Just before service on opening night for The Aviary, 40 of the buttoned-up cooks and servers militantly bellow out in unison, “Good afternoon, chef” in response to their leader’s greeting. There may be no other acceptable reply to when Grant Achatz says hello: In the world of chefs, Achatz is an A-list celebrity, vaulted to fame at his revolutionary three-Michelin-star Chicago restaurant Alinea.
Right now, he is psyching up his staff for the big New York City debut of his celebrated Chicago experimental cocktail bar and restaurant in Columbus Circle’s Mandarin Oriental. At 4 p.m. on the dot, one hour before the first diner arrives, Achatz and his partner Nick Kokonas toast the team, with Kokonas adding words of encouragement that bear a tinge of a warning: “Every time it gets comfortable, we’re going to make it more and more challenging,” he says.
Everyone clinks glasses on that note, positioned around the space’s lounge-like chairs that flank small tables better suited to snacking than a full-dinner affair. The room, 35 stories up, has what must be one of Manhattan’s most coveted views, tucked at the foot of Central Park’s Columbus Circle entrance as it sprawls 50 blocks uptown.
Tihany is behind the design here, which focuses on light wood, luxe golds, tans and serene blues, accentuated by a swirling light that overtakes the ceiling. The design matches the menu, sure to deliver gold flakes, truffle, and uni garnishes.
Once the evening’s first diners take seats, cooks are heads down in the glassed-in, open kitchen, while servers glide from table to table. But just before opening, it’s controlled chaos: Chefs are preparing dishes for a photo shoot and hotel guests take peeks past the large black curtain that blocks the restaurant from curious passers-by.
It’s understandable to want to know more about the hustle and bustle behind the curtain, which hides what is certainly not an average hotel restaurant. There’s no chicken club or shrimp cocktail on this menu. Rather, there’s the Not Ramen — Kokonas’ favorite dish — a mushroom consomme with housemade ramen noodles, nori, and a soft-poached egg. (The “not” part of the ramen is the fact that there’s no pork in the clean, light broth.) Or the signature Alinea Black Truffle Explosion, essentially a truffled soup dumpling-like ravioli, that Achatz and executive chef Dan Perretta brought back so that New Yorkers could try some of Alinea’s classic dishes.
“We try to steer people away from Cosmopolitans,” Kokonas says. That’s because a drink option here — created by Alinea’s star barman Micah Melton — could instead be the Wake and Bake, a coffee-tinged old-fashioned served inside a plastic bag filled with everything bagel-scented air.
“We try not to make it feel as serious as everyone expects it to be. Everyone looks at the Aviary as a bar that’s luxurious, and that’s the reason we give the cocktails fun and quirky names,” Melton says. “We just want to disarm people and make them feel comfortable.”
Servers get the run-down of who to expect on opening night as the first to try these curiosities: Eleven Madison Park co-owner Will Guidara will come by — “Let’s show him a good time,” general manager John Schafer tells the staff — as well as the beverage director for Barbara Lynch’s restaurants up in Boston, an Amex exec, a celebrated French Armagnac producer, a chef from Connecticut, several couples celebrating anniversaries, large groups, and many other tables that don’t warrant a pre-dinner rundown. In the pre-service meeting, servers learn not only who each person is, but also who they’ll be with, why they’re there, and how they are to be treated.
There’s only so much that can be controlled, but damn if Achatz and Kokonas aren’t going to try. “Grant likes to be in control of the environment,” Kokonas says, poking fun at his business partner of nearly 15 years. This is the seventh opening they have tackled together — the second in NYC, with speakeasy-style The Office opening first in June behind The Aviary space — and they’ve been living in the Mandarin on and off for months to pull it off.
It’s a good reminder that the Aviary and the Office are hotel restaurants, and thus must soon offer all-day service. Eventually — “when we’re ready,” Achatz says — breakfast and lunch will begin, offering an Australian-inspired breakfast service with plenty of daytime drinks, both alcoholic and non.
For now, dinner is enough of a challenge. As the pre-service meeting wraps up, Schafer sends the team off to start work with an appropriately bird-themed motivation: “Let it fly.”
The Aviary is now open daily from 5 p.m. to 12 a.m., with hours eventually expanding to 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.