A long time before Noma…
Well before Nordic cuisine became the new zeitgeist, there was Aquavit.
A restaurant that was opened in 1987, espousing Sweden’s 500-year-old culinary traditions; literally the only restaurant to offer modern Nordic cuisine in New York and one of the first to really hit it outside of Europe.
With the region providing an abundance of seafood and land covered by forests filled with game, wild produce, mushrooms and berries, notoriously shot seasons inspired the custom of pickling and preserving. Striking a balance between sweet and salt, the traditional Nordic flavours are well know globally.
But it wasn’t always so.
I’d found my way to Aquavit by accident; I’d left booking dinner to the very last minute; pretty usual for me. So it was a quick visit to Open Table, the brilliant US restaurant booking service, and after placing my required criteria into the search engine, was presented with a list of excellent restaurants with tables free.
With two Michelin Stars and a super well regarded chef, it was an easy choice, made all the easier given Aquivit’s proximity to my Mid Town hotel. A quick ten minute walk had me outside the restaurant for my 5:30pm reservation (yep, early I know). It actually took me quite a while to find the entrance, which was hidden by (what I found out later) a movie set filming with none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Making my way into the restaurant, which took up part of the ground floor of a commercial building, I was shown to probably the worst table in the dining room; tiny and off to the side, it’s only redeeming feature was that I was by the window and could watch the filming in action. What did I expect booking a two Michelin Starred restaurant thirty minutes before rocking up?
I was handed a menu by an affable and friendly waiter, who carefully explained that there were three options; the chef’s tasting menu, a seasonal tasting menu, and a la carte. I did oscillate between the two tasting menus, but eventually landed on the chef’s tasting. I really wanted to see what Chef Emma Bengtsson was made of, especially given her status of only the second female Two Starred chef in the US.
I didn’t really know what to expect, apart from the fact that I was about to blow three hours and a couple hundred USD, so I wanted the experience to count.
And boy, did it!
There were a series of small bites that quickly arrived from the kitchen. A small segment of tree was used as a plate to present the buckwheat pancake, small dollops of creme fraiche interspersed with mustard seeds and chanterelle mushrooms. Light and delicate, I tasted the mustard seeds and earthiness of the mushrooms; it was subtle and quite lovely.
Next was a small earthenware bowl filled with a pork bouillon with the essence of lovage; there was a strong flavour from the pork that was countered by the freshness of the lovage (from the same family as celery). The rim of the bowl was coated in salt flakes, which enhanced the sweetness of the dish, which was slightly astringent and very warming.
Out popped a hollowed out log, filled with river smooth pebbles; not quite hidden amongst the stones was a jet black sphere made from Swedish blood sausage and filled with a lingonberry jam. Even though blood sausage is a very strong flavour, the interesting take on the traditional Swedish dish packing a punch. The predominant flavour was the warm jam filling the sphere; while I didn’t love the texture of the small bite, it was a really interesting flavour; something that you’d expect over breakfast.
I always find it interesting when the bread course of a tasting menu comes out; when it’s very early, it signifies that you might be hungry by the end of the meal. I was a little worried when the next course was bread, but it was so incredibly light and fluffy, that I was a little confused; would the rest of the meal be light and should I fill up on bread now? The lightness of the bread roll convinced me that it was about flavours, not heft, so I lathered on the soft salted butter and packed a few rolls away quickly.
We were finally onto the official tasting menu, kicking off with Caviar and White Asparagus. It took me a while for my eyes to accept that there was asparagus on the beautifully plated dish; the incredibly thin asparagus was placed with infinite care over the caviar, hiding it completely. A camomile beurre blanc sauce was poured at the table to complete the aesthetics. Once I dug into the dish, I also noticed extra texture from some crushed biscuit, the texture interesting against the softness of the dish. There was a huge hit of acidity in the dish, which was actually quite pleasant against the saltiness of the caviar and the creamy sweetness of the sauce.
There was a bit of an ‘oh-wow’ moment when I tasted the next course; called 7X Beef and Sunchokes, the Colorado wagyu was super thin and wonderfully tender. As with my previous dish, there were surprises to be had, underneath the beef were crispy little chips made from sunchoke, along with little cubes of the root vegetable. Adding heaps of flavour and completing the dish nicely was a cabbage butter oil, somehow made green (maybe for contrast). It was an immensely satisfying dish.
Which made the next dish immensely challenging, the very bold flavours of the King Crab and Green Strawberry confounding me. An astoundingly beautifully presented dish, there were textures of strawberry, coriander and cucumber to counter a sweet hit from the king crab. Poured at the table was a wild strawberry consommé that was super bitter and if truth be told, a little harsh on my palate. There was a lot going on with the dish, most of it amazing; little bursts of flavour came from a green and red tomato jelly and that crab was just sensational.
I simply adored the interesting combination of Foie Gras and Rhubarb; another lovely looking dish, the soft and unctuous foie gras was covered poached rhubarb and dehydrated rhubarb powder. There was a lovely caramelisation on the foie gras that added a caramel like flavour and the earthy tartness; the rhubarb also added some contrasting textures to the very soft foie gras. Wonderful, but too small 🙂
I loved the simplicity of the presentation for the Hot Smoked Norwegian Salmon, never in my wildest dreams would I have expected a tart from the description on the menu! The crumbly base was superb, quite buttery and well held together; it had to be, it was filled with a smear of smoked salmon the covered in fava leaves. The salty salmon and the bitter leaves were a great combination and the small bite disappeared as quickly as it appeared.
