So it hasn't been that long since my last visit to Aquavit (review at http://www.chow.com/topics/810271 FWIW), but it's becoming a surprisingly regular part of the rotation - surprising mainly because getting me to set foot North of, say, Madison Square Park is notoriously difficult. (Used to be North of 14th St, but ABC Kitchen and Eataly have extended my boundaries...)
But my brother, his wife and my nephew were in town, and they don't have so much refined dining where they live, so we thought it'd be nice to take them for a fancy night out. And they needed to stay closer to Midtown. And my nephew is only two, so I needed a place that had a.) high chairs and b.) an early seating. And Aquavit met all our needs. Not that I had any complaint about going back, since our last meal there was so good - but sometimes you want to break things up a bit. It wound up being a great call.
First, the new dining room: much better than the old one. It feels more intimate AND more open, if that's possible. About half the size of the old one, but (thank god) it has windows now. The old dining room always felt a bit claustrophobic on account of that. Even though the view isn't of much (55th Street, not much to look at) it makes a huge difference. The lighting is also little darker than it used to be, which is nice. (Though it's also the reason there are no photographs in this review - I don't do flash photos in restaurants...)
Also, because it's smaller, it feels more festive - the old room, which was cavernous, could feel a little stifling, almost temple-like, especially as half the tables might be empty. One felt they needed to speak in hushed tones. Here, the crowd was boisterous once it started filling up.
But the food, yes, on to the food roundup...
Amuse 1: Truffled goat cheese lollipops rolled in pumpernickel crumbs. Simple but effective - what's not to like?
Amuse 2: Vasterbotten custard: topped with salmon, dill, mustard seeds, and bleak roe, served in a sealed mason filled with smoke. Intoxicating aroma. Very rich and intense, great for spreading on the house rye bread. Like eating "Sweden in a jar" as my girlfriend put it.
Appetizers (round 1):
Glassblower Herring w/ bleak roe, vasterbotten, and potatoes - a regular on the menu. Chef Jernmark was pretty excited over his new bleak roe supplier. There's a nice, light, kind of hops-like bitterness to bleak roe that I find quite refreshing. An ingredient you don't see too often. What was interesting was that while it shared two ingredients with one of the amuses, it didn't feel one bit like a repeat.
Nantucket Bay Scallops: with uni, trout roe, and black bread. Another (seemingly) simple but effective dish, just popping with fresh marine flavors. Like biting into the ocean. Only more pleasant.
Appetizers (round 2):
Montauk Fluke: this was a variation on the hay-smoked cod dish I had last time with a similar pairing of soft-scrambled egg, celery root puree, and black truffle - an emulsion along the bottom of the plate plus fresh shavings over the top. The presentation was a bit different but the flavors were just as spot-on. Black truffle & celeriac is one of those magical combinations that just speaks of the season, and I think it worked even better with the fluke than the smoked cod - the fluke was beautifully flaky, and stood well enough on its own without the smoke.
Gravlax: much like there's always a herring option, there's always a gravlax option as well, and it's always good. Presented simply with some baby spinch and a "Hovmastar" sauce (a sweet mustard-dill emulsion)
Juniper-smoked Sweetbreads: with roasted royal trumpets, milk-poached garlic foam, and cider-juniper jus. At first, tasting the garlic foam on its own I thought it might be a bit too strong, but it wound up working in context with the other flavors. This was the boldest, most aggressively seasoned of the apps, and the cider jus gave a nice "pickled" quality to the mushrooms. Smoke flavor was subdued. Sweetbreads & mushrooms are another one of those great pairings - as anyone who's had the sweetbread & maitake tacos at Empellon will attest. My only complaint is I wish there were more on the plate.
Hen-Of-The-Woods Mushrooms: with hazelnuts and vasterbotten buerre blanc. Didn't get to taste this one myself, but it got good reviews all around the table from those that did.
"Nordic Seafood" - just what the title says, a big bowl of delicious ocean fare. Cod and shrimp were the stars, the shrimp particularly succulent (butter-poached, I think? Didn't ask...) with a watercress vinaigrette to cut through the richness. Awesome
Short Rib "Kalops" - with baby beets (could have been maroon carrots, didn't get to taste those) and smoked potato puree. The bite I had of the meat & potato was wonderful. Braised short ribs on chilly night, can't go wrong.
