginative as cuisine gets; they probably have more freedom than they would if the place were a restaurant. But rather than asking how a Bloody Mary, say, can be improved, or what its essence is, they seem to ask: How would the Aviary serve it?

The answer always seems to require equipment. The bird-all-the-way-out drinks especially 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.

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The Aviary NYC, The Office NYC

80 Columbus Circle

(West 60th Street)

Upper West Side

212-805-8800

Atmosphere The Aviary is a comfortably modern if generic hotel lounge; the Office does a hushed impersonation of a movie millionaire’s library. Service is extremely pleasant. Some servers are still learning the ropes, but there are a lot of ropes to be learned with any Grant Achatz endeavor.

Sound Moderate.

Recommended Dishes Aviary: black truffle explosion; octopus croquette; tempura Hawaiian shrimp; giant crispy pork skin. Office: mussels; salmon rillettes; rib-eye tartare. Aviary: $ 11 to $ 29. Office: $ 21 to $ 64.

Drinks and Wine The Aviary is inventive and the Office respects tradition, but both mix an array of cocktails that would be unimaginable anywhere else. Beer and wine are available, but beside the point.

Price $ $ $ (expensive)

Open Aviary: Daily from lunch until late night, with a one-hour late afternoon break. Office: Daily from cocktail hour until late night.

Reservations Accepted.

Wheelchair Access An elevator serves the accessible restrooms and the dining rooms, with some sunken areas reached by ramps.

What the Stars Mean Ratings range from zero to four stars. Zero is poor, fair or satisfactory. One star, good. Two stars, very good. Three stars, excellent. Four stars, extraordinary.

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NYT > Food

Weekend Breakfasts to Warm the Heart, and Belly

The 6 a.m. scene in my house today, on the other hand, is one of pandemonium. For some reason, it is just impossible to escape the perpetual cycle of washing kids, dressing kids, dressing myself, distracting kids with tablets, defusing fights, brushing hair, brushing teeth.

Fresh tarragon and parsley are chopped with capers and garlic for this salsa verde. Credit Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

It often falls to our 2-year-old, Flynn, to remind us that breakfast also needs to actually happen. “Downstairs, porridge,” he commands, with little need of preposition or adverb so early on in the day.

Stirring the oats, I smile to think of the automated breakfast machine constructed by the eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts in the film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” from my childhood, or the one Rosita Pig makes in the recent movie “Sing” to allow her to slip away from the morning routine for her dozen-plus piglets. Rosita makes me think of my mum, whose combination of extreme competence, composure and controlled urgency made breakfast happen so calmly and deliciously. As I sip my first espresso of the day, I look back in awe.

Having said all that, one thing I have learned from these early years of being a dad myself is that it is all too easy to set yourself up for failure on the parenting front. Constantly looking up to others, particularly your own parents, for some ideal standard of homemaking and nurturing is a trap that too many newbie parents fall into. The picture we draw of other parents is probably less than realistic and completely unachievable, but that doesn’t save us. It does not help to know that others aren’t perfect parents; we still want to become one of them.

Clotted cream is the perfect accompaniment for these maple-cardamom saffron sticky buns. Credit Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

My coping devise for this conundrum, at least on the breakfast front, is to concentrate my efforts on the weekend. Without the time constraints and general frenzy of work and school days, there is far less pressure to get things done in the morning. With this kind of freedom, I can spend time in the kitchen pretending to be my mother.

Getting started while the others are still bedded down under duvets, I make sure everything is just so, preparing food for ourselves, and often also for guests, which I wouldn’t dream of on a weekday morning. Recently, I have been cooking cheesy frittatas loaded with herbs and wintry vegetables like leeks, pumpkins and kale. I have been baking sticky buns and quick loaf cakes. I have been making crepes, pancakes and hot cakes, and I have been braising eggs in every sauce I can think of.

On weekends, as I sit around a table laden with the fruit of my hard work and surrounded by my nearest and dearest, what starts off as breakfast naturally slips on to lunch, without anyone noticing. Without the time constraints, any sense of parental guilt or domestic inadequacy vanishes into thin air. The day rolls along smoothly, almost effortlessly.

In fact, it’s a bit like riding a bike — without having to face the winter cold. NYT > Food