New York, New York
Date Visited: 5/16/16
Meal Length: 3 hours 30 minutes
Tucked away in Grand Central Station, Agern is the fine dining flourish of Claus Meyer, the fashionable co-founder of Noma who has been laying roots throughout NYC. His other projects offer elaborate Danish dogs (at $8) and artisan rye loaves to the masses but, beyond some opening buzz, they have generated little sincere excitement. Agern–the most refined part of his expansion (now open just close to a month)—cashes in on Meyer’s culinary clout by staging New Nordic tasting menus with a comprehensive juice program just paces away from bustling commuters. Though I have read that Noma’s contemporary acclaim can be attributed to René Redzepi’s vision rather than Meyer’s own handiwork, the man’s influence is nonetheless notable. I was drawn to the breadth and size of his plans for this city, not to mention buoyed by the rare chance to walk to dinner, so claimed a reservation one Sunday evening for the coming Monday.
Why should you be interested?
Beyond the particular association with Noma, New Nordic cuisine is hyper seasonal and rather affordable, as it spurns the usual luxury items in flavor of food that’s foraged, preserved, smoked, and maybe even baked inside of itself. As “organic” and “farm to table” have become old hat in this country, chefs trained in the region are embracing and prizing our country’s most distinct and local ingredients in a way that has largely fallen out of fashion as our diets have shifted towards more processed and widely sourced foods.
How easy is it to locate?
Follow the instructions in your reservation e-mail and enter the station at the corner of 42nd St. and Vanderbilt Ave. The entrance is made clear by a set of stairs with a prominent sign–just watch out for loitering travelers, who I witnessed the restaurant’s manager unsuccessfully try to shoo from the steps (crib and all).
How do you feel when you enter?
Comforted by a sleek blend of wood and stone and the sort of high ceilings only possible when restaurateurs poach the former homes of industry and transportation and turn them into 100-seat eateries. The hostesses and managers stand at attention and speak with warmth. You debate whether it’s a good or bad thing to be the lone party seated at a square counter surrounding the cold kitchen (more so when subsequent customers lobby to snag the last remaining tables). Yet the counter—manned at any one time by two to three cooks—rarely ceases with activity. The chairs are comfortable and the space, from which you can still see the throngs of travelers, captures a natural, “urban oasis” feeling I don’t feel dirty for liking.
How does the service make you feel?
Welcome, but with a didactic air that stifles actual hospitality. My dining companion and I, being rather hungry, ordered our tasting menus and juice pairings immediately and asked for a minute to select a cocktail to begin the meal. We gave our order and suggested they need not delay in starting our food (some servers will ask when cocktails are ordered), but the server urged instead that we first “appreciate” our drinks in isolation. I understand appreciating the bartender’s craft but expected more discretion on a Monday evening, when it ended up taking over 40 minutes before our first bite of food. Issues of pacing and attentiveness will surely improve in time, but they were compounded by an attitude than can in good faith hold you from beginning your meal while neglecting to fill your water for fifteen minutes. That being said, the servers and staff were genuinely kind on a personal level and seemed to enjoy their work, which leads me to believe annoyances like ours will be ironed out as team gels.
How should you order?
Agern offers a pair of tasting menus: “Land + Sea” at $145 and “Field + Forest” at $120 (service included). Both begin with a selection of six “snacks” before progressing to seven individual dishes, including dessert. As you might imagine, the former features animal proteins while the latter is vegetarian (but not vegan, though I imagine they can accommodate those diners). At the time of my visit, the proteins on the Land + Sea menu included oyster, beef heart, trout, shrimp, and lamb; however, portions are scaled appropriately and the overlap with the vegetable-focused menu leads me to believe the choice isn’t so binary. Though I only sampled the “Land + Sea” offerings, New Nordic cuisine works a particular magic with vegetables and the thematic division of the menus (rather than calling it vegetarian) gestures towards two distinct experiences rather than one that comes with or without protein. The restaurant also offers a short a la carte menu mostly drawn from the tasting offerings and encouraged for those who “cannot commit the time” to the “full experience.” I’m not bothered by this sort of talk, or even by the prices, as a $62 plate of roasted lamb and $58 roasted duck breast, even considering that service is included, have drawn the skepticism of the food media. In truth, I like seeing what a tasting-centric kitchen can do with the resources such a price tag affords, but that trust is not always well rewarded. Until that $98 “Twenty-Four Day Hung Grass-Fed Beef (to share)” is a better known quantity, I would urge visitors to stick between either of the two set menus.
What are the notable dishes?
“Tea” of Warm Ocean Water: The first bit of food to pass my lips seemed like a parody of New Nordic cuisine. Lukewarm with a trailing bitter aftertaste, my companion and I both agreed that a mouthful of water at the beach is more pleasing to the tongue. I admire the shocking simplicity of this opening bite, but if you’re actually going to have your guests drink the New Nordic “kool aid,” so to speak, I’d hope its pleasing at a minimum.
