A restaurant that has been disparaged, or has received wobbly reviews at best, has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Aquavit was such the underdog.
I like underdogs.
Needless to say, expectations have a lot to do with one’s dining experience. Regarding Aquavit, mine were heavily guarded, which probably explains, in part, why I was floored by my recent meal there. Far and away, that lunch left a deeper impression on me than any other meal I had on my recent trip to New York.
But bested expectations shouldn’t undermine the worth and merit of the food. This is especially true of Aquavit, whose food, on this occasion, proved the restaurant deserving of every accolade and praise it has received. Everything was perfect; not a single flavor ran askew, no texture was misplaced, temperatures were spot-on, and presentations were beautiful.
Admittedly, I’m a complete Scandiphile; especially when it comes to the cuisine, which I adore. (I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that I’m also partial to Japanese cuisine; I’ve long held that the Japanese and Scandinavian cultures/aesthetics/cuisines are the counterparts of each other in their respective continents.)
And, I’ve long admired Chef Marcus Samuelsson and have cooked out of the Aquavit Cookbook numerous times with great success (see Horserasdish-Crusted Char with Curried Mussels; Dill-Crusted Char with Pinot Noir Sauce; and Pickled Asparagus Salad). So, I’m not sure why I had bothered positing much importance in the many reports condemning his repertoire as being outdated.
I mean, why should that matter? I understand that novelty, which was the appeal of Samuelsson’s “modernized Swedish” in America circa 2001, wears off. But good food is good food. Who cares how old the recipe/concept is? Jean Georges’ “Signature Tasting Menu” hasn’t changed for years; but it’s still one of the best menus around.
And really, how far can a chef run with ethnic cookery before it becomes completely unmoored from its origins? One can only wander so far from the mother cuisine before one has drifted into completely foreign territory. Aquavit is unapologetically Swedish.
Others have cited Samuelsson’s absence from the kitchen as particularly troubling. I’m not sure that this matters either. Sure, there’s a certain cachet to having *the* chef at the helm. Understandably, it pads one’s experience with an extra layer of comfort and confidence. I fall prey to such sentiments.
But, whether the chef’s presence makes one’s meal any better is debatable. The truth (and I know this, but must remind myself from time to time) is that a well-trained staff should operate at a consistent level regardless of the chef’s whereabouts. I don’t know if Chef Samuelsson was in the day I ate at Aquavit. But, judging by our meal, he must have a very well-trained staff.
Although I toyed (briefly) with the idea of ordering á la carte, for a first-timer, the five-course lunch Chef’s Tasting seemed like a no-brainer. Not only does it include some of Samuelsson’s signature dishes, many of which I have read about in his cookbook, but at $58, it’s a very good deal. The wine pairing is an additional $30.
I love the simplicity of Swedish cuisine. Maybe that’s why I never tire of gravlax. At Aquavit, it is exceptional.
Thinly cut, the waxy, yet supple fish is piled on a bed of cold fingerling potato salad (very lightly dressed) and sided by two sauces. One was a sweet Port wine reduction, the other was Samuelsson’s famous espresso mustard sauce. Neither are particularly or traditionally Swedish (although the Swedes love their coffee, I suspect the espresso is an expression of Chef Samuelsson’s Ethiopian roots).
But, the elements and flavors of Swedish cuisine were there, down to the crisp flatbread on which I stacked the gravlax. And, herein lies Samuelsson’s ingeniousness. Borrowing Mario Batali’s self-described approach to Italian cuisine, I would say that where Samuelsson’s cooking isn’t authentically Swedish, a Swede would recognize it and, more importantly, accept it as Swedish. They would like it too.
The other thing I like about Swedish (and Japanese) cuisine is that although the components of a dish may intermingle, each element remains distinct throughout. Flavors are clean and compartmentalized. Our third course in the tasting, a lightly hot-smoked filet of trout (ruby or sea, I’m not sure which) on a bed of sunchoke puree, is a good example.
Barely cooked, the fish had the consistency of custard and just was slightly perfumed with smoke (not sure what kind of wood was used). As if this wasn’t brilliant enough, the fish was topped with silky enoki mushrooms and finished with a subtly sweet-tart warm apple-horseradish broth, poured table-side. It was a concert of flavors that could be picked apart, or enjoyed as a whole. I could see this dish being equally satisfying in the summer as in the winter.
I have read the recipe for the “Lobster Roll” many times. Now that I’ve had it, I know that it’s worth making at home. It’s actually quite simple: lightly-dressed lobster salad is rolled in tissue-thin sheets of pickled Asian pears.
