While Chicago's attention has been focused on the modernist cocktails at the Aviary, Grant Achatz's new temple of liquor excesses, something has been brewing next door. iNG, the younger sibling of chef/scientist Homaro Cantu's acclaimed moto, opened earlier this year, and they just rolled out their cocktail menu. As you would expect from a Cantu "production," normal cocktails aren't enough. These are "flavor tripping" cocktails that change from one drink to another while you are drinking them.
The cocktails are only served on the patio outside of iNG, so watch the weather. They are like no other drinks I have ever experienced. Aesthetically, they are both interesting and attractive—a "gin and tonic on the rock" is served in an Erlenmeyer flask with a frozen sheath of lime-juice ice around the outside. Many of the drinks have multiple parts: the "hot toddy & arnold palmer" consists of a teacup, a teapot and a flask with ice, tubing and water. It's almost overwhelming for the first time visitor, and you have to trust that they will walk you through it.
For that has always been the genius of moto and iNG—the staff isn't pretentious at all. Brewer (and part-time mixer, chef and server) Trevor Rose-Hamblin glided into the restaurant, carrying his bike, and started mixing and talking. Rose-Hamblin knows his business, and his normal gig is head of ING's brewing program—the restaurant serves house-made "nano-batch" beers. Rose-Hamblin reminds us that, at iNG, it's not all about the show. "We want to make them taste good, not just look good."
The basic concept of the cocktails involve the "Miracle Berry," Cantu's favorite toy. This African berry changes the way you perceive flavors. After you take it, sour things taste sweet—you can, for instance, eat an entire lemon like it's candy. This means that the miracle berry is both an opportunity and a challenge for chefs, who can create dishes like never before, but have to be sure they taste good both before and after taking the berry.
iNG (which stands for Imagining New Gastronomy) takes full advantage of the effects of the berry. The staff refers to the experience of being on the berry as "tripping"—which is a bit off-putting, but thankfully, the berry has no effect on anything other than your taste buds. A gin and tonic becomes a screwdriver, as the lime turns into a different flavor. A hot toddy becomes an alcoholic Arnold Palmer. A margarita morphs into a tequila sunrise. And with every drink, the flavor before is as good as the flavor afterward. In fact, this leads to the only major "problem" with the cocktails. As Rose-Hamblin lamented, "they taste so good after you start tripping, customers guzzle them down!"
Each cocktail is served with a portion of miracle berry (either in powder or pill form), and you are supposed to drink some of the drink, take the berry and then finish the drink. Along with the berry, you get a slice of lime or lemon, just to try out the full effect.
It took the mixing team, led by mixologist Mario Catayong, a full week of 12-hour days to get these cocktails right, and they are the first to admit they are still playing around with the recipes. Flavor tripping cocktails will run you between $10 and $15, which isn't bad considering that the Aviary, next door, is charging up to $25. Even better, "flavor tripping snacks" (also designed to morph with the berries) are complimentary.
It's unlikely you'll be able to stop after the cocktails. If you make reservations (or come on a slow night) head inside for a few bites. The regular cocktail menu, while not as "exciting" is no slouch—we were particularly taken with the "Black and White," a mix of bacon-infused bourbon, black pepper maple syrup and cinnamon.