Lamb two ways: with foie gras and sweet potato puree. Absolutely delicious. A fork-tender "stew" (shoulder I'm guessing) and a couple pieces of loin with a light mustard glaze.
Salmonberry Trio: I've never had salmonberries before, but they were quite good. The name isn't on account of the color (though they are red) but because they're traditionally paired with salmon. A relative of raspberries, only a bit tarter. Came with a sour cream panna cotta (infused with more salmonberry) and a bit of macadamia "snow" - excellent.
Molton Chocolate Cake: I normally don't do the ubiquitous molten chocolate cake, but I'm glad I did this time. The cake itself, fantastic, moist, everything you would want from this all-too-common item. What really brought it to another level was the rosemary ice cream - the piney, herbal notes complemented the dark chocolate amazingly. An apple panna cotta rounded it all out - this was a take on the MCC that would have been worthy of Alex Stupak from his days at WD-50.
"Arctic Bird's Nest" - this one was comped. It's part of their usual dessert rotation, but it wasn't in the options last night - only as part of the tasting menu. I think someone overheard me lamenting that it wasn't in the prix fixe choices and the kitchen sent one out. As good as it always is, and one of the more stunning presentations around. And edible "nest" (not sure what it's made of) with an "egg" of goat cheese parfait inside a molecule-thin sugar shell, with balls of intense blueberry sorbet and yogurt "snow" (they're big on snow right now, I guess) - one of the better desserts in town, for my money.
As we finished instead of the usual take-home treats (meringues last time we went) they gave us spice sachets, for making Glögg at home! A fun little twist.
I really can't find anything bad to say about the food - if there was a minus I noticed, it was in some of the portion sizes. Now, mind you, we all left quite full. We could barely pick at the cheese board and mignardaises that showed up after our desserts. But it seemed that a couple times, within the context of one course, the dishes would be quite differently sized. The entrees, for example: the seafood was a feast in a bowl, while the lamb and beef were noticeably smaller. Now, granted, they're richer, heavier dishes - not to mention that lamb is simply more expensive than cod to begin with - but it leaves one feeling they have to eat slower to keep pace with the person who got a king's portion of fish. Not that they should skimp on the fish, mind you. But even adding a bit more veg to the land protein plates would have evened things out fine.
The service was good - they seem to be getting better on that front, an area where they've always received a bit of criticism (including from myself) in the past. While the waitstaff aren't quite as engaging as you'll find in, say, a Danny Meyer restaurant, they're quite nice, and professional without being stuffy. I should also say they were also very accommodating of my two-year-old nephew, even brought him a plate of Swedish Meatballs (which the adults wound up eating half of... some damn fine meatballs, what can I say?)
Chef Jernmark came out a couple times - once to introduce the new amuse (#2) and again during dessert to just check on how the meal was, and he was very friendly while I chewed his ear for a bit (until my girlfriend goosed me that I was probably taking up too much of his time, as I was yammering about a little Nordic specialty shop I'd found out in Bay Ridge that had homemade Norwegian head cheese, and my own kitchen experiments making purple-potato sorbet that he probably had no interest in hearing about...)
All in all, excellent once again. As I said in my last write-up, I think they've improved even in the time since Sifton's last review, and again, even since our last visit in October. I'm happy that they're pushing things forward, and not resting on their laurels like many quarter-century-old restaurants would, serving the same old warhorses. Chef Jernmark is striking a great balance between classical, rustic, and modern, but without being overtly "modernist" about it. I think they're at a peak right now, above and beyond the Samuelsson days. Admittedly, I have a particular affinity for Scandinavian flavors, but they're just as much in the local/seasonal camp nowadays.
As one of my friends said recently, Aquavit is one of those places that's been there seemingly forever, so long that you don't always think of them when you think about going out, especially among us foodie types who are always looking for the "new" - but while Aquavit may be an old name, the food is anything but. Hopefully this is the beginning of a long relationship with their current chef, who I think is redefining the place for the better.
Now, if only they'd move to the Lower East Side. The old Tonic space on Norfolk has been sitting empty for four or five years now... could use a new tenant...
50 Clinton Street, New York, NY 10002
65 E 55th St, New York, NY 10022
35 E 18th St, New York, NY 10003
200 5th Ave, New York, NY 10010
230 W 4th St, New York, NY 10014