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Aquavit vastly exceeded expectations!

I hadn't been here in maybe 20 years. Wow has it changed--the food is amazingly inventive, including several elements of molecular gastronomy, plus the service is excellent.

The amuse bouche and bread were already outstanding. One of the two butters was actually browned butter! They melt it, brown, clarify, and re-chill the butter! The rye bread and "crisp" (flatbread) were great (I didn't try the sourdough so I can't comment).

The first set of amuses bouche was pretty amazing--twists on traditions. They served two perfect radishes dipped in butter, but it was butter infused with bacon--wow, just the right mix of butter and salt to evoke the traditional service with a powerful smack of bacon infusion to give a serious update and flavor kick. They also served two items on sticks jutting out of a birds nest of hay and rocks in a bowl. One stick was a perfect quail egg, with a crunchy flake on top and a nicely soft yolk. The other was an amazing tomato (can't remember what they did to it but it was very flavorful and exploded in the mouth; it had this great matte finish).

They also served an amuse bouche of white asparagus soup served over white asparagus that served with smoke(!). The smoke wafts out as they open the mason jar, but it's not just for show--there's a strong smoky flavor in the goodies that they've poured the soup over. There was a little cheese puff next to the jar that had the soup (not sure why, but it worked!).

We shared two great apps, the herring (buttermilk something, caviar, brown butter foam, bits of potato) which was very good and the stunning lightly toasted gravlax which was astoundingly good. It includes shaved fois gras which was roasted, frozen, and apparently shaved or microplaned; It had a great flavor that really complemented the dish (not just a gimmick--it was really excellent! So much better than the WD-50 fois gras Dippin' Dots.).

I had the squab which was one of the best I've had. This was a simpler dish, but one that was just excellent. I find that squab can be hideously bad, very good, or excellent. This was clearly in that last category.

The creme brûlée was scented with orange and largely deconstructed with crisp sheets of caramelized sugar on the side with bits of chocolate and other goodies (sorry I don't remember everything) around it.

The dessert amuses were also really good, too, plus they gave us little chocolate cakes in bags to take with us.

We just did three courses, but the 4-course choose whatever you want prix fixe would have been a similar price and seems well worth doing. There's also a chef's tasting menu (looked like 8 courses).

Anyway, I'd gone expecting a solid traditional Swedish dinner, but instead had a wonderfully inventive meal that respected and built on traditions in a fun and sensual way that totally worked.

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  1. I've been telling people for some time that Aquavit ain't the same old place it used to be. I think a number of diners wrote it off as an old warhorse - but after some short growing pains, under Chef Jernmark it's better than it's ever been. It's interesting how he's made things more rustic in some ways and more modern in others (some of Samuelsson's ideas were beginning to feel a bit dated when he left...) - honestly, every time we've been in the last few years it's been better than the time before.

    6 Replies
    1. re: sgordon

      I was definitely in the write-off camp until I went back this week. I'm glad I'm not the lone voice in the wilderness!

      1. re: StevenCinNYC

        Thank Steven and sgordon. I was not impressed when I went the first time, back when Samuelsson was there. I've been thinking about going back, and now I've reserved for next week. I hope I enjoy it as much as you have.

        1. re: rrems

          Great! Please let us know what you think.

          1. re: rrems

            I also had mixed reactions during the Samuelsson reign. I recall some dishes that were fine, if nothing special, and terrible service. There were some interesting ideas for the pre-Wylie era - vegetable sorbets as accompaniments to the gravlax, and a decent (if one-note) dish of "noodles" made of shaved salsify. But it seemed he kind of rested on his laurels for awhile and didn't really grow with the times. Granted, he might have been feeling ready to move on to something else at one point, and play with ideas he couldn't at Aquavit (like his rediscovery of Ethiopian cusine) - who knows? It just got stale.

            On the other hand, he made one of the best dishes I've ever had - a duck-liver-crusted tuna loin in a mild coconut curry that was just sublime. I've been trying to recreate the duck liver crust ever since. And his signature dishes - the foie gras ganache comes to mind - were certainly good. But after awhile the "wow" factor started to fade. But kudos to him for what he did - he certainly set the stage for chefs like Dufresne to take things a step further.

