Aquavit - review
Despite my monumental hangover, I will try and string together a few semi-coherent sentences about my dining exprience at Aquavit as it is a fantastic place which I would recommend anyone to visit.
Aquavit is a modern Swedish restaurant located in a very modern building which, appropriately, has a real Scandinavian feel to it.
(BTW, despite the debate on chowhound about the Norwegian origins of aquavit, the alcohol the restaurant is named after, and the seafood, I asked staff and they confirmed that what they were trying to achieve is a modern Swedish restaurant with an international flavour, not "Scandinavian" or Norwegian. A Norwegian colleague of mine here in Tokyo also says that whilst aquavit is Norwegian, you get it in many Swedish restaurants and they kind of think of it as their own as well, much like Germans think of the many Pilsner beers they produce as a German drink even though it originates from the Czech Republic - but I digress, this was just to address a discussion in another thread; in any event, the label the restaurant chooses to give itself is much less relevant than the quality of food and drink they deliver.)
Upon arrival we were led into a large, sleekly designed room and the festivities began. My 8 months pregnant (and therefore currently close to tea total) wife may have questioned the wisdom of taking me for my birthday dinner to a place where high percentage alcohol features prominently, with predictable results, but luckily did it anyway. After last night, I am an aquavit convert, both the drink and the restaurant.
We had a reasonably successful go at trying virtually all the starters available on the menu, eating our way through:
herring sampler (5 pieces of pickled herring in different marinades / toppings, served with caraway seed aquavit and beer chaser),
aquavit sampler (selection of 5 starters),
salmon confit with orange honey compote,
chilled lobster with green pea flan, tomato consomme jelly and cucmber relish,
foie gras granache with seasonal fruit and balsamic cream,
duck confit pate, foie gras with truffle, potato and ravigote sauce,
scallop terrine with snow crab meat, leek and balsamic bean paste, and
lobster consomme with mushroom lobster ravioli.
All of the above were absolutely fantastic. We were very impressed with how imaginatively the dishes were put together and how well - and this is rarely the case - all the individual ingredients harmonised. Often restaurants are trying to be too clever, matching too many individual flavours that simply don't work - but here, every aspect of each dish was spot-on, harmonising beautifully.
My favourite was the herring sampler. Probably the simplest of the starters, but just so incredibly satisfying! It was much more balanced than pickled herring usually is because there was less vinegar, and the topings or marinades (sour cream, beetroot, etc) were perfect for herring. Even more perfect was the caraway seed aquavit with beer chaser. It will be hard to eat pickled herring again without it.
If I had to criticise anything at all - and it is not a massive criticism - then I would have to say that not all incredients were always top notch. I have definitely had better lobster for example. I would hardly notice this if I had been eating in Europe, but in Tokyo you get so used to the freshest ingredients that it is more noticable when some ingredients are just meh.
The above was followed by two meat main courses, a simple grilled ribeye steak with red wine sauce and garlic, and oven roasted venison with braised chickory, apple compote, onion puree confiture and poivrade sauce. We actually both wantd the venison but I thought it would be boring to order the same main courses so settled for the steak. The steak was great but it was just a steak, so nothing exciting or innovative - but it was lovely, and after all the sea food I could not resist having some meat, though there was a very interesting sounding fish main course: Botargo (ie karasumi) crusted tuna with lemon-vanilla confiture, capers and grapefruit beurre blanc. Maybe one for next time.
We had a set of three desserts but I only remember the raspberry soup, which was excellent. I am not much of a dessert person and normally would have an extra starter instead of dessert, and last night was a case in point. I ate the dessert but it didn't really give me anything.
Aquavit has a decentish wine list - it is very predictable, you get all the famous names and there is something for everyone (esp. various regions of France, plus California), but there are no surprises. That may be a little unfair, I suppose there is the odd pleasant surprise, like the fact that they have three Green Veltliners, one being a 1991 Nikolaihof (!), and one (an Ott, available at Nissin for around 2,500 yen) being served by the glas. The latter goes very well with most of the seafood dishes.
I had the Ott, plus a few glasses of red with the main course (unexciting Pinot Noir from Burgundy, perhaps a slightly odd choice with steak but I felt like it), and a bottle of an interesting Provencal white that I just wanted to sample and took the rest of the bottle home (blend of clairette and uni blanc - boring grape varieties but that wine was lovely and cheap at around 6,000 yen).
I also had some aquavit base cocktails (mango and blueberry) which were nice aperitivs.
The star of the evening however was aquavit. I am a complete convert. I tried twelve of them (four sets of threes - oddly, it is cheaper to get a set of three than order two individually) as follows:
anise, caraway and fennel
coconut and espresso
fig and toasted cardamom
pear, vanilla and black pepper
lychee and orange blossom
dill and coriander
linie, anise and caraway
I didn't like the fruit ones much (lingonberry, blueberry) as they just tasted like fruit juice with added alcohol. But I absolutely loved the condiment / herbacious ones, especially when they had caraway seed in them, which went spectacularly well with herring. The fig and toasted cardamom was incredibly tasty as a kind of dessert.