This lobster roll is certainly not from Maine, and, it’s not quite Japanese. I’m sure it’s not entirely Swedish either. But, as noted above, it sure seems like it could be.
With the lobster and pear, the roll was subtly sweet on its own. But, the composition is wonderfully balanced by briny trout roe and salty, smoky, bacon lined on top. It’s accompanied by a swatch of the creamiest and most satisfying “egg dressing” imaginable – a cross between sauce grabiche and mayonnaise. For added giggles, this dish is chased with a shot of ginger ale granita spiked with aquavit.
The foie gras ganache, a side item to the duck course, was exciting. Actually, that whole course was.
The log of duck breast meat was pink and tender. More importantly, it was adhered to a layer of flavorful fat sheathed in crackly skin.
The celeriac puree seemed logical. But I couldn’t make sense of the shiitake mushroom – until I cut into that foie gras ganache. Together with the duck, the coupling was incomprehensibly good (I think it was beefy shiitake plus the sweetness in the foie gras that did it for me). Foie gras and shiitake with duck and celeriac may have be the least Swedish course of our meal, but if I were a Swede, I’d be proud to claim it as my own!
Describing the foie gras ganache is easy: think molten chocolate cake meets foie gras. (The recipe (for eight) begins with half a lobe of foie gras and 3 sticks of butter. I’ll stop here before we all have a
Describing its effect is difficult. It may be impossible. On the one hand, it acted like a sauce for the duck. But, really, the duck (and everything else) was an accompaniment to the foie gras. It was sweet, yet savory, creamy – almost milky, yet cakey in some parts. It was surprisingly light. It was *magic.*
The lunch Chef’s Tasting progression was thoughtfully-paced. The meal started with a bright clean Beau Soleil oyster on a half shell topped with a lingonberry jam. Then two “cold” courses preceded two “hot” courses, interrupted only by that icy shot of ginger ale granita spiked with aquavit, which cleared the palate for the nuanced and more delicate flavors of the trout course.
Service was notably seamless and efficient. It wore comfortably for a mid-day meal.
Wine pairings were surprisingly enjoyable and drew upon an ecclectic assortment of bottles. Dr. Konstantin Frank, Rkatsiteli, 2006, an off-dry fruity white wine made in the Finger Lakes district of upstate New York from Georgian (the country) vine stock worked particularly well with the Lobster Roll, magnifying the flavors in that course. That was my favorite pairing. Just a shade less successful, but still very memorable was the Barrel 27 Sryah, 2005, whose spiciness cut a clean tunnel through the richness of the duck and foie gras.
Normally, I sample as many desserts as possible. But, I couldn’t object when everyone at the table wanted the “Arctic Circle,” the restaurant’s signature dessert. Our server couldn’t object either.
Frozen goat cheese mousse, lemon curd, and red currant sorbet aren’t the most exciting things to have made it into a single bite. But they sure come close. At the very least, the combination makes a lovely dessert. I especially appreciated that it leaned more heavily on tartness than sweetness. And, for a warm late-spring day, it was an appropriately light and refreshing ending to what was otherwise a substantial lunch.
The only thing upsetting about this meal is that I didn’t eat more (given that I had been gorging for two days and had three more days of gluttony to go, I couldn’t have eaten more if I wanted). There are still a number of items on Aquavit’s menu (well, all of it really), that I would love to try. I attempted to resolve this issue on the spot by inquiring about a lunch reservation for the next day (Saturday) in the Lounge (the dining room does not serve lunch on weekends). Sadly, the Lounge was booked for a private (bar/t mitzvah; not sure which). Go figure. Lucky kid.
I’m sure that I’ll be back. Sadly, not in time for the annual herring extravaganza going on this week (June 16-20). (I can’t deep link into Aquavit’s (annoying) Flash-driven website.) I’m very envious of those of you who can go. It sounds like an amazing experience and a fantastic deal. I would appreciate field reports from those of you who do go. In the meantime, I’ll satisfy my cravings by cooking out of his cookbook.
I recognize that it’s hardly legitimate for me to pass any sort of definitive judgments on Aquavit based on one lunch. However, if this meal was par for the course, I’d say Aquavit should easily be shooting a 1 star Michelin. Along with Eleven Madison Park, I think it’s undeservingly overlooked. I would encourage all of the naysayers and cautious to reconsider Aquavit for what it is.
Underdogs score the sweetest wins. This one was thrilling.
Executive Chef Marcus samuelsson
65 East 55th Street
New York, New York 10022
A special thanks to my friend Kathryn, who saved this post from being forever lost in cyberspace.