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Aquavit Redux

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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.

Entrees:

"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.

Dessert:

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...

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WD-50
50 Clinton Street, New York, NY 10002

Aquavit
65 E 55th St, New York, NY 10022

ABC Kitchen
35 E 18th St, New York, NY 10003

Eataly
200 5th Ave, New York, NY 10010

Empellon Taqueria
230 W 4th St, New York, NY 10014

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  1. Thanks for a great review. We have a reservation in the new year and I am really looking forward to it! I loved our first visit a few years ago, and hopefully I'll love the upcoming one just as much!

    1. Thanks so much for your post -- our last visit to the front room (before the change) was disappointing, and we weren't sure of what to make of the changes.

      1. Well, we finally had our dinner at Aquavit and I'm sorry to say that I wasn't nearly as impressed as I had hoped. The new dining room is nice enough, and I agree that the windows are an improvement, but the chair I was seated in (one of the low-backed ones facing a banquette) was incredibly uncomfortable - the backrest was cutting into my back so badly by the end of the night that I was tempted to squeeze in with my husband on the banquette. I also felt that the overall atmosphere was very business/expense account oriented, although this may have been because we were there on a Monday night. Service was friendly enough but very awkward - long gaps between courses, servers arriving at the table at the same time as bussers or drink servers, etc.

        Anyway, as for the food, there was really only one big winner out of the dishes we tried. We started with some gougeres (very good ones, at that) and then were served an amuse of a tiny piece of smoked salmon with a little caviar, some pickled vegetables and sour cream, topped with a cold celeriac soup. It was tasty enough, but the salmon was dry and the tangy pickled flavor would be repeated so many times during the course of the meal that there was really no need for a pickled amuse. We also had an aquavit each - juniper lemon and blueberry elderflower - both delicious.

        For our first course we had the Glassblower Herring and the American Lojrom. Or rather, I had the herring and lojrom and my husband had bread, because he took one bite of his lojrom and set the plate aside. He doesn't mind caviar, but this was way too strong for him. I found it very salty and very one-note myself, not to mention difficult to eat given the fragility of the crisps that came with it. Perfectly fine, just not that interesting. My herring was fine - very good, even, but the other elements on the plate were completely at odds with the pickled fish. The vasterbotten cheese, tasted on its own, was delicious, but it clashed badly with the fish. The potatoes were bland and seemed to have just been added for their color, and the brown butter foam not only added nothing flavor-wise, but it hardened immediately, creating a weird and unpleasant texture (and this is coming from someone who is not opposed to eating butter with a spoon). I think certain elements from the two appetizers could have been combined to much better effect. At least the bread was good - the sourdough rolls were delicious and I loved the dense, grain-filled rye (served with excellent butters and flakes of salt).

        Our second courses were duck (which replaced the much-lauded short rib option - a bummer, as I was really looking forward to that) and sweetbreads, and this was the only course that really shone, IMO. The sweetbreads were crisp and smoky and worked very nicely with the garlic infused cream, vinaigrette and black garlic on the plate. It was the only dish where I thought all of the components came together harmoniously and complemented each other. The duck was cooked to perfection and came with some delicious grilled endive, but it was sauced with yet another vinaigrette - a tasty but forgettable dish.

        Third course was lamb two ways for me, pork two ways for him. There was a serious execution problem with both dishes - the braised element (pork shoulder and lamb neck) was incredibly dry in both cases. The pork came with a delicious onion puree, but there were also pickled onions involved, and my husband had just about reached his limit with pickled/vinegary flavors. The pork belly element was served as a thin slice, uncrisped, which IMO detracts from the appeal of pork belly. The lamb was otherwise tasty - I enjoyed the mustard glaze (despite the vinegar element) and the sweet potato puree - but the dryness was difficult to overlook. Also, the lamb came with a small slab of very seared foie gras, which was oversalted (edible, but too salty) and totally not integrated into the dish.

        Finally, after a LONG wait (for which our waitress did apologize), we received our desserts - pear mousse for him, salmonberry trio for me. I had been hoping for the Arctic Bird's Nest or a the goat cheese dessert I've heard raves about, but they weren't options. Anyway, the salmonberry trio was tasty enough if you like tangy berries - there was a mousse, a sorbet, a gelee and a couple of dots of a heavily reduced sauce on the plate, all made of salmonberries, plus a tiny thimble-sized panna cotta. Beautiful presentation but very one-note, flavorwise, and after so many other tart elements in the meal I didn't really need another tart thing. My husband's pear mousse was not to my taste at all. The mousse itself had an unpleasant texture due to the grainy nature of pears, and it was served at room temperature, so the mouthfeel was weird as well. It came with a shockingly salty and burnt-tasting caramel ice cream (which tasted better when combined with the other elements but was just WAY too salted and burnt on its own), some almond brittle (good) and dehydrated pear slices, etc. I even found the presentation offputting - the mousse was piped with a square or rectangular tip and was arranged like a deformed earthworm over the other elements - I don't know why, but it kind of freaked me out.

