by Mike Sula
I generally don't make a practice of doing restaurants' public relations work for them. When a new place sends out its menu, I like to leave it to others more skilled in the art of cut and paste. But last night Grant Achatz e-mailed the menu for the Office, the superexclusive invitation-only bar in the basement of the Aviary, and while food bloggers across the land were busy fantasizing about the $25 sundae for two and the $65 foie gras terrine, I sat pondering the cocktail list. The drinks certainly look interesting, incorporating unusual ingredients such as tonka beans, lovage, and corn husks, but the prices are higher than any other cocktail lounge in town.
While most of us will never access the Office, Achatz himself is nothing if not accessible. He was kind enough to quickly reply to a few follow-up questions explaining the steep prices. What he said after the jump.
I think $20 across-the-board sets a new (ahem) bar. I realize it is an exclusive space, but are you ready to tell us anything more about the cocktails that might explain that price point?
Achatz: "While I understand it is the natural assumption to look directly at the $20, especially with the association to Alinea and the Aviary being on the high end of their respective categories in Chicago, I will say a few things.
Aside from the room's exclusivity, which you mention (and I also agree) the ambience and size adds value, I also think that the $20 mark is not out of line compared to some other establishments in town, specifically given the quality of ingredients we are using to craft the cocktails.
-The Elysian $15-16 cocktails
-Rebar Trump Tower $17 cocktails
-Peninsula Bar $15-16 cocktails
-Drawing Room $15
-Even the Palm Court at the Drake has cocktails for $16.50
I do feel that the service we will provide in the Office will be at the level of Alinea, which also adds a certain amount of value, even before the gratuity.
Going back to the drinks themselves—from a product standpoint, our "well" would constitute many places' higher-end products; from small-producer cognac houses to defunct bottlings from the late 80s to allocations. The back bar consists of highly allocated bottlings and one-offs. Not to mention rare Chartreuses (vintages going back to the 40s), very very Old Fitzgerald, Knappogue Castle, etc. We have about 30 different syrups, 165 different tinctures, eight different fresh juices, five different fresh herbs to complement our drinks, as well as house-made custom ice that is hand chipped and/or molded in Japanese press molds. The drinks are served in actual period-piece antiques that we sourced from outlets around the midwest.
The cocktails themselves are flavor combinations you can't buy in a bottle. In other words, the Office is the only place you can experience these drinks. They are created with idea of perfuming, flavoring, and balancing the drinks in a way that precedes the pre-Prohibition-style drinks that have become very popular today.
All that being said, in my mind, it is the the cost of using the quality of the ingredients that we are that requires us to charge more then $12 a cocktail.
The food menu is intentionally vague. To give you an idea of what we are offering, I will go through the items.
-The caviar is sustainable osetra from Uruguay served with house-fried Yukon Gold potato chips and Kendall Farms creme fraiche.
-The shrimp cocktail is served with house-made cocktail sauce, celery hearts, and Belgian endive.
-Foie gras terrine is grade-A Hudson Valley foie gras, garnished with toasted brioche, black truffles, frisee salad, and black mission figs.
-The Iberico is hand sliced from the bone-in leg and served with pan con tomate and toasted and salted marcona almonds.
-Morels Semeta is a classic speakeasy dish of morels cooked with shallots, thyme, and sour cream served with grilled bread.
-The beef tartare is a 50-50 mix of Wagyu strip loin and dry-aged USDA prime beef with rye toasts and traditional garnishes.
-Ice cream sundae is house-made vanilla ice cream and hot fudge sauce with quintessential garnishes of candies, whipped cream, and cherries.
All of the food items were selected from research on classic speakeasies in New Orleans and Chicago."
Is there any reason drinkers in the Aviary can't order drinks from the Office's menu?
Achatz: "Yes. The experiences are totally different by intent, not to mention the ability to produce the drinks in the Office are formulated on the fact that we only have 14 seats, compared to 70 upstairs. There is one bartender manning the drinks in the Office, meaning he is fully consumed with his 14 guests (there is a bar, so he not only has to produce drinks but chat and be social as well). If we opened it up to another 70 he would get crushed. Plus we would have to transport the drinks upstairs, which takes time (reducing control of dilution rates and overall quality of the cocktail) and manpower to move the cocktails, plus..... the aesthetics of the glassware in the office is inherently antique where upstairs the identity is clearly progressive. It seems like it would clash on many levels....."
So there you have it, and here's the menu.