Nordic Cuisine that Continues to Enchant After 28 Years
If I went into Gabriel Kreuther mystified regarding the distinctions that marked Alsatian cuisine from the larger French oeuvre, then I entered Aquavit completely blind to what Nordic–let alone modern, avant-garde Nordic–cuisine would entail. I knew the restaurant played a large part in celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s rise to prominence during a tenure as executive chef from 1995 to 2003 that included a three-star review from the New York Times and James Beard Foundation awards for Rising Star Chef in 1999 and Best Chef: New York City in 2003. Since then, the restaurant relocated in 2005 and transitioned through three other executive chefs, the last of who–Marcus Jernmark–earned the restaurant their first Michelin star.
In the spring of 2014, Aquavit made their latest change: placing Emma Bengtsson (executive pastry chef there since 2010) in charge of the kitchen. With the restaurant gaining a second Michelin star in the fall of 2014, it proved to be an inspired move. chef Bengtsson’s current reign over the now nearly three decades old concept, as I soon found out, excels in honoring Nordic tradition with a level of finesse and artistry that would impress anywhere.
Take the first of ten courses on Aquavit’s chef’s tasting: simply titled “Löjrom” (roe) and featuring Kalix Löjrom, a Swedish protected origin caviar harvested from the vendace fish. The pale orange roe joined a dusting of chives and crunchy tuile atop a pool of chilled potato cream to make an opening dish that was both visually stunning and centered around the mild taste of the Swedish delicacy (often served at Noble Banquets). The flavors themselves don’t reinvent the wheel, but are executed flawlessly and beautifully with a clear sense of Nordic personality that grows more colorful as the meal goes on.
Take the next dish, the iconic gravlax (cured raw salmon) taken off its traditional rye bread and served, in one of the most striking presentations I’ve seen across all my meals in the city, in the style of a beef tartare garnished with microgreens and a halved, gooey quail egg. This sort of presentation could be written off as a mere novelty if the dish wasn’t also so expertly prepared, with a perfect balance between the traditional mix of salt, sugar, dill, and mustard sauce. The tangy, umami flavor is further cut with a bit of the egg yolk for a top-notch tartare by any standard.
Chef Bengtsson’s creativity continued to shine with the next dish, a take on king crab served with tomato, powdered chervil, and a homemade yogurt meant elicit the dairy element normally filled by warm, drawn butter. The acidity of the tomatoes and tang of the yogurt overshadow the sweetness of the crab ever so slightly, but the dish was nonetheless intriguing and, overall, tasty.
What I was told is the most polarizing dish on Aquavit’s menu also happened to be my favorite–and one of my favorites anywhere: a supremely savory calf’s liver pâté suspended in sweet cucumber jelly. Though I can easily see why the plate might be texturally challenging for some–it really is quite a bit of jelly holding a similarly generous amount of creamy calf paste–the flavors are bold and pure enough to hit just the right sweet spot between meat, salt, sweet, and crisp. For a charcuterie lover, it’s a unique, regional treat with the added bonus of, again, imaginative plating.
The next offering–perhaps looking to calm down those put off by the calf’s liver–is a comforting classic: a charred baby leek served with roasted chanterelle mushrooms and a drizzle of olive oil. While the leek had all the color and texture of the traditional charred preparation, its flavor was pleasantly sweet, perhaps bordering on too sweet for some but well cut and complemented by the earthiness of the mushrooms.
With a constant stream of creative and often delicious seafood preparations throughout the meal, Aquavit’s main fish entrée came to the table with high expectations. However, while Baltic Sea turbot with dinosaur kale and almonds at first sounded uninspired, chef Bengtsson’s execution again drew impressive flavor from the ingredients. Poaching the fish in brown butter added a nutty background note and luscious texture to offset the crunch of the almonds and crispness of the kale, itself glazed–of course–in bacon fat. Such accompaniments might be cheating, but the dish disappeared in a flurry before my eyes and represented a real highpoint for fish and kale combos everywhere.
A perfectly rare piece of venison loin served with huckleberries marked a delicious if familiar end to the savory courses and the introduction of arguably chef Bengtsson’s biggest flourish: the Arctic Bird’s Nest. Blueberries, raspberries, pomegranate seeds, and microgreens surrounded a delicate dark chocolate bird’s nest holding three white chocolate eggs, gold leaf, and a sprinkling of “snow.” Tart, crunchy, sweet, and even refreshing, this dessert has taken several forms during Bengtsson’s time at the restaurant, but I cannot imagine it being any better than this beautifully conceived and delightfully large iteration.
Despite its old bones, Aquavit’s cuisine is impressively avant-garde and fearless in flavor combinations and presentations. Underlying all of this, however, is a reverence for Nordic cuisine that’s accessible enough for first timers like me but sure to surprise and poke at the nostalgia of more seasoned guests.
Date Visited: 9/4/2015