At its best, Aviary has only two ingredients: simplicity and surprise. Though the constituents in a crisp-skinned Japanese eggplant ($9) at the spare, white-walled Alberta Street restaurant might hop three continents—flavored with a tomato miso, aji amarillo and dill—really it's a play between the deep, savory notes of carefully managed eggplant and the satisfying crunch of miniscule rice pearls.
A slow-roasted goose ($17) with papaya, maitake and chocolate mint had far too many ideas on the plate, but the fried chicken-skin salad is unexpectedly elegant, with tiny cubes of watermelon acting as bright sauce for big bits of crunchy, chewy skin over lightly smoky baba ghanoush.
Our 2012 Restaurant of the Year's signature dish of crispy pig ear ($18) is at its heart simple herbs and rice, except for the complexity of the mint-coriander-shiso greens and that nutty crunch of pig ear.
But the most impressive item on chef Sarah Pliner's menu—the ownership has also simplified, from three chefs down to one—is pretty much a combo plate of meat and cheese with a side of broccoli raab, like they do it in Jersey. Originally made for a dinner devoted to wineries owned by members of hair-metal bands, the octopus ($23) is a standout revelation. Pliner brines that thick tentacle for 12 hours, then slow-braises it for six into an almost unheard-of tenderness. The octopus is then flash-fried to crisp up its edges and served on raab in its own curried jus. The cheese, meanwhile, is a gushing ricotta pudding that's like a lava cake made of dairy—bitter and sour and sweet and impossibly creamy. Mix the two kinds of tenderness together and all else stops. You're convinced, somehow, that you've discovered a brand-new combination: meat and cheese.
Eat: Experiments are always rewarded, but there's nothing quite like that octopus, and nothing quite like the crispy pig ear. Use them as anchors for improvisation.
Drink: At its heart, Aviary loves liquor. Slip into Grandpa's Sweater, a subtly smoky mix of tobacco, Scotch and the caramel notes of Amaro Nonino liqueur.
Most popular dishes: Tempura green beans and charred octopus.
Noise level: 55/100
Expected wait: Aviary is beautifully spacious, with plenty of hidey-holes in the rear bar and a patio that opens out in summer; you can drift into a bustling restaurant and usually score an immediate seat.
Who you'll eat with: Equal parts middle-aged couples and early-30s smart set.
Year opened: Aviary opened in 2011, burned down, then reopened in 2012.