Posts Tagged ‘Modernist Cocktails’

Spur ~ Seattle

Posted 24 Sep 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining

It’s a Wednesday night and I am sitting at a table in the dining room at Spur in Seattle with Chef Dana Tough, a true culinary professional and rising national star. Tough, whose boyish looks betrays tremendous talent, and co-chef Brian McCracken opened Spur in Seattle’s Belletown neighborhood in 2008 and have never looked back. Within the first year they built a reputation for an innovative approach to modern American gastronomy.  As I sit with Dana, a black and white image of the canals of Amsterdam is projected via an LCD projector on a whitewashed interior wall. The room is dimly lit and the projected image casts a classic European tone in the room. It makes me feel cool and jazzy, relaxed and hip. Dana laughs and tells me that on other nights he projects black and white spaghetti westerns on the screen much to his customers delight. I am here to eat and to talk innovation and we are off to a good start. Staring at Dana I wonder if, perhaps, the most innovative thing about Spur is its leadership model.

It’s About Leadership

Spur has two head chefs. It’s very rare to find a restaurant where two chefs, side by side, ply their trade and achieve greatness without a train wreck of ego and rivalry. Sitting here I am subtly observant, seeking evidence whether the two chef model works at Spur. Halfway through our meal Chef Brian McCracken comes in and stops by our table. He is smiling because it’s his birthday. Dana smiles back and shakes his hand. The authenticity in his smile and genuine professional regard between the two leaves me amazed. Having two chefs in one restaurant is unprecedented. Most restaurants have a hierarchy with one chef at the top serving as pack leader and a bunch of followers below. Spur thrives because McCracken and Tough collaborate and the restaurant bubbles with a positive atmosphere and happy yet hardworking staff. That McCracken came into the restaurant on his birthday to say hello and have a drink suggests that Spur is more than just a business, it’s a passion. I can tell he loves the place and that Dana and he respect the hell out of each other. Real collaboration is
innovative in the restaurant business.

It’s About People

If innovation is about problem solving, one problem Spur has is that it is extremely busy with no room for growth. In turn, McCracken and Tough talk about the launch of Coterie Room, a new restaurant venture adjacent to Spur. The “McToughen” team as they are known in Seattle have three restaurants (Spur, Tavern Law, Coterie) with no expectation of slowing down. Both speak about the need to find pathways for advancement of their talented staff members and expansion provides new opportunities for all. Innovation not only includes outright rejection of the old-school brigade system for a higher form of collaboration, it includes a concern for growth and personnel, quality of work life and advancement.

It’s About Food and Drink

Dana heads back to the kitchen and I start down the path of nine courses randomly selected from the menu. Spur defines the modern American Gastropub and may have in fact invented it. Each dish that arrives is perfectly portioned, and dynamic with a modernist aesthetic. I start with a beautiful foie gras terrine with rhubarb, rose and sorrel. What follows includes eight additional masterfully prepared courses and several fresh, craft made cocktails. Execution is excellent save one protein that may have been in a thermal circulator for a bit too long. Flavor progression is nice even though the items Dana selected are a mix and match of the a la carte menu. This tells me that the overall menu is thoughtfully designed. The food exceeds my expectations and Dana and Brian do as well.


Foie Gras Terrine, Rhubarb, Rose, Sorrel


Tomatoes and Melon

Big Eye Tuna Crudo, Caviar, Avocado, Radish


Veal Sweetbreads, Bing Cherry, Corn, Lemon Verbena


Corned Duck Breast, Stone Fruit, Chanterelle, Leek


Parisian Gnocchi, Turnip, English Peas, Truffle


Waygu Sirloin, Cauliflower, Baby Artichoke, Almond Gremolata


Strawberry, Vanilla Cream, Rhubarb Ice Cream


Chocolate Torte, Bing Cherry, Peanut, Sorrel



113 Blanchard Street,

Seattle, Washington, 98121


Aviary & Office ~ Chicago, IL

Posted 26 Aug 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining, Food Alert Trends

Cloudy Grey Chicago

It’s one of those warm comfortable yet rainy evenings when the air is dry enough to evaporate within minutes the droplets that rest on the surface of my lightly moistened blue sport coat. I am in Chicago and the sun is straining to break through the smoky gray clouds just over my head. Out of pure luck and a true comedy of errors I unexpectedly find myself in line just outside of Aviary, Chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas’ widely regarded gastro-bar on West Fulton Market. It’s a Saturday night and I am alone surrounded by a group of polished, beautiful people waiting to enter the hippest bar in the country. They have reservations. I do not.


