Back(b)log: Roister and Aviary – Chicago, IL
Updated: Dec 15, 2022
One of the evenings I missed writing up in the shuffle of my big move out west was a combo dinner and cocktail night during Chicago Pride this summer with my sister at a pair of spots owned and operated by the Alinea Group, Grant Achatz's Chicago empire headlined by the three-Michelin-starred restaurant of the same name. What better day to post it than Throwback Thursday!?
Aviary, a cocktail bar offering experimental and often showy tipples in Chicago's Fulton Market district, has been around a while, and is an extension of the work done at Alinea––ingredients are presented in unexpected ways and combinations and drinks often have an element of showmanship. Beneath Aviary is The Office, my preferred of the two spaces, which is more a la carte in design and lets the expert bartenders take the reins. Since my first visit to The Office with some wealthy Chicagoans with whom I shared a meal at the now-shuttered 42 Grams, I have been to Aviary or The Office at least a dozen times, and despite a caché that doesn't always match the quality, it keeps me coming back, and I always have a good time.
Roister, meanwhile, is one in a small diaspora of Alinea Group restaurants that have opened in recent years just down the block from Aviary. "Roister" is an obscure English word meaning "to enjoy oneself or celebrate in a noisy or boisterous way." Achatz's goal with this restaurant was to present classic, often wood-fired comfort cooking in a hip, buzzy, elegant setting. Accolades for the restaurant, which held a Michelin star from its opening until 2019, seem to have fallen away a bit since the pandemic, but I'd heard enough legendary tales about their food to give it a shot.
All of the Alinea Group joints, with the humorous exception of Alinea itself, aren't the most hospitable places. While the service is usually good, there's definitely an air of exclusivity (and prices to match) that's palpable, from the reservation system to the host stand to the table service. Roister is perhaps the most low-key, and once we got past the bouncer-like host stand and settled into our spot at a bar table overlooking the open kitchen, the warm welcome from the waitstaff set us right at home. Even more wonderful was that I soon recognized the man leading the pass in the kitchen as Grant Achatz himself.
Georgia and I selected two appetizers to frame the legendary main course––first was Roister's take on a Caesar made with a dressing loaded with smoky black pepper and topped with brioche croutons, crumbled bacon, and veritable avalanche of parmesan. A dip of aged cheddar rillettes was Georgia's request, complete with aromatic truffled cauliflower purée and puffy fry bread for dipping. Decadent comfort food at its finest.
The dish everyone talks about at Roister that rocked the Chicago food scene five years ago is their chamomile-brined fried chicken. In a heaping pile of chicken breast and thighs, the expertly-fried bird came with ramekins of chicken gravy and house hot sauce. I gotta say, it was every bit as good as advertised, the thighs in particular being my favorite.
We added some glazed carrots with curry powder and yogurt as well as some "Robuchon-style" potatoes loaded with so much butter that not all of it could absorb into the mash. The potatoes were stupid, and Georgia and I fought both over them and over the decision to order another bowl.
Liquid dessert awaited us just around the corner at Aviary. The most economical way to enjoy Aviary's whimsical menu is to go for their three-cocktail progression at a set price of $75. This allows you to pick some cocktails that might be cumulatively a shade more expensive than the fixed price without the guilt, and a cocktail here can run you north of a breathtaking $30.
I was sorta dismayed to be sat not in the posh main room, but instead at the high tops next to the literal cage that separates the kitchen/bar from the foyer. Not an Aviary in name only, I suppose? Though I always appreciate a backstage view, with people passing through every couple minutes or lingering near the table, this was not exactly an environment consistent with the luxury of the establishment.
Your only job is to pick three cocktails, and the menu progresses from top to bottom in order of refreshing to spirit-forward. On the opposite page is a charming collection of little birdies that indicate the level to which the drink involves a show, though this was the first time that piece of information was shared with me in all the times I visited. The further away from the drink's name, the more presentation-oriented the drink. They bring the cocktails in three courses, and offer bites to pair, but after our roistering at Roister, we were good on food.
Round one offered us the fruitiest and lightest of our cocktails, with Georgia settling on Aviary's take on a frosé (it was still summer, after all, for those of y'all shivering!). The bird was the closest to the name of the cocktail here, so there was really no presentational pizazz with this selection, though the combination of ingredients was delightful.
I have always appreciated Aviary's cocktails that include savory ingredients, so I zeroed in on the "Great Pearing," made with, of course, pear, whiskey, and a chanterelle mushroom tincture. The presentational element was a popsicle combining pine nut and yuzu, which melted as you drank, infusing the liquid with the popsicle gradually and changing it over time. Sadly, the ingredient combination wasn't as compelling as it looked on paper.
Of course, you could also take a bite or lick of the popsicle, but upon withdrawing it I decided such an action would be... well, much too lurid for a public setting.
Round two brought us a bit deeper into the spirits, as well as more into the show. Mine came in a clear teapot with dry ice, so it resembled a boiling pot of tea, and was poured into a classic extravagant teacup complete with saucer. The (chilled) drink, "Don't you sassafras me," was made with sassafras tea and the aromatics of root beer as well as peach and rye whiskey for the most delicious boozy chilled tea you've ever had.
One of the classic presentations at Aviary involves one of these transparent canteen-like devices in which aromatics steep in the cocktail's liquid so that the flavor develops and intensifies as you pour and drink. You can always find a cocktail served in this device on the menu, and this time the jaunty "I'm blue (coco confit in my chai)" got the treatment. Made with blueberry, Meyer lemon, coconut chai, port, and gin, it was one of my favorite installments of this presentation.
Round three, and here we have the most spirit-forward selections. Georgia went for another classic presentation, called "In the rocks," which is a standard stirred cocktail you'd normally serve on big ice, but instead is served in big ice––a ball of hollow ice with the drink inside, this time a scotch-based boulevardier, with a little slingshot taut against the rim of the glass meant to be pulled back to shatter the ice. While this is a great presentation, I've seen it enough times for the magic to be pretty diluted. The boulevardier, however, was very good.
My third drink is a strong contender for cocktail of the year. Called "Hermoso," the tumbler arrived what looked like a sea chest full of cigar smoke, which wafted out beguilingly when the box was opened. A simple concoction of añejo tequila and assorted liqueurs of coffee and orange awaited me inside. An absolutely outstanding drink, graced with the subtle sweet smoke of smoked tobacco in every sip.
I'm glad I got to try Roister for the first time, particularly with the magical surprise of getting to watch Chef Achatz expedite, and was, as expected, quite taken with the fried chicken (and the butter with potatoes in it). Conversely, while I had a handful of good drinks and one exceptional tipple, I find the magic of Aviary has mostly deflated for me. Once you know all the tricks, it's hard to be surprised by them, which, like Alinea, is half of the point. The drinks are good but rarely transcendental––the show is what makes it exciting. So, I likely won't be flocking (Iol) to Aviary anytime again soon.
Having said that, if you find yourself in Chicagoland and haven't been to Aviary, you must go. It's a hell of an experience, especially for a large group––get enough people to try every drink on the menu and go to town. Just come visit me at one of the barstools in the basement at The Office, where you may find me sipping a truffle old fashioned one night this holiday season.