In late September, when night deepens, the Northern Lights reappear in the skies over the Arctic, polychromatic waves of light dancing through the coldest months of the year. Similarly, Nordic cuisine shines bright in the long, dark winter: cod, fresh and wild from the cold waters of the North Atlantic; salmon from the glacial-fed rivers, some now slowly freezing in place; cloudberries, soft, juicy and tart. The cuisine of the north blossoms in the harshest of climes.
Closer to home, in New York’s Grand Central Terminal, is Agern, a calm oasis of Nordic food and drink helmed by Icelandic chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason of Dill in Reykjavík. It’s in a discreet part of the train station and I would even say it’s hard to find even if you are familiar with Grand Central. But once you do come upon it, your sensory experience of Scandinavia begins right away in an unexpected way: the dining room is slightly reminiscent to a Finnish sauna with its pale blond wood. At first, I was reminded of Alvar Aalto’s famous lake shapes featured in his architecture and designs for iittala until Chef Gunnar pointed out that the undulating panels encircling the ceiling are, in fact, inspired by the endless wavy sheets of the Northern Lights.
In New Nordic cuisine, like in traditional Nordic cooking, curing and smoking are methods needed to get through the harsh winter months. In the hands of Chef Gunnar and his team, these processes bring out flavors and textures in ingredients not traditionally associated with Scandinavian food and this is what Agern does so well, and where it triumphs: taking local Hudson Valley ingredients and giving them their Scandinavian treatment. For example, in one dish which I particularly liked, a purple carrot is smoked, poached and cut into thick batons served in a puree of beet garnished with purple basil leaves, a miniature Nordic birch forest on a plate. The result is a root vegetable as smokey and meaty as hangikjöt (Icelandic smoked leg of lamb) with a hint of late-summer hay in that distant last bite.
But because Chef Gunnar and his team do these things so well, perhaps better than anyone in New York right now, one can forgive them for a few items on the menu that seem designed to be talked about, dishes that stand out like an off-key note in the rhythm of the place. Take, for instance, their “famous beet,” where the vegetable is baked in a salt crust, Mediterranean-style, and broken into during a table side service, the server going so far as to cut the beet into bite-sized morsels and served on the plate in front of you. It was delicious, and I understand beets have been part of the Nordic lexicon for ages, so perhaps he was doing some reverse engineering cooking it in this Mediterranean style: how does a Nordic ingredient respond to a different way of cooking? Likewise, a pork neck is cooked to tender perfection, served with a warm bean salad and pea shoots. The meat is even gamey but it only made me wonder why pork instead of venison—and I don’t mean the tenderloin, either. Perhaps Chef Gunnar was referencing a classic Danish pork roast with cracklings? Still, the use of the neck cut seems out of place here. That’s not to say the dish wasn’t delicious; clearly it was, and served the purpose of making one think about the meal but in ways you hoped the team wouldn’t aim for.
Fortunately, the desserts are transformative and you can’t help but be inspired by the new lives savory ingredients take on when they’re introduced into the pastry world via the New Nordic. English peas for dessert? Yes, please. Served with charred shells, peanuts and mint, you’ll wonder how you never thought of feeding vegetables to your kids this way. The highlight for me were the blueberries paired with a rich yet simple birch ice cream accented with lemon balm. I used to live in Iceland, and so was instantly reminded of the wild blueberries we used to pick in the mossy volcanic landscape wet with spring rains and of my walks among the birch trees in Hólavallagardur cemetery in Reykjavík (not as erie as it sounds). And that's what great cooks do best: they can take you back to a time and place while ferrying in the present.
There are many reasons to be excited about Agern, chief among them the reinvigoration that Nordic cooking philosophy brings to dining in New York. It’s amazing how something so rooted in a centuries-old tradition and largely ignored by the rest of the world can be so cutting-edge. What’s old is new again, and what’s new will be old. Such is life. Let’s just make sure we enjoy it all while we can.
Food, travel & forks in the road: Culinary & Digital Media | Food Stylist | Recipe Tester | Former Social & Digital Media Coordinator, USA Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015