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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


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

North of Nordic: A Young Chef Invents ‘Neo-Fjordic’ Cuisine

One dessert at Lysverket is an ethereal cake made with almonds, chocolate and gjetost, the caramelized, spreadable goat cheese that resembles Latin American dulce de leche and is a national obsession.

To procure the ingredients he needs, Mr. Haatuft spends much of his time on projects like nabbing loads of fresh herring before they are sent to the central market (Norwegian fishermen are not allowed to sell directly to chefs), tracking down divers and hounding the region’s farmers to grow more diverse crops.

To ensure a steady supply of flavorful, fatty pork, he prodded his friend Anders Tveite, a chef turned farmer, to start raising Mangalitsa pigs, whose woolly coats allow them to live outside all year, even in these rough mountains, still snowcapped in early July. In advance, Mr. Haatuft promised to buy all the meat that the farm wanted to sell him.

“There just isn’t enough good produce to go around,” he said, crawling up steep strawberry beds at a farm in the mountainous Voss region northeast of Bergen. “It’s not like being at Per Se, where there are seven other farmers I can go to for organic produce if my guy doesn’t have what I need. This is it.”

Although the movement toward local, sustainable and traditional food is relatively new here — frozen pizza is the unofficial national dish, particularly the beloved cult brand Grandiosa — it is growing quickly. In addition to offering generous farm subsidies, the government now funds agricultural education, food start-ups and gastrotourism by aggressively marketing Norway’s seafood, its pristine terroir and its many accomplished chefs.

Tone Ronning Vike, a former journalist, recently moved her family from Bergen to run a centuries-old family dairy farm along the Aurland River with the help of a government grant. For the farm’s guesthouse, she buys potatoes from Norway’s only school of organic agriculture, goat cheese from the two remaining local farmers who produce it, and reindeer meat and mountain trout from Sami hunters and fishermen. (The Sami are modern descendants of the ancient people of Arctic Europe, and the only people in Scandinavia who are permitted to herd reindeer.)

“Norwegians already have a healthy lifestyle; we hike, we hunt, we ski,” she said. “But there’s still a lot of room for education about how to eat well.”

Ms. Vike, like Mr. Haatuft and virtually everyone involved in bringing better food to Norway, is concerned about how the country’s booming aquaculture industry fits in. Neither of them serves the globally popular product labeled “Norwegian salmon,” knowing that it is not wild, but farmed in the country’s waters.

Before setting off for nearby fjords and waterfalls, explore the cultural scene and Nordic cuisine of this beguiling coastal city.

Norway is the second-largest exporter of fish in the world, and seafood is the country’s second-most-valuable export after oil. About 70 percent of that export value is in farmed salmon, an increasingly controversial product. Even with modern technology and strict regulation, penned fish have mixed with the wild population, introducing catastrophic parasites like salmon lice. Pesticides, food waste and sewage have seeped into fjords and rivers. Millions of farmed fish have escaped into inland rivers, upsetting the ecosystem of spawning.

Many restaurants do serve farmed salmon, and both the systems and the regulations for aquaculture are getting tighter. “Norway is working strongly toward a sustainable aquaculture industry,” said Silje Lesjo, a specialist in local food for Innovation Norway, a government agency that provides support for high-tech businesses. Advanced aquaculture technology has also become a valuable Norwegian export.

The halibut served at Lysverket is farmed in one of these innovative systems — in pens built on land, a more difficult and expensive method, but one that does not affect the water or wild fish. And Mr. Haatuft works only with fishermen who pull in wild creatures like cusk, sea urchins, langoustines and mahogany clams — big specimens with thick brown shells that live for up to 400 years.

In a storage shed in Sotra, an island just off the Atlantic coast, surrounded by tubs of live seafood, Mr. Haatuft opened a salad-plate-size scallop, pulling aside the mantle and the roe to get to the plump meat. Slicing it up in the shell with his pocketknife, he relished the squirm and the salt water that made the flesh taste fully alive.

A few hours later at the restaurant, he grilled the scallops on just one side to firm up the muscle, then set off their sweetness with baby radishes and a bright, pleasingly bitter purée of nasturtium leaves. (Nasturtiums, like dill, sorrel, ransom, lovage and other pungent herbs, thrive in Nordic climates.)

One commodity in short supply in Bergen is sous-chefs, but Mr. Haatuft is not planning an active recruitment effort.

“Why would I encourage people to take a hard, hot job working 16 hours a day, when in Norway they could work seven hours in an office and still get free health care?” he said.

“I want the people who can’t do anything but cook, people whose only dream in life is to be a chef. People like me.”

NYT > Food