If I had any doubts about Aquavit deserving a Michelin star before...
...those doubts are gone. Dinner last night was fantastic.
When Marcus Jernmark took over the kitchen, there was understandably some doubt. He was young to be taking the lead role in such an institution. Marcus Samuelsson's shoes (and for that matter, Nils Noren's) were pretty big ones to fill. But rather than just doing a rehash of Samuelsson's greatest hits, Jernmark has made it his own. There are modernist touches here and there, to be sure, but that's not what it's about. It's about presenting Scandinavian flavors and techniques - many unfamiliar to us here in the states - in as refined a way as he can, and it works beautifully.
We'd been earlier this year, and while I enjoyed our meal, I felt there was just something a little off. Nothing was bad, in fact everything was quite good, but it didn't quite feel up to the price point they were charging.
Recently, the menu was revamped and changed from a three-course prix fixe to a four-course - without altering the price. That gave me the impetus to go back.
Not only was it a better value, but the food is even better than before. Chef Jernmark has found his groove, and it's a good one.
After the amuse (a lovely little seafood salad, with shavings of apples and a shmear of skyr) our first courses were all wonderful. The classic pairing of Herring and Vasterbotten cheese was accompanied by Bleak Roe, which I'd never heard of before. Bleak are, as it turns out, members of the carp/minnow family. Had an interesting (and not unpleasant) hint of bitterness which I enjoyed. An heirloom tomato salad was unexpectedly wonderful, with a celery sorbet in what may have been the only tip of the hat to Chef Samuelsson to be found, what with his incorporation of sorbets into savory courses. Or perhaps it was a nod to Brooks Headly's brilliant celery sorbet dessert at Del Posto. Either way, delicious and refreshing. We also had an amazingly rich Chanterelle Veloute, garnished with a little pile of duck rilletes and pickled mushrooms (honshemiji, I think?) that were just tart enough to cut through the decadent soup. With that simple a dish - only three components - everything has to balance perfectly, and in this case it sure did.
Our second courses were, depending how you looked at it, second apps or maybe half-entrees. I'm normally wary of pasta dishes in non-Italian retaurants, but the Wild Mushroom Tortellini were great, a real umami-fest - though flavor-wise, a bit similar to the Veloute from the previous course. The "Nordic Choucroute" was a fantastic assortment of land & sea fare (prawn, pork belly, a scallop the texture of caramel) in a very clever sauerkraut buerre blanc. The kraut cut through the richness of the buerre, brightening the dish. The big winner for me, though, was the hot-smoked cod. A stunning presentation, with a streak of black truffle emulsion. crunchy pickled celeriac, and a scrambled egg with a texture unlike any I've had before, so soft I mistook it for some kind of vegetable puree at first. The texture of the cod was great, too, meaty and tender and moist. We also had a (as you'd expect) silky gravlax, with trout caviar that divided the table (I liked the intense fishiness of it - others, not so much.)
Finally, our entrees. My mother and I had the Veal two ways - tenderloin and hay-smoked sweetbreads. This was the first time I'd had the HSS, though they've been on the menu as an appetizer before. An interesting texture - the outer shell is strikingly black, and I'd describe it more as "crunchy" than "crispy" - and the interior more meaty than one normally finds in sweetbreads. At first I wasn't sure what to think - the flavor was good, but the texture was very unexpected. But it worked as an entree, though I can see where some people would prefer a more traditional sweetbread preparation. The tenderloin was as good as it could be, though I'm not the biggest tenderloin fan to begin with - it's just one of the less interesting cuts, IMHO. This one came with more chanterelles (roasted, this time) a broccoli "scramble" for lack of a better word, and a bright green apple mustard. A really solid dish that kept growing on me the more I ate. We also had a chicken dish (forgive me for not remembering the details - it was new to the menu and not listed on the website, and I only had one bite of it) which was tender, hearty, dressed with more black truffle. Finally, an arctic char in a light, clear tomato broth, served with pickled veggies and a shrimp mousse. This was the most subtle of the three entrees we tried.
There were definitely flavors that repeated themselves - celeriac, black truffle, chanterelles - but I can't really complain about three of my favorite ingredients showing up in different iterations. And because they were never prepared the same way - here pickled, here roasted, or whatnot - it didn't grow old.
Desserts were quite good, though sadly the "Arctic Bird's Nest" is only available as part of the tasting menu now. Overall quite nice. A Rose Hip Soup brought the acidity, while a dish of chocolate in different textures and styles - milk, varying degrees of dark - was great, especially the dark chocolate sorbet, which had a lovely smoky finish that lingered on and on. A goat cheese cake was nice, if nothing I'm going to remember, though the port wine ice cream it came with was excellent.
My only issues would be my usual ones with Aquavit - the dining room feels a bit claustrophobic, especially with the lack of windows, and it often feels the staff are hovering around. Not because they are - I just don't think there's much "backstage" area for them to wait, so they're always all on the floor, it seems. That aside, they were lovely, and both our waiter and Chef Jernmark put up rather nicely with my mother & her friend's (both professional food critics, for what it's worth) prying questions and commentary.
Overall, a great meal though - sorry no pictures, my mother took them and hasn't emailed them to me yet. This is a kitchen deserving a second look from those who've written them off, and it provides a nice change of pace from the usual French high-end offerings. Equally refined, but brighter and lighter, not relying so much on heavy reductions and butter sauces and such to bring the flavor. In the past I've spoken very highly of Vandaag - even compared them favorably to Aquavit, especially given their lower price point. But with Chef Kirshten-Clark leaving Vandaag, Chef Jernmark upping his game, and the new four-course format, Aquavit is back on top of the Scandivian heap. Whether that appeals to all diners (pickled fish are not to everyone's taste) is up to them, but if it's been awhile, I'd say they're worth a return visit.
65 E 55th St, New York, NY 10022
85 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10011
103 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003
Having been to Aquavit three times, it's unfortunate that I'm still yet to understand the hype surrounding it.
On none of my occasions was I particularly blown away by the food or service. However, I should note that I've only been there for lunch; perhaps it's a different atmosphere during dinner...
Service is up and down, but other than the first time I ever went (way back in Samuelsson's day) it's never been actively BAD. Other than that time, the worst it's been is perhaps "perfunctory" for lack of a better word. Like I said, the small room can give the impression the staff is hovering - hard to say if it is or isn't the case. And after the redo of the space (I believe they'll be closed for a week or two in late October / Early November) that might fix that issue. Merely moving the main dining room forward so it has windows will be a welcome change.
But no, it's not, like, Danny Meyer level service. Nor is it the kowtowing Haute French style of Daniel, etc.
The last time we went (before this trip) our waiter was truly excellent, on a level with the best we've had at Gramercy or wherever. This past weekend, they were good - unobtrusive, perhaps a touch scripted at times (wasn't really any need to read aloud the entire tasting menu to us - I mean, they could just print that on a page of the regular menu) but certainly not BAD by any stretch.
Also it's hard to judge "normal" service when dining with my mother, as she's wont to drag out conversations with waitstaff and not realize they're being kept from other customers. She really puts 'em to the test, in her friendly-motherly way, without even realizing it. Those who can figure out how to extricate themselves gracefully always get bonus points...
The last time my husband and I dined at the dining room, we got the impression that busboys were playing waiters. Rather unpolished service. That combined with tired decor (sunken chair cushions, etc. have they re-done the dining room yet?) haven't convinced me to return, especially since I am perfectly happy having herrings, meatballs, and Arctic Circle at the cafe. You have me intrigued though - perhaps a return to the dining room is in order!