Beef Heart Tartare: I enjoy organ meat, and the heart’s slight chew impressed me, but the dish could have used more assertive accompanying flavors (or perhaps just a bigger schmear of salsify mayonnaise). Still, beef’s only appearance on the menu is a bold one, and the components are certainly there for an impressive dish. Credit to Meyer for not shying away from giving offal a rightful, central place on the menu.
Salt and Söl Baked Beet Root: This dish is on both menus for good reason, as I think it captures just how New Nordic cuisine can raise simply prepared vegetables to a level of complexity and satisfaction normally reserved for prime filets of meat or fish. Baked to a faded almost claylike color, the dull-looking beet hits the tongue with an almost candied sweetness before dialing back with an enveloping, intense earthiness and vegetal notes from the söl, a kind of sea lettuce. With streaks of crème fraîche for tang, horseradish for pungency, and vegetable “sparks” for texture and smoke, the dish is finely polished, revelatory, and surprisingly rib-sticking.
Lamb, Braised and Roasted: The portion size of the “Land + Sea” menu’s meatiest offering–lamb belly–was expectedly small but powerful and followed up the rich beet with a gamey edge. Buttermilk (flecked with dill) acted as a sort of sauce and brought a cooling, cultured element to the plate that allowed for the richness of the meat.
Frozen Pine Soufflé: Desserts hardly elicit more than a passing mention from me, yet the finishing soufflé provided a refreshing yet pleasantly sweet tour of different textures, flavors, and aromas of pine. I don’t want to call it winter in a bowl, but I see this dish having some staying power (in one form or another) on the menu.
THE BREAD BASKET
Potato Bread and Smoked Buttermilk: My favorite of six opening “snacks,” the bread itself was small, warm, and round with a fluffy interior. I’m not sure that I got a pronounced “smoke” from the buttermilk, but it nonetheless formed a cold, tangy counter point to the bite.
House Bread with Whipped Cultured Butter:
Servers and managers were not only generous about offering more bread but made sure to follow through. Did we only required two refills because of a hunger stoked by slow? Yes, but both offering and providing more of a quality bread deserves praise.
Rye Bread: Served, to my delight, alongside the excellent beet root, this bread is among Meyer’s specialties and needed plenty of personality to compete with dish filled with assertive flavors. Specked with grains that rupture through the crust, the rye, simply, rocks for those who love whole grains.
Was the meal satisfying?
While the long initial wait for food soured my mood, the dishes that were good tended to be not only highly flavorful, but conceptually interesting and often satisfying despite small portion size. I certainly would have ordered a pizza when I returned from dinner had it not been so late; nonetheless, Agern offers a pleasing variety and admirable education in New Nordic cuisine at a competitive (service included!) pricepoint.
How does the restaurant rank in its category?
I’ve been to several other excellent New Nordic fine dining restaurants in NYC, and Agern faces stiff competition from established, talented chefs who have already earned Michelin stars for expressions of the region’s cuisine. Atera and Aquavit are pricier than Agern [man, they love restaurants that start with A], but outclass the Grand Central spot with polished service (again, excusable for now), but, more importantly, tasting menus that deliver consistently intense, revelatory flavors. Luksus at Torst is similarly priced to Meyer’s restaurant and offers a more intimate, communal experience with a beer-focused pairing. I would suggest Agern over Luksus for those interested in the non-alcoholic pairing, a more traditionally elegant environment, and slightly more approachable (but I think equal in quality) food. Olmsted, which opens in Brooklyn this evening, will throw one more snow dog into this fight, and it will be interesting to see how much New Nordic food NYC can sustain.
Would I go back?
With the expectation the service and pacing will improve in time, I would certainly try to return in the next 2-3 months for a peek at what the kitchen is doing. Things like the juice program are so highly seasonal, involved (and enjoyable), that I imagine there will always be good reason to see what’s new. If I hadn’t left the restaurant so late, I certainly would have ordered pizza or some other, firmer sustenance. Nonetheless, variety and intrigue succeeded where flavor sometimes failed. Such is the risk of such hyper seasonality, where chefs relinquish much of the chance to fine-tune offerings, but it’s a gamble adventurous diners will often find worth taking. The scope of Meyer’s projects, which beyond the Danish dog stand includes a forthcoming 5,000 sq. ft. “Great Northern Food Hall” in the terminal, shows the Dane’s commitment to the city. Consequently, I think they’ll give Agern a cushion to woo diners and adapt if need be (perhaps after the newspapers publish their reviews). Though I would certainly splurge and go to Atera or Aquavit for my New Nordic fix, Agern is a welcome, affordable option across all cuisines in Manhattan. I would return for a weeknight meal again once the menu changes a bit but would treat it more as a learning experience than a comprehensively satisfying meal.
How hard are reservations to get?
Reservations are taken through a new (to me) service called Sevenrooms, which displays all available timeslots for the day at once, an interface I rather like. They’re one of the newer “all-in-one” reservation/POS companies that offers advanced analytics based on guest data (though I’m not sure to what extent Agern uses the company’s full suite of services). Availability is widely available during the week and at fringe times on the weekend. Those looking for a 7 – 8 PM reservation on a Friday or Saturday should book a week and a half out.
Reservations, menus, and other information can be found at http://agernrestaurant.com/