The music bounces with the slink and strut of an art gallery opening. Friends sip wine, mingling at the bar and on the covered patio. Some things at Aviary have changed. While others certainly remain.
If you want to get to the heart of the differences at Aviary, just look to the business’ full name. The descriptors “shop” and “décor” have evolved to “wine” and “kitchen.” When Marco Fiorilo opened the space now bookended by fellow 2006 opener Bird’s Barbershop and 2009 arrival Black Sheep Lodge, there were probably more garages and mechanics on South Lamar Boulevard than restaurants. To wit: the lot across the street that housed a business that could change a flat tire in 10 minutes is now home to Loro, an Asian smokehouse led by two James Beard Award winners.
Times have changed, and Fiorilo realized he needed to change with them. In the years following Aviary’s 2006 opening, the economy stagnated and online retailers began to proliferate. Fiorilo and culinary director John Coronado (the Cipollina veteran partnered with the founder six years ago) eventually decided in fall 2017 to transform the funky décor shop where regulars sipped wine into a full wine bar and restaurant. While a bold move, the conceptual shift was not completely shocking. The few times I visited Aviary last decade, I was almost always there to drink wine and hang out with friends instead of shop. The aimless vibe of the crowd, a blend of musicians, art freaks and neighbors, always gave the place a unique Austin feel.
The fact that the name Aviary remains is both a smart business move and one that makes poetic sense. While it once reflected a fanciful place to shop to help decorate your nest, it now evokes a coziness that brims with an energy bumping right up to taking flight. The general public may have trouble wrapping its collective mind around a genre-defying retail space, but a kitchen putting out flavorful and artful plates and a bar serving intriguing and hip wines, who doesn’t want a piece of that?
Executive chef Andre Molina, formerly chef de cuisine at Intero, does a lot with a little, challenging diners' expectations of a tiny two-man open kitchen in a wine bar. Discs of black radish twist upward like columns from a pool of viscous black garlic aquachile. The root vegetable also twirls across the ivory dish like breaking waves crested by colorful nasturtium leaves floating over opaque medallions of scallops ($16). A juicy glass (or is that a tasting pour?) of pert organic Mocine Alba Bianco ($13) flowers to find harmony with the crudo’s tart blackberry notes and envelop the dainty scallops’ oceanic burst.
There’s not a bacon-wrapped date, bowl of mussels or slider in sight (though there is a decadent cheeseburger served only on Mondays). A bittersweet almond mole colors a seared cauliflower steak and accompanying florets with its velvety embrace ($8), tendrils of cilantro adding to the Mexican appeal; and a buttery root vegetable pave, balanced with the tingle of mustard seeds and bitter microgreens, separates like an accordion at the press of the fork ($9). Smoked oysters add their robust flavor to a creamy sauce that turns a Germanic potato salad into a unique beachside picnic dish ($16). The experimentation can get a bit wonky, as with broccoli that soaks up a runny cheddar cheese foam ($7) almost to the point of steamed mush.
Not all of the dishes challenge wine bar culinary conventions, with some putting slight twists on the expected. Chicken-fried oyster mushrooms and plum colored flags of fried prosciutto lifted with excellent homemade buttermilk dill hit you in the comfort-food pleasure centers ($9) and ubiquitous beets get a punch of blue cheese ($7). What’s the best wine to pair with that? The friendly and knowledgeable bartender may steer you toward a glass of Gregoletto Verdiso ($11), just crisp enough cut through the pungency of the cheese. She may also inform you that the same wine can stand up to the pistachio buttery richness of a crackling seared piece of meaty tilefish (how did that they do that in that tiny kitchen?), the excellent dish the menu's only one that creeps above the $20 price point ($24).
The service at Aviary hums with a familiarity and professionalism that blends chill neighborhood vibes with upmarket restaurant precision. But no amount of charm or studiousness could distract us one night from what were shockingly small wine pours. That organic orange wine that we ordered with the crudo? I’d estimate it was about 3 ounces. And it’s hard to care if the red fruit, spice and slight barnyard funk of a Domaine Douloufakis Liatiko ($9) is a good fit for oversalted and indelible barbecue turnips ($8) and greens (though the nutty rutabaga puree was wonderful) when you see glasses pass your table with an ounce or two more juice in them than yours.
Our server one night agreed that a pour looked skimpy, but suggested that it should (not “does”) meet the “4 or 5” ounce standard. An extra sip was not in the offing. I’m not trying to be a lush and I’m no mathematician, but the difference between 3-and-half ounces and 5 ounces is considerable. I couldn’t tell if I was being intentionally punked, taken advantage of or if it was just an honest mistake. Glasses the next night were closer to 5 ounces (I had given up hope on the generous 6 ounces you might find elsewhere), which the bartender eyeballed against measured glasses filled with uneven salt levels behind the bar. I understand that an ounce here and an ounce there can add up to thousands of dollars over a year for an independent business likely operating on slim margins, but everyone wants to feel like they are being treated fairly at every turn.
Such perplexing behavior can distract from the exciting, mostly European list curated by beverage director Alex Bell. Of course, you can forego the perceived pour problem by simply ordering one of about 100 bottles from the roster packed with organic and boutique options. In keeping with the whimsical and creative spirit long cultivated at Aviary, the list is separated by the characteristics associated with famous entertainment figures. Twinkly and sparkly “David Bowie,” who lights up the senses, may hold a bottle of Domaine Rieflé Cremant d'Alsace Brut Rosé ($56); the “Etta James” section, sultry, rich and sexy, features bottles like an Omero Pinot Noir from Oregon ($62); and the timeless “Willie Nelson” is home to vintages like a 1995 Caves Sao Joao Poco do Lobo from Portugal ($75) and a 1996 Borgogno Barolo Riserva ($275). The creative descriptions and playful categorization make the wine list accessible and entertaining for oenophiles and newbies alike.
The sense of fun that imbues the wine list resonates throughout the space, from the electric robin egg blue walls to the pop-art Last Supper depiction and the lusty, rock 'n' roll cherry wallpaper in the bathroom. It even finds itself into the dessert offerings, the kitchen delivering a deconstructed take on a candy bar, one night a Ferrero Rocher. The smooth, toasty notes of hazelnut and dense chocolate were almost enough to keep me from poring over the pours.
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