I had planned on simply going home after work, going to the gym, consuming a microwaved frozen burrito and going to bed. But an e-mail popped up in my inbox with the innocuous subject line: “Hello! Dinner?” It was from some friends we hadn’t seen in far too long, and they meant dinner tonight, and dinner at the most exciting restaurant in the city: Next. The gym could wait.
In case you’ve missed the blizzard of press, Next is the new restaurant of Grant Achatz, the internationally celebrated chef of Alinea, ranked by some as America’s best restaurant. When Chef Achatz actually met the exceedingly high expectations of the media and Alinea fans, what became a difficult reservation to secure became well-nigh impossible.
Needless to say, we jumped at the chance to go. Unfortunately, it was a casual day at work, and I had tossed on a pair of jeans and a three-year-old polo shirt. I made an emergency run to H&M at the mall at lunch and picked up a shirt and some khakis, costing a total of $32 (a small fraction of the price of one meal at Next). I hoped it would be dark, so that the fold marks wouldn’t show.
I should have been more worried about my underwear. The pants I hastily tried on were a bit too tight, and when I entered my car to head downtown, I ripped a hole in the crotch. Hooray for that H&M quality. I resolved, like a proper gentleman, to keep my legs together at all times throughout the evening.
We arrived about 40 minutes early for our 7:00 p.m. reservation, and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to have a drink at The Aviary, Chef Achatz’s over-the-top cocktail bar next door. The concoctions here more closely resemble the theatrical, high-wire cuisine at Alinea than run-of-the-mill high-end cocktails.
After the doorman/bouncer allowed us to enter, we passed a drill team of bartenders (mixologists? sous chefs? chemists?) preparing the required herbs, infusions, ices and fruits behind a dramatic metal lattice. In the almost too-chic lounge, patrons relax in silvery-grey banquettes, sipping liquid molecular gastronomy in hushed appreciation.
We placed our order, expecting to have a good 25 minutes to savor our $18 drinks. But just then, a voicemail from our friend alerted us that our reservation at Next was actually at 6:45, not 7:00. Yikes! Our very accommodating server rushed our cocktail order, and her less-accommodating manager offered to walk us over to Next when our table was ready, cocktails finished or no. (Delaying the reservation by 10 or 15 minutes did not seem to be an option.)
I ordered a Rooibos, which contained “lavender, almond, vanilla, gin,” as well as red rooibos tea. In this labratory-chic presentation, a gas burner heated a small flask of gin, which was connected to a cylinder filled with colorful herbs, spices, peels and rooibos. The heat created a vacuum in the upper cylinder, sucking up the gin. When our server released the top, breaking the seal, the gin drained back down, newly infused with flavor. The cocktail had the texture of tea and wonderful aromas of vanilla, orange and almonds. Despite its smooth flavor, the heady vapors ensured the alcohol content was never in doubt.
My companion ordered the Dark and Stormy, a favorite cocktail of mine with rum and ginger beer. The menu’s description was simple: “Bottled, Ginger, Black Seal Rum.” The presentation was cheeky. In stark contrast to the chemistry set bubbling away next to me, my companion received a glass bottle in a crumpled brown paper bag. Our server removed the bottle cap, explaining that the Dark and Stormy was “house brewed, house bottled and house bagged.” I thought the presentation was pretty risky, but my companion had no trouble drinking right from the bag and bottle. And I must admit, it was probably the best Dark and Stormy I’d ever tasted.
We drank rather more quickly than we should have, though not fast enough for the watchful manager. The moment my glass teacup was drained, he was ready to whisk us to our table next door…
Molecular gastronomy in cocktail form. A great opportunity to experience this style of dining without raiding the kids’ college fund.
The Aviary: 955 W. Fulton Market, email@example.com. Walk-ins encouraged. Reservations accepted only via e-mail for the same day at 6:00, 8:30 or 11:00.