Outside Aviary & Office

It’s a funny story really. A friend and I agree to meet on short notice in Chicago for a quick drive to Iowa for some personal business. He departs his airport at 5:00 pm and I depart my airport at 5:00pm, we assume our arrival times are identical. I land at 6:00 pm and text him to see where he is and find that he hasn’t left yet and is just arriving at his airport. For a split second I am confused then I laugh. Like knuckleheads we both failed to take into consideration the time zone difference between us. His 5:00 pm departure will put him in Chicago at 8:00 pm; I now have two hours of precious time to spare. We both joke via text at our mutual lack of mindfulness. Shortly after he texts me back and asks which airport I landed at, O’Hare or Midway. Of course I am at Midway and he is headed to O’Hare which is 45 minutes to the north. This is getting ridiculous. I agree to grab a rental car and head north to O’Hare to meet him.  Thirty minutes later I am headed out to route 55 on my way to O’Hare when he texts me again, he’s delayed for two hours and wont land until 10:00 in the evening. Now I have just over three hours of found time to kill. Without hesitation I key the address for Aviary into my GPS and head into town (admit it, you would do the same).

The Bird Cage at Aviary

I pull to the curb on West Fulton Market.  Aviary is around here somewhere. There is no sign, nor is there a street number on the building that I can see. The line of people standing in front of an entrance to a brick commercial building at the corner of West Fulton Market and North Morgan Street clues me in.  Walking the wide sidewalk lined with hard plastic seating and neatly trimmed arborvitae, I approach a gentleman keeping watch just in front of the door with a clip board in his hand and a secret service ear piece in his ear. The doorman asks for my name, scanning his reservation list. I give him my name and inform him that I don’t have a reservation. He smiles and radios in to dispatch that he has a single walk-up at the door and departs to speak with the next group of guests. Fifteen minutes later I am inside sitting at a large high-backed upholstered banquette surrounded by the same beautiful people who were waiting outside with me just moments ago.

Cocktail Kitchen

Aviary is dimly lit inside. The interior is sultry, minimalist, and sexy more than romantic. To the right of the entrance is a steel cage with seating on one side and the kitchen on the other, this must be the bird cage. The space is chic, modern, monochromatic, and runs with a steady air of exclusivity and the prices to go with it. Like Alinea, there’s a prix fixe cocktail menu (3 drinks for $45) and drinks sold a la carte. The range of cocktail options is wide, from a classic Margarita with agave, Fresno chili, and rare tequila to a contemporary peach cocktail with maple sap, angostura, white port, and wheat whiskey. Food selections are limited to a list of ten “bites” which are actually small hors d’ oeuvres sold in groups of three (between $3 and $5 each).

A Peek at NEXT

I order the Margarita to get things started and it exceeds my expectations. The balance between the sweet agave and sour lime is contrasted by the time-released heat of the Fresno chili which is encapsulated in ice cubes and blends in as they melt. The more you drink,the less liquid in the glass, the greater the proportion of melting ice, the spicier the drink (how cool is that). And that’s the point. Aviary is an amazing place because it is so well thought out. From the mysterious unmarked exterior to the polished high-end interior, Aviary reflects a deep level of planning and design. The kitchen and cocktail preparation area is unlike any that I have seen right down to the custom stainless work tables and curved drink wells. Innovation is manifest in every corner. I take a few more sips of my drink and set it aside (I have to drive later and need to take it easy).

The Secret Door to Office

After sampling a few “bites” I wrap things up and get ready to leave in an effort to remain conservative with my spending (one problem with Aviary is that it is ridiculously expensive). My server stops over and inquires whether I would like to visit the private, invitation only speak-easy located in the basement. It’s an offer I can refuse. The “Office” is a classic sixteen seat masculine feeling, leather and hard-wood bar and a stark contrast to Aviary. Taking a seat at the bar, I initiate what becomes an hour long discussion with the bar tender while sampling two more cocktails. I order a plate of Oysters (Island Creeks from Duxbury, MA) and they’re served with a plate of six essential oils in small glass bottles with stoppers. The essential oils are a simple innovation that adds tremendous flavor to the oyster without spoiling such a pure, flavorful food.

Island Creek Oysters, Essential Oils

Time running short and my wallet is now empty so I head back up the stairs and out the door. Reflecting on my time at Aviary and the Office it strikes me how well organized, efficient, and profitable this little corner of the culinary world is (including Next which is right next door). It isn’t a secret that running a fine dining restaurant like Alinea isn’t the most efficient way to make money. Aviary, the Office and Next absolutely are. Just as Alinea was a laboratory for Achatz to exercise his culinary genius, my guess is that Aviary, the Office and Next were deeply influenced by Kokonas’ expertise in making money, something he proved as a commodities trader in Chicago. Over the next 24-36 months Achatz and Kokonas will be flush with additional financial resources generated from the successful business model Aviary, Office and Next have become. With all those resources, I wonder what they will come up with next.

The Office Bar


 The Aviary & Office

953 W Fulton Market

Chicago, IL 60607

(312) 867-0110