But what absolutely floored me was the cucumber aquavit. I immediately thought of very many Central and East European dishes with which it would go spectacularly well (as indeed would the caraway seed based aquavits) and will seek them out. If anyone has a clue where I can buy flavoured aquavit in Tokyo, please let me know.
So overall it was a spectacular dinner, with extremely friendly, professional and knowledgable service. The one worry I had was the fact that the restaurant was half empty on a Saturday. Given the enormous size of the building and its expensive location, you wonder how well they are doing. They do wedidngs during day time on weekends, which in Tokyo is a license to print money, but who knows if that is going to be enough. I really hope that they will be around for a while, but just in case they are not, go and eat there as soon as possible - it is really worth it.
Thanks for the report, and it's good to hear that they're maintaining their standards.
I also loved the cucumber aquavit, and the dill-coriander and pear-vanilla-black pepper versions too. You won't find them in stores though - the specially flavored aquavits are made by the restaurant itself (or perhaps they're imported from the NY restaurant).
You can find more traditional flavors (mixes of fennel, caraway, cumin, etc.) at Ikea, including a pack of ten small bottles in different flavors.
re: Robb S
Robb S - Ikea, what an excellent idea, thanks for the suggestion! I go there about once every 6 months with a big backpack to get 40-odd jars of pickled herring and some dill mustard sauce, but never thought of aquavit as I was not really familiar with it until last night!
I will also just try to make a version of it myself. Maybe sterilise a few 1-go sake bottles and fill them with some clear alcohol such as vodka, plus, for example, vanilla pods and peppercorns? And of course spices such as caraway seeds and aniseed. Or some softer ingredients like fruit or vegetables and then pass the liquid through a coffee filter in a month's time? Sounds like it might at least be worth trying to see what happens. And garlic. Oddly, there was no garlic aquavit at the restaurant but I imagine but it would be gorgeous.
Roysen - didn't try non-flavoured aquavit, which was an oversight on my part. I had planned to try it and assumed prior to going to the restaurant that the famous "necessary accessories" of Carlsberg and Aquavit that the restaurant serves with the herring sampler included plain aquavit. The drinks and food menu is online so I studied it in advance. It does not specify the type of aquavit they serve with the herring, so I assumed it would be plain and I would get to try standard aquavit that way. It turned out that the aquavit contained several spices including caraway seed, but I forgot to then order a plain aquavit once I had been served the flavoured article with the herring.
BTW, had a long sake and cheese afternoon and evening today with some sake fanatic friends. What an amazing combination. In particular various Hiroshima genshu with aged, nutty cheeses such as old Gouda. Or even Parmesan. Truly spectacular. At least as good as the classical wine and cheese combos, possibly better. I am amazed cheese and sake gets discussed so rarely - maybe a topic for a separate discussion thread?
I like the herring at Ikea too, and the jars of horseradish sauce.
Well-stocked liquor stores like Tanakaya in Mejiro carry a few brands of aquavit in big bottles (Aalborg, etc.), but the ten-packs from Ikea are more fun.
When I was last at Aquavit what they served with the herring sampler was regular aquavit, which does have a blend of flavors like fennel and caraway and cardamom, varying a little depending on the brand. (I'm pretty sure that was what Roysen was talking about.)
There are traditional flavors that you can find in bottles and there are the interesting and fun flavor combos that someplace like Aquavit make themselves. And of course you can make your own, starting with vodka and experimenting - I've seen some recipes on the web.
re: Robb S
Thanks for the pointers! I think you are right re: the aquavit served with the herring. I just asked the waitress what type of aquavit it was and she said caraway seeds and two other flavours I forget, but didn't explain that that actually makes it regular aquavit. Being an aquavit virgin, I didn't know that.
re: Robb S
You are right Rob S. What I was refering to was the plain Aquavit. The basis for the favoured versions. The Norweigan kind which is my reference is made based on potatoes and seasoned with caraway. It is the caraway wihich gives this liquor the extra digestive abilities compared to other liquors.
Glad you liked it so much. I don't drink alcohol (allergy) so I didn't enjoy the signature drinks.
Looking at the impact to the economy post-quake, we should be concerned about most businesses- especially the higher-end ones. The WSJ had a blog post from the Tokyo team about Tokyo 5-star hotels doing deep discounts recently. High-end restaurants will be impacted, no doubt.
You're right that the restaurant business still remains very affected, and that may have something to do with the relatively many empty tables at Aquavit. However, I read a review of Aquavit raising exactly those concerns, and that review is fairly old, certainly pre-quake, so it may be more of a long term issue. I really hope they manage to stay afloat.