September 6, 2016
Agern (Acorn in Danish) opened in April 2016 in an unlikely spot in Grand Central Station. The primary owner is the Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer, a founder of Noma in Copenhagen. He recruited Gunnar Gislason, the chef of the New Nordic restaurant Dill in Reykjavik, to run the kitchen. He has applied Scandinavian techniques, and some ingredients, to a menu featuring products from the New York region. Chuck and Becky joined Linda and me at Agern for dinner on August 8, 2016.
The discreet entrance is up a short flight of stairs from a pedestrian ramp down from the southwest 42nd Street entrance to Grand Central Station.
We were seated at a round table in the midst of the simple Danish Modern dining room.
The menu offers two tasting menus (one vegetarian) and à la carte. We chose the “Land & Sea” at $145, including tip. The wine list continues the locavore philosophy with only domestic wines, beers, spirits, cider and mead. We ordered a bottle of 2010 Shinn Estate Brut, a sparkling wine from Long Island’s North Fork. It was very enjoyable.
This would eventually be followed by two good bottles of California pinot noir:
2011 Ampelos ‘Lambda’ Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir
and 2013 Melville ‘Estate’ Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir.
The menu started with snacks; they were presented to us in plates of four to be eaten with the fingers.
Oyster and plum
The small east coast oysters were dressed lightly with plum and shallots. Fortunately we were still drinking our sparkling wine with these; it went well.
Celeriac and dill
Celery root rounds were topped with dill mayonnaise.
Sea Trout and kohlrabi
Salmon trout tartar was enclosed in thinly sliced kohlrabi tacos. Very good.
Sweetbread and broccoli
The crisp sweetbread pieces were on top of a dab of broccoli purée which mostly stayed on the plate.
The cold cucumber broth for a palate cleanser arrived in a French press container. The cucumber flavor was strong.
trout roe, melon, tomatoes
This was a salad with lemon cucumbers, summer melon, yellow tomato slices and bands of cured egg yolk.
A quartered round loaf of coarse sourdough barley bread arrived along with Hudson Valley butter whipped with buttermilk.
broccoli, shallots, vegetable ash
Shards of beef heart were dressed with broccoli stem strips, chopped shallots and purslane. Very good.
pearl onion, pickled kelp, white currants
Pickled kelp was wrapped around tilefish meat and topped with coarsely chopped onion. They were served in a frothy cream soup with white currents, tapioca and other stuff. This dish did not work for me, especially as the pickled kelp was still very vinegary.
Salt and Ash Baked Beet Root
caraway seeds, huckleberries
A large beet had been baked for four hours in a crust made of leftover vegetables incinerated to ash and mixed with egg whites and salt. It was presented to us on a small table alongside ours.
The shell was cracked open in its middle.
The crust and the outer skin of the beet were removed and the beet halved for carving.
Slices of one of the beet halves were served to us on a base of fermented, raw and pickled beets with fresh shaved horseradish, fried caraway seeds, huckleberries and crème fraîche.
Four slices from the other half of the beet were then served to us in the middle of the table.
The point of the crust was not to add flavor, although it did add some saltiness. It was to concentrate the flavor of the beet. It was successful in this and we enjoyed the dish for its flavors as well as the show.
The beet was served with small loaves of sunflower-seed rye bread which were very good and went well.
bean salad, pea shoots, söl
A pork neck had been cooked slowly, probably sous-vide, until very tender and then charred. It was served with a bean purée, various fresh beans and pea shoots on a pork gravy.
The first dessert was
cucumber, cantaloupe, lemon balm
Skyr is often called Icelandic yoghurt. This palate freshener picked up ingredients and flavors from the start of the meal.
We were offered an extra dessert
Rose-Kombucha Granita with summer berries
The granita is made from rose petal flavored tea made with fermented leaves. It complemented the strawberries, raspberries and red wafers.
fairytale eggplant, basil granita
A fluffy dark chocolate mousse was served with dried slices of small eggplant and a pink granita.
Mignardises ended the evening.
Aerated chocolate, butter mints, seaweed dusted caramel. Very good.
We enjoyed the meal. I particularly liked its close adherence to its seasonal locavore philosophy with Scandinavian roots which made the meal seem like a single act. There were no dishes which knocked my socks off, although the sea trout tacos, beef heart and especially the barley bread came close. Only the tilefish was a failure for me. I think that the other three diners had different reactions, as one would expect.
The ambiance was surprisingly informal for a restaurant at this level. The staff was alert, well dressed and friendly, but the loud music on our arrival was contrary to the serene Icelandic theme. The hostess turned the volume down on our request. But the lovely wooden surfaces throughout the restaurant did not absorb he sound of the other diners, some of whom were in tee-shirts and cutoffs, and looked as though they did not know to what type of restaurant they had come to dine. From the appearance of many diners, they were not attracted by Pete Wells recent very favorable review in The New York Times. Most seemed to be ordering just a few dishes à la carte. The railway station location may send confusing signals. There was one particularly raucous, badly behaving table for seven in an alcove which seemed to receive extra attention from the dining room staff.
The pace was okay with a few gaps, which did not bother us as we were having a good conversation when we could hear well. The noise level went down as the evening went on and diners not having a menu left.