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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

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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Restaurant Review: Some Food, a Plate, a Room. That’s Enough at King, in SoHo.

A friend who has made herself a regular at the SoHo restaurant King sums up its appeal, with deep approval, as “food on a plate in a room.” This undersells the place — King offers much more than that — but she has a point.

The restaurant, which opened in September, is not a show-off. The dining room is small, tidy and nearly square, painted the pale color of butter in the winter. Windows stretching to the ceiling along the north wall look out on the dormered Federal townhouses of King Street. The facing wall is broken up with a single abstract painting, a doorway to the kitchen and a long opening behind which the four people who make up the entire kitchen staff can be seen at work. It is a room content with being just a room, and letting you focus on the people you’re with and the food that’s on the plate.

There will be papery curls of carta di musica before anything else arrives. Brushed with rosemary, this Sardinian flatbread shatters when you tap it. It will be gone in a minute, but it serves as a brief introduction to King’s culinary realm.

After this gift from the kitchen, an order of panisse may seem redundant. It isn’t. At King, these chickpea fritters are long, thin tongues that puff up like pommes soufflés and are scented all over by fried sage. They’re beautiful. They were on the menu last month, but they may not stay long.

 

King opened in September. Its two chefs are alumnae of the River Cafe in London. Credit David Williams for The New York Times

Nothing does. King’s two chefs, Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer, cook a different slate of dishes each night. The changes tend to be evolutionary, drawing from a fixed repertoire of ideas. The first time I had halibut there, it was grilled, and its skin had been deeply charred without drying out the rich white meat right under it. The plate was filled out with spinach and white coco beans soft enough to mash with a spoon.

The next time I ate halibut at King, it was poached, the beans were back and the greens had been replaced with small artichoke hearts simmered in white wine and amaranth. I’ll eat either dish again in a minute if the chefs give me a chance.

Their food borrows liberally from the home cooking of those parts of Italy and France where New Yorkers of a certain generation dreamed of buying a summer house. This style has gone out lately, but a few years ago it was the default for the breed of American chefs who led their staff in fava-shucking parties each spring. Ms. Shadbolt and Ms. de Boer practice an English variant of the style they learned in the kitchen of the River Cafe in London.

Anybody who’s eaten at that restaurant or has gone to bed with one of its cookbooks will experience occasional flashbacks at King. Polenta and almond flour go into a classic River Cafe dessert and into a different one that recurs at King. If you see it on the menu, especially if it is weighted with nectarines, pounce.

 

Halibut with small artichoke hearts and white coco beans. Credit David Williams for The New York Times

Chefs can’t get far on imitation. They need to understand the how and why of things, and Ms. Shadbolt and Ms. de Boer do. Once you get past King’s debt to River Cafe, what you really notice is how many little moves they know that can raise a recipe from good to exceptional.

Olive oil blended with nettles is an excellent sauce for boiled fingerling potatoes. What makes King’s even better is that a few fingerlings have been crushed into the purée, so from time to time you bite into a chunk of potato hiding inside the sauce. This was a side dish that traveled alongside a guinea hen, roasted whole with a bath of verdicchio in the bottom of the pan. Wilted nettles sprawled over its crisp skin. With a squeeze of lemon, it was one of the most appealing guinea hens I had ever come across.

If you eat at King often, you can see the chefs making subtle adjustments to keep flavors in balance. Ravioli under spring peas and raw pea shoots were filled with minimally seasoned ricotta one week. The next, the ricotta inside floppy tortellini got an extra spur from lemon zest. The citrus might have stepped on the sweetness of the peas, but it helped the tortellini, because the only competition on the plate was fresh marjoram.

And when some new seasonal ingredient appears on the scene, you can see the chefs strike like cobras. Saltwort, the salt-marsh-loving succulent that Italians call agretti, was the exciting foundation for a May salad built with wild arugula and raw ovals of asparagus stalks, making one of their first appearances of the year. Salty goldenrod bottarga was shaved over everything, even the white rim of the plate.

 

King’s two chefs, Jess Shadbolt, left, and Clare de Boer cook different dishes each night. The changes tend to be evolutionary, drawing from a fixed repertoire. Credit David Williams for The New York Times

To be won over by King, it helps not to expect things you’ve never seen before. Even those meeting saltwort for the first time will find that the rest of the meal looks familiar. What Ms. de Boer and Ms. Shadbolt offer is not a wild vision of new ways to cook but a solid vision of how to eat. They put pleasure at the table above gymnastics on the plate. For reasons I don’t want to understand, I associate this trait with other female chefs around town, including Rita Sodi, Missy Robbins, Gabrielle Hamilton, Sara Jenkins, Angie Mar and April Bloomfield, another River Cafe alumna.

At King, the vision extends to how to drink. Annie Shi, who superintends the dining room and is a third business partner with the chefs, can offer guidance with the wine list. She favors French and Italian producers, many of them not quite famous, whose wines gracefully weave in and around the cooking.

At the compact bar by the front door, cocktails are put together with the simplicity and respect for aperitif wines that you find in Italy. There is a kir and a sbagliato, which is nothing more than Campari and red vermouth on the rocks topped up with prosecco. These and other drinks slip into the bloodstream without knocking the palate out of alignment.

The desserts are cafe style. They don’t look like extraterrestrial landscapes but rather recognizable slices and scoops.

One of the few things at King that didn’t make perfect sense was a tiramisù; it went too heavy on the espresso and too light on the mascarpone. Every other dessert was just what I wanted, even when I didn’t know I wanted it. Chilled, thickened cream flavored with Pernod? I’m a fan now. I’m also a new convert to something called the Colonel. It’s a cup of lemon granita served with a tiny pitcher of cold vodka. You pour one over the other.

I have no idea why the vodka makes the granita taste better, but it does.