            I'm always surprised at how many people - people fairly plugged in to the NYC food world - don't realize Samuelsson isn't the chef anyore. There've actually been TWO chefs since he left - Nils Noren (of FCI) took over for a bit, but I got the impression he was just helping out and never intended to be permanent. Jernmark took over a few years ago and - after a little time finding his footing (our first visit under him we enjoyed but weren't blown away) - really started growing in leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, Sifton reviewed them a little too early under Jernmark, before he'd had time to really remake the menu. Gave them a respectable enough review, but I have a feeling were Wells to go now there might be an additional star on it.

            1. re: rrems

              Went there last week and all I can say is Wow! Everything was great from beginning to end. If I had to criticize anything it would be the desserts. Very good but not as exciting as the other courses, and I've had better at other high-end places. The gravlax was phenomenal. We were given an additional course of langoustine, which was a wonderful combination of flavors. Picked a Ribeira del Duero for $60 that was a great value and a great wine. We will definitely be going back, soon.

              1. re: rrems

                Glad to hear it! Now we're not lone voices in the wilderness! I hope more people recognize how good Aquavit has become.

        2. After all this talk, had to go back last night and revisit. Wowza. Review here:

          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/898128

          10 Replies
          1. re: sgordon

            Great review. Thanks for posting and linking back!

            Sounds like your experience was very similar to mine.

            I hope more hounds read your review and this thread.

            Maybe it will take a second star or a new Times review as you suggest, for people to really take notice. However, Michelin are idiots outside of Europe (or maybe even outside France). Spotted Pig got two stars in the first US edition and EMP none?

            1. re: StevenCinNYC

              Can't add much to your already stellar review. Based on that, two of us dined here last night and were impressed. Service is a model of what NYC restaurants should aspire to. Attentive, never ingtrusive, always ready with intelligent explanations.

              Amuse included the above noted white spargel puree, and the cherry tomato "lollipops," as well as those butter-dipped radishes (cold they be better than those at NoMad?) with an array of other delicicacies that I negelected to note. But I did not need to note those quail eggs, as they will live in my memory a long time. Note to myself: Look for them at USQ market.

              I do not consider my self a herring lover but had to try this at the mother ship of herring in NYC (at least in the sit-down restaurant arena); incredibly delicious, comes from "off the coast of Sweden" in this season.

              Gravlax rounds (not the usual shaved, thin slices) with shaved foie gras even better, complex blend of flavors and textures..I could eat this dish alone for lunch 4 days a week and be happy.

              Barley/morel "risotto" was superb, given textural interest by the crispy kale leaves.

              Partner was mixed on the short ribs..I thought them divine although of the three beef cuts presented, one of them was not to my taste (air-dried tenderloin, I suspect) ....sorry to be so vague here but menu should show details.

              http://www.aquavit.org/restaurant/pdf...

              Bread service very good..Danish rye was the winner here.

              Incredibly array of amuse and complimentary courses, including the onion/alium course with amazingly delicious foie and a hefty slice of unctuous pork belly, perfectly cooked.

              This was followed by a battery of scrumptious desserts including dulce de leche bombollini immersed in a deep dish of brown sugar with cinnamon and star anise, and cardamom seeds (??) which I am guessing are three key players in the Swedish culinarium. Also presernted were a macaron (hibiscus but I could be mistaken here); jellied fruit; and a long line of other treats, presented on a lovely slate tray.

              I did not take notes, was too happy just looking around and enjoying what was on my plate but by all means, go..this is a gem hidden in the canyons of midtown that dserves to be on the rotation of the food-obsessed.

              With a glass of German Riesling.. the total before tax: $120 for two. Yes, you read that correctly; partner does not drink so that always keeps the price down!

              Kudos to all servers, and to Chef Jernmark. The restaurant has been here since 1987....I think it is about time we discovered more of his considerable talents.

              Another note: The restaurant is QUIET! You can hear yourselves talk! And very handsome as well.