        The mignardises were mostly nice - little sugar covered donut holes with dipping sauces (more too-burnt caramel, though), a truffle, an almond cake (that my husband declared was the best bite of the evening), a dry caramel-filled macaron, a too-chewy blood orange gelee, a brownie that tasted like a spice cake and a dry coconut macaroon topped with chocolate.

        Overall, I feel like Aquavit is trying very hard to do the same type of thing that Eleven Madison Park does, but not doing it nearly as well (and I'm not an EMP cheerleader by any means). The platings reminded me very much of my most recent meal at EMP, but unfortunately the flavors just weren't there. My husband said there was way too much presentation and not nearly enough substance, and he wasn't referring to the portion sizes (which are what you'd expect from fine dining, i.e. not large). I appreciate a beautiful plate as much as the next person, but I am sick to death of this trend of sourcing excellent ingredients, cutting them skillfully and putting them on a plate with other fine ingredients that have nothing to do with one another just because they all look pretty together. The new menu doesn't hold a candle to our meal here a few years ago, while Samuelsson was still at the helm. Even with the Savored.com discount, Aquavit is too expensive to justify a return visit given the quality of both the food and service.

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        Aquavit
        65 E 55th St, New York, NY 10022

        3 Replies
        1. re: biondanonima

          Bummer. I'm sorry Aquavit didn't click for you. It seems that a lot of what you didn't like were the most inherently Scandinavian things about the menu. The appetizer you seemed to like the least, where you felt the elements didn't really mesh - the herring - is probably the most traditional / least cheffy-creative dish on the menu. To most of us (outside certain classics like lox & cream cheese, or a tuna melt) cheese & seafood don't... quite... mesh. Throw in that you're dealing with particularly strong flavors like herring & vasterbotten... it's gonna seem a little weird. But that's a lunchtime snack in Sweden, served exactly the same way, with potatoes and butter. Google "herring vasterbotten potatoes butter" and every menu in Stockholm will pop up.

          A lot of younger Nordic chefs - especially those who subscribe to Claus Meyer's "New Nordic" manifesto - are very big on acids,as well. Pickling and vinaigrettes are to them what butter and heavy reduction sauces are to the French. The "acid overkill" you felt was, it sounds, similar to the "richness overkill" I'd feel after a meal at, say, Daniel. The last time I ate at Boulud's flagship I felt positively -greasy- when I stumbled out, and vowed never to go back on my own dime. It's just not for me. (I also hate the service at Daniel, but that's another matter entirely...)

          Char/smoke and bitter elements are also very big in Nordic cuisine, too - and they show up multiple times on Aquavit's menu, as well. I can see how someone who's not too big on those elements might be less than enthused.

          I, personally, found Samuelsson's menu not Nordic enough for my tastes. He had some great dishes, mind you - his famous foie gras ganache, and there was a duck-liver crusted tuna in coconut sauce that I'll remember forever. Nothing remotely Scandinavian about either, but certainly delicious.

          But to each their own. For me, I find most Haute French cuisine to be one-note - even (sometimes) in the hands of someone "subtle" like a Ripert. On the other hand, I suppose Scandinavian flavors just aren't for everyone. (I'd probably pass on the new Acme, if you had them on your radar...)

          1. re: sgordon

            Interesting to know about the herring and vasterbotten - I would never have put those two together in a zillion years! Anyway, I wouldn't say that I didn't like the pickled/vinegary flavors (or the smoke flavors, for that matter) - just that I thought there were too many of them in one meal, which added a sameness to the overall experience. It's the same thing you're talking about with Daniel (and I agree with you there - I felt like everything at Daniel tasted a bit too much the same, and the service was problematic for me as well).

            I will keep your warning about Acme in mind, but I am definitely interested in learning more about the subtleties of Scandinavian cuisine (perhaps I should do it at places with a less hefty price tag, though!). I'm heading over to Berlin for a few months this spring, so perhaps I'll have a chance to pop up to Sweden for a long weekend.

            1. re: biondanonima

              Yeah, it's one of those weird combinations that - for whatever reason - became part of their culture. But they put Vasterbotten on everything - Vasterbotten is to Sweden what Parmigiano is to Italy, in some ways.

              With a few months in Berlin, yeah, Sweden could be an interesting diversion. Or Copenhagen, which is close enough to do a weekend trip and arguably the current culinary center of Scandinavia (though I'm sure residents of Stockholm and Oslo would argue that) thanks to Claus Meyer and his crew/acolytes especially. Noma is probably out of the question, but their sister restaurant Radio, which specializes in vegetable-driven cuisine, has been getting lots of notice and is probably easier to score a rezzie at.

              We're sadly lacking (for my tastes) in Nordic offerings in NYC, especially given that it's been the supposed "next big thing" for a couple years now. I'm a bit of a Scandi nut, for whatever reason - though it's been pointed out more than once the overlap between Eastern European Jewish and Nordic cuisines. We both love our herrings, smoked fishes, horseradish, beets, rye bread... our gefilte fish could sub for their fiskpudding... so maybe that explains it. Or it would, if I actually liked the food of My People. Maybe it's because Scandi food is kind of like what Jewish food COULD have been had my ancestors actually cared about using good ingredients. (I can't remotely explain my Texan/Italian girlfriend's affinity for it, but life is full of mysteries...)