Aquavit, NYC 4
March 5, 2013
We were surprised when Aquavit received a star in the 2013 NY Michelin Guide. We had enjoyed two excellent meals there in 2008, but when we returned in 2010 under its new chef, the meal was a real disappointment. The former chef, Marcus Samuelsson, had become a media star and left Aquavit suddenly in early 2010. He has become even more of a celebrity, cooking the first State dinner at the White House for the Obamas. Marcus Jernmark, who had stepped in then from the position of Executive Sous Chef, took a while to get things back in order. After culinary school in Sweden, Jernmark became a chef at the Swedish Consulate in New York at the age of 23. He moved from there to Aquavit in 2009. Linda and I went for dinner on February 23, 2013.
The restaurant has been substantially redone. The space in the back which was the formal dining room is just used now for private events. The former café space in front is the main dining room now with an informal, but elegant ambience: no tablecloths etc.
We started with glasses of Crémant de Bourgogne, “Val de Mer,” Brut Nature Rosé. Nice.
Hot gougères made with a Swedish cheese were put on the table.
They had a stronger flavor than those commonly made with Gruyère.
The menu offers four courses, with four choices in each, for $85. We selected the tasting menu for $125, but declined the optional wine pairings. The course descriptions on the menu, shown below in italics, were quite terse, but the reality was different. As the courses were served to us, they were described in great detail. I could not note down most of it, as well as trying to take photos in the low light, so I have undoubtedly made errors and omissions in my descriptions below, which come mostly from Linda and my recollections.
A basket of breads arrived with two good butters. The dark one is buttermilk whisked with brown butter.
The next snack was Klädesholmen matjes herring in a spoon with strained buttermilk and pickled onion.
The next snack arrived in a closed mason jar which released its smoke when opened. At the bottom were hay-smoked eel, scrambled eggs and paddlefish caviar. This was very good.
The first menu course was
Langoustine and Lovage
Icelandic langoustine had been covered with various green garnishes. They were good, but too much for the delicate langoustine. One needed to use just a bit of them.
The next course was a “Swedish soup.” Chopped Dungeness crab and smoked mussels were enclosed in a sort of dairy raviolo. It was surrounded by a thick soup of peas with lemongrass and dill. Above was a curly, flaky, delicious cheese stick.
The ingedients all seemed fresh and good, but, once again, there was too much going on for us to be able to really appreciate the seafood.
Gravlax and Beet
We received a detailed description of how the salmon is cured with beet juice. There were beet slices and shards, as well as many other garnishes, including shaved torchon foie gras.
Potato and Leek
A thick, warm potato and leek soup was enhanced with tapioca and slices of fresh, black Perigord truffles which really brought their flavor. This was superb; although there were many ingredients, they were all working in the same direction and there was no central ingredient with its flavor submerged.
Skrei and Hazelnuts
Skrei are migratory cod fished in the northern Norwegian Lofoton Islands during the winter spawning season. They are prized for their lean texture and delicate, elegant flavor. This piece was cooked only on the side of the skin, which was crisp. The cauliflower and dill garnish was restrained and just right. Bravo.
The next course was an add-on from the chef, who served it himself, and said it was a new dish he was condsidering adding to his menu:
sunchoke purée, sunchoke pieces, braised rabbit chunks, lingonberries with smoked egg yolk grated on top. Very nice.
The main course was cited on the menu as Beef and Onion, but a chunk of richly glazed pork belly had been substituted for the beef. The various surrounding onions had all been prepared in different ways. There was a smear of smoked egg yolk and a dusting of “hazelnut soil.”
My frustration with this course was not that the pork belly was overshadowed; that would have been impossible. It was that the small portions of the interesting onions made them just teasers which were gone before one could really savor them.
The dessert was Arctic Bird’s Nest
Goat cheese parfait balls, one wrapped in edible silver foil, topped this nest of what seemed to be fried pastry strips. Underneath was a thick sea buckthorn purée. Nice.
It is hard to say why talented chef Jernmark feels the need to serve such complicated cuisine. Perhaps it is the exhuberance of youth; he is only 30. It is not in the traditional Scandinavian style. Elaborate dishes are not at all the style of today’s star Scandinavian chefs such as René Rezepi, Rasmus Kofoed, Magnus Nilsson, Mathias Dahlgren or Mads Refslund. It is true that it can be very popular in New York. The Modern is a more extreme example. I don’t know if people really like it, or that they are impressed by its tour de force. Fortunately not all of the dishes in this meal at Aquavit suffered from it and they were the best.
The welcome and service were always excellent. The ambience seemed to me to be overly informal for this level of cuisine, but I imagine that the younger crowd prefers that. The ceiling is high and the noise level not bad. We were very glad we went despite my quibbling about the complication level of many of the dishes.
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