              1. re: erica

                Yes, cardamom seeds, and yes, that is part of Swedish cuisine. I had a Swedish girlfriend once upon a time, and she introduced me to the Swedish cardamom seed rusk which I believe she said was particularly popular around Yuletide. I don't think star anise is traditional in Sweden, but rather, the cinnamon/star anise/cardamom combination is an extension of a traditional taste. My then-girlfriend told me that Swedes actually seldom ate traditional Swedish food, but ate pasta more than anything else, so internationalism and innovation is a central part of cuisine in Sweden. Your experience may vary.

                1. re: erica

                  Sorry for all the above typos; I should mention that Chef Jernmark has not been there since the restaurant's opening, but he has been there for four or so years. Fellow diners were a mix of local business persons, Swedish tourists, and others.

                  Again, sorry for my typos and general slackness in the above report. Partner has just mentioned that he was perhaps a tad less thrilled as I was (he is not a fish eater, so that left out a lot of the offerings for him).

                  For my part, I keep thinking about the gravlax, the herring, the complimentary oinion/foie/pork belly dish. Any of one those would make me happy as a main course for dinner.

                  Certainly a restaurant to add to the rotation, both for visitors and for locals, especially those of us living in the area. The lunch, which includes meatballs as an option, will certainly be on my short list of nearby spots for the rare occasions when I do eat lunch out......

                  Recommended!!

                  Thanks to Pan for the clarification of the Swedish flavors. The experience has made me hunger for a week in Stockholm; coincdentally, I just received some kind of promotion for KLM for a flight..........comments on this, please, or perhaps I will open a discussion on the appropriate board...

                  1. re: erica

                    I'm so glad you enjoyed it! It's great that more people are trying and appreciating it.

                    1. re: StevenCinNYC

                      Thanks, StevenCinNY.

                      It was your review that prompted our visit. And how could I forget that medley of pickled vegetables (I seem to remember cukes and cauliflower but there were others as well, snug in a handsome can of that originally housed imported anchovies)

                      My partner and I did battle over these (can you imagine a confirmed meat eater dueling over pickled veg?) and sad for me, he got the larger share. (I must hone my latent aggressive skills with a fork!)

                      Again, this place is an overlooked gem hidden in the anonymous canyons of midtown, but I suspect a major review in the offing, and once that is published, it may be less easy to book tables, especially at prime dining hours. (Happily, we are confirmed early birds, content to dine well before 7pm!)

                      1. re: erica

                        Sadly I don't think the Times (which would be the only review I would consider "major") will be revisiting them any time soon. Sifton visited a few years back, but it was a bit too soon after Jernmark took over - less than a year, I think. Not only has Jernmark grown as a chef tremendously in the intervening years, but it's a better value as well - the prix fixe was three courses for $85 then, now it's four. Also, the service has gotten better, the room is more comfortable - it's just all around superior to where it was in 2010.

                        But major papers and magazines are reticent to revisit older places, what with so many new ones popping up to weigh in on, unless a major change occurs - i.e. a new chef. Sifton gave them a respectable review (two stars) for sure, but I suspect they'd get three if the Times were to visit today. I just don't see Pete Wells filing on them, and even less so now that he's trying to be "America's Critic" and taking up column space reviewing places in California. Unless you know something we don't?

                        1. re: sgordon

                          I'm sorry to hear that, SG. I should also mention that your review also prompted me to give the place a try and I thank you for that, and for all of your literate and thought provoking posts over the years. You are certainly an asset to CH!

                          I know nothing at all about how the review scene works, but I do know that they deserve a new review by an educated critic. Perhaps this is not to be, but we can generate our own buzz here!!

                          1. re: erica

                            I also went based on what I read on this thread. I'm annoyed I didn't go sooner!

                            Everything was delicious but my favorites were:
                            their version of chawanmushi - just smoky, light and full of the sea.
                            FAUX BEET and FOIE GRAS - the presentation is nice and and the flavors work very well. i liked rolling pieces of foie in the "dirt."
                            UNI and PERIGORD TRUFFLE - the barley risotto really is very good. I liked it even better the second time when they changed the presentation and you didnt have to dig it out of the giant plastic golf ball thing.
                            HAVGUS- that combo of sweet and savory was perfect. it's gonna kill regular creme brulees for me.