There was a definite trend of key ingredients being hidden from view, which continued with the Halibut and Sea Lettuce. Underneath the sea lettuce, expertly cooked halibut was stark white against the green of the covering and the nasturtium sauce. The heat from the sauce, similar to horseradish, was unexpected and thin slices of apple helped cool the dish and balance it out against the subtle flavoured fish. I found the dish to be quite sweet, so the nasturtium sauce was a great addition, adding much needed heat.
For some reason, it was palate cleanser time! A small cup was filled with a Lingonberry Kombucha granita; the berry flavour sweet in a very subtle way. It was quite refreshing, mainly due to the granita.
I’ve fallen in love with Morels and was excited about the prospect of Sweetbread and Morels; but it turned out to be my least favourite dish of the night. It was the least attractive dish of the night too! I quite liked the sweetbreads (in this instance from the thymus), crumbed with the morels; but didn’t love the brioche that was served alongside. Overall, the dish was too sweet, the brioche too dry and a texture that was a little ‘gluggy’ – probably my least preferred texture!
I wasn’t overly enamoured with the next small bite either. The Isterband and Fermented Cabbage was presented on a burnt out tree branch; the lightly smoked and sweet sausage should have gone with with the cabbage, but it just didn’t resonate with me and I was glad that it was just a small bite.
We were back on song with the Venison and Endives; mainly because of the super interesting flavour combinations, which were dominated by a rich jus that had that lovely umami flavour that you get from just the right amount of vegemite! The rare medallions of venison were expertly cooked, super tender and covered with braised endive and pretty edible flowers. It was quite a complex dish, especially with the yeast extract that gave the dish it’s distinctive flavour. Interestingly, the venison was from New Zealand, which in my experience produces the best venison globally.
I’d asked to skip the cheese course of the tasting menu and instead was presented with a very simple bowl of Berries and Forest Honey; the honey coming from a special batch of Canadian crystalline forest honey. I’d been really interested in the provenance of the honey, so my waiter had skipped to the kitchen to bring me out the jar for review. I tell you, I will never look at berries the same way again! I’d never considered adding honey to berries before, but the contrasting sweetness and tartness was a winner.
My first official dessert of the night was quite different and very intriguing. Called Celery and Juniper, a celery sorbet was mixed with a light and aerated foam made from juniper berries. The dish became even weirder when I noticed that there was diced celery at the bottom of the bowl; it was all strangely refreshing and was certainly more a palate cleanser than a full dessert.
I was a bit amazed by the presentation of dessert; simply named Arctic Birds Nest, I had no idea what was coming. Hindsight is twenty twenty vision, but of course the dessert looked just like a birds nest, resplendent with white chocolate ‘eggs’. The birds nest itself was made from different types of chocolate and the eggs had a lovely creamy centre, the yolk made from that bizarre berry, sea-buckthorn! While there was a lot of chocolatey goodness on the plate, there was also an earthy hit from some beetroot sorbet. It was quite inventive and very interesting looking.
However, it was the extra treat that my waiter brought me that was quite special. Obviously pinging that I was a food blogger, and hyper engaged in conversation with me all night about the food, he brought out his personal favourite dessert (no longer available on the a la carte menu). It was pretty and delicious, a Tahitian Vanilla Parfait served with raspberry swirl ice cream and fresh strawberries. More like a cake than a traditional ice cream, the strong vanilla flavour was super, especially contrasted against the sharp / sweet berry hit. Incredibly smooth ice cream added to the overall sweetness of the dessert.
I loved it and really appreciated the extra little addition to my meal – even though by that time I was about to explode.
There was the usual assortment of petite four on offer at the end of the meal, which I obligingly partook in – I didn’t want to be rude 🙂 – but I was done eating for the night and really just wanted to walk off what had been a pretty spectacular meal.
Aquavit had everything you would hope for from a Two Star stalwart of the great city of New York; it was inventive and tasty and challenging (mostly in the right ways). Sure, I didn’t love everything put in front of me, but more so because of personal taste – everything was expertly cooked and on the whole, visually stunning. There were even a good number of completely memorable dishes on offer too; ones I will never forget.
Service started slowly, I guess I’d taken the ‘crappy’ seat for the night, but once the staff warmed up to my inquisitive nature and good hearted conversation, the service improved dramatically. There was one grumpy dude serving bread rolls all night, but I didn’t really mind so much, everyone else was great.
Best of all, that ‘crappy’ seat turned out to be worth gold. With the Terminator himself outside the window at times, filming his movie, it gave me plenty to look at between courses; it was a super long tasting menu after all!
Aquavit is a brilliant example of Nordic cooking, and given it’s longevity, I’m reluctant to call it the New Nordic Style, but that’s precisely what Chef Emma Bengtsson has bought to the restaurant. Definitely deserving of her stars.