Serious Eats: Chicago
Knockout Noodles: The Aviary's Trio of Ramen
Since the Kyoto menu took over at neighboring Next in mid-September, The Aviary has taken part in the occasion by presenting select styles of housemade ramen to supplement its regular menu of small bites. (There is also a series of Japanese-inspired cocktails available lifted from next door's current beverage program.) Three different broths, each combined with housemade noodles and a unique array of ingredients, are currently on offer: dashi, shoyu, and tonkotsu. The soups are the work of chef Andrew Graves, who reportedly developed the recipes over months. Admittedly coming late to the party, your KO Noodles correspondent finally made it over to The Aviary to sample all three.
Before getting into the nitty gritty here, I should say that I don't think any restaurant should approach ramen lightly. For both internal and external reasons, it places a lot of demands on the kitchen. Internally, it can be—when done right—long and complicated to prepare (a broth might simmer for days before it's ready to serve), and the ingredients need to be top-notch. Externally, a restaurant is inviting a very particular kind of scrutiny when it enters the ramen game. Ramen obsessives don't like the object of their affection trifled with; to them, charlatan ramen is like a disease that must be expelled from the body that is the dining landscape.
So it was with fluctuating levels of wonderment, eager anticipation, and suspicion that I sat down to try ramen, of all things‐this sloppy, loud, workingman's sustenance—at a place that specializes in avant-garde cocktails. But I probably should have known better that this team, headed up by chef Grant Achatz—for whom the feat of absorbing, mastering, and expertly re-presenting a cuisine has become a recurrent (and star-collecting) practice—would not falter when ramen, of all things, was the problem to solve.
As you might expect, ramen service at The Aviary is handled quite differently than at your average noodle house. Much like the way it eschews normal cocktail bar practice by preparing the drinks in the kitchen, at The Aviary the servers bring out the ramen's solids in diminutive bowls that resemble, to my eye, the helment of a Spanish conquerer turned upside down. (All the ramens are $12, but the portion sizes are much smaller than what you might get elsewhere.) The bowls were specially designed with a curving brim to cradle a fork (that's right, no chopsticks or spoons to be found here) and allow for easy slurping. The bowls are set down on round coasters, and the broths are poured tableside from shiny teapots. It's all quite elegant and fun.
The shoyu ramen (pictured above; $12) was the most delicate of the three bowls. The perfectly balanced soy-based broth was complemented by fried shiitake mushrooms, a hunk of miso, bamboo shoots, and marinated cubes of tofu. The noodles, which are the same across all the ramens, are kind of impeccable. They've gone with a thin, narrow, and straight extruded noodle that, despite it slightness, has outsized presence thanks to a firm bite; a pronounced wheaty, and slightly garlicky, flavor; and very good broth cling. No gumminess, separation, or clumping going on here. They reminded me of the great noodles I had at Ippudo when traveling in Tokyo.
The dashi ramen ($12), which is served with daikon, braised kombu, and housemade kamaboko (fish cake), might be the sleeper hit of the trio. The roundness and complexity of the broth—ripe with umami and funky, intriguing fishiness—were impressive. I tend to write off fish cake because I've eaten too many with a blunt, manufactured flavor, but The Aviary's caught me off-guard with an unexpected freshness.
The tonkotsu ramen ($12) wins for biggest, boldest flavors. The broth, a rich, milky number that lingers on the palate, is the result of an hours-long simmer of pork bones. It's meaty, salt-forward, and nicely extracted. That pronounced saltiness does something very cool, too; it brings out a surprising sweetness in the tender slabs of marinated pork belly. Along with the comforting, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, this bowl is graced by plump soft-boiled quail egg, daikon, nori, and fragrant slices of green onion, which add a welcome element of pop and brightness.
The Aviary has really pulled something off with these dishes. They're clear reflections of the establishment's cool, functional minimalism (no additional toppings to choose from; no gut-busting amounts of noodles or broth; slurping is encouraged, but the bowl's design keeps it quiet). Even the flavors and ingredients, while feeling very adherent to archetypes, betray hints of the personality of the house. They're not copies but renditions. And mighty good ones.
The Kyoto menu at Next comes to a close on December 31, presumably taking the Aviary ramens with it into the culinary afterlife. In other words, time is running out on these noodles, and they're not to be missed.