                            An added bonus is the fact that they are on savored/groupon reserve. All that great food and a 20% discount.

                            1. re: SomeRandomIdiot

                              I had no idea about the Groupon. Thanks!

                              Glad that this thread resulted in your trying it, too. That's great!

              2. Just came back from Aquavit...

                Amazing!!!!!! I read a lot about it and I was really curious but it vastly exceeded expectations.

                Maybe we chose the right dishes but everything was so delicious.

                The amouse were different from what I can read in Steven reviews and even more interesting, the gravlax was great but the real star was the duck breast...

                Service was impeccable, can't wait to go back!

                1 Reply
                1. re: alepenazzi

                  Sorry for the slow reply, but I'm very glad you enjoyed it, and I hope if you return, your expectations will only be higher!

                2. To bring a 2014 perspective, I have no idea how Aquavit only has 1 Michelin star. Took my wife there last evening and it was one of the best meals we've ever had. Wife and I agree that it was better than Eleven Mad., Per Se and Daniel (all three stars)

                  The amuse were great, but the stars were the dishes. Wife had a root vegetable salad and I had heirloom egg over asparagus. Both were to die for. The texture, the freshness, perfect execution. They were just great.

                  Wife then really wanted the lobster with English peas which was on the chefs menu, but we were order a la carte. Kitchen happily obliged and brought out two orders. I personally don't love seafood, but the dish was amazing. Warm lobster over a cold pea broth. Just amazing.

                  Then the best. For entree she had the Icelandic cod with sweetbreads and favs beans. I had the Wagyu short rib with barley and morels. These were the entrees of the Gods. Since the lobster was so good, I tasted the cod. It just melted in my mouth with a beautiful slight dill aftertaste. The beef was charred and tender and the barley was cooked perfectly to give the entire bite a great mouth feel.

                  Overall, cannot recommend Aquavit highly enough.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: tada

                    I couldn't agree more! I had a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner there at the end of last year (traditional Swedish cuisine) and then a wonderful "regular" (innovative Swedish) dinner in March--excellent! I don't that the Michelin stars make any sense in the US. Per Se and Daniel are completely unexceptional and unimaginative--and undeserving of 3 stars. I will say that EMP delivers a great experience and great food, but Aquavit is more cutting-edge at this point. So glad that you agree!

                    1. re: StevenCinNYC

                      I had a chance to work with Marcus G. at an event late last year. He ran the show, first in the kitchen of Aquavit, and then off-site where the event was held, with many other talented "Nordic" chefs. He's the real deal.

                      1. re: StevenCinNYC

                        In no way am I saying that the restaurants are bad, just a comment about the star system.

                        With a 1 being "good", 2 being "great" and 3 being "travel to NYC just for this", I simply don't agree with the rankings.

                        I went to EMP before they made it the really long tasting menu. I would have classified EMP as a great place but haven't been in the last year. (Their granola is so good that it's worth another star, so you can leave them at three)

                        Daniel didn't impress me at all. I thought the food was very bland and unimaginative. Still "good" though

                        Per Se was fantastic on a few of the dishes, but I am just not wired to sit through a 4 hour dinner (probably same reason I'm nervous to go back to EMP). The dinner became so long that I ended up just power eating whatever they brought at the end to finish it up. If you're into the marathon dinner, then I can understand the 3 stars. It's an experience, and while some dishes are just good, there are others that wow you.

                        Now, back to Aquavit. I would fly back to nyc just to go back if I had to. The food was so fresh, the technique and execution so perfect, that I just want to try it again. I can see how if you don't like the taste of smoke, dill or vinegar, that you wouldn't like aquavit. Those ingredients are all part of the Nordic cuisine, but you have to give them credit for taking simple ingredients and making them sing. As I told my waitress when she asked after the salad. I said "I've had asparagus and eggs before. Never in my life have I had THIS". The this was the experience. Perfect combinations of texture, taste and ingredients.