Aquavit: gunning for another star
A recent discussion of Aquavit in another thread reminded me that tt'd actually been some time since we went for dinner - I think the last time we ate there was lunch, during the post-Sandy blackout when we were wandering around like zombies. So we were definitely due for a dinner trip. We had talked with Chef Jernmark a bit at that lunch - it was after he'd (and the restaurant) had gotten their first ever Michelin star, and he made no secret that he was gunning for a two the next time.
If last night's dinner was any indication, he's well on his way. He's pushing the boundaries further, playing with new techniques, and embracing the flavors of his homeland more intensely than ever before.
Now, my girlfriend and I aren't much in the way of picture-takers, so forgive the lack of photographic evidence... There's no flash on my came-free-with-the-service-plan camera phone, so instagramming in mood lighting doesn't really work terribly well.
One thing I was happy to note, right away - beer! I've been feeling Aquavit needed to expand their beer selection for some time, especially as over the last few years Scandinavia has been going through a massive beer renaissance, with some of the most creative breweries on the planet coming from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. They now have a small but well-curated beer list. Prices on the beer are a little higher than you'd pay in a bar, of course, but I imagine they're sticking to a standard wine markup. That's just the nature of restaurants.
Chef Jernmark came out beforehand to tell us about a few of the new dishes on the menu, and I just went with the dishes he seemed the most excited about for my choices (figure he'd know what's best, of all people) while the gf ordered what struck her fancy.
Anyway, on to the food. I am, as usual, probably getting a few things wrong or leaving parts out, because I'm not a note-taker, I'm just a food enjoyer who goes with the moment and tries to remember it all the next day...
Quail Eggs & Buttered Radishes
Potato chips, Wagyu, pickled cherry tomatoes
Asparagus Soup, Vasterbotten Gougeres
First a flurry of amuses - perfectly soft-boiled quail eggs coated in, if I recall correctly, cocoa butter, and tiny buttered radishes on a plate of what I believe was a smoked salt - there might have been a bit of bacon powder in there as well(?), not sure what was giving it the smokey flavor. Anyway - smokey, eggs, radishes - like a few bites of an amazing breakfast, awesome.
Accompanying this were some crisps - potato dusted in mushroom powder, air-dried wagyu chips, and pickled tomato lollipops to cleanse the palate with a bit of acidity.
Then out came two mason jars filled with smoke, a little gougere to the side of each one. Opening the jars, hidden within the smoke, was an assortment of tasty tidbits slowly infusing. Over this they poured a chilled white asparagus soup. If the first round of amuses was a spin on breakfast, this was a classic lunch - grilled cheese and soup, only reimagined at the highest level. A fun course.
Began the meal with a pint of Oppigårds "Well-Hopped Lager" - a solid brew, not as bitter as the name would suggest. Something I'd be happy drinking after mowing the lawn on a hot day. If I had a lawn.
Appetizers, Round 1:
A new preparation of the herring app - previously it was more of a herring sampler, a few different kinds served traditionally, with potatoes and a wedge of Vasterbotten. Now it's a composed salad, with thick strained buttermilk, caviar, brown butter, and potatoes. The herring itself was hands down the best quality I've ever had - and I eat a LOT of herring. Chef Jernmark later told us he had a new supplier, and damn it was good. Whoever it is, they're like, the Pat LaFrieda of herring. Rich and lucsious, the GF was going bonkers for this one and wouldn't give me more than a couple little bites, hoarding the rest for herself.
The langoustine crudo was, in a word, amazing. My only complaint was I wish it were double the size, as it was about half the size of the herring app. I understand it would be that much more expensive to make, obviously - but hey, I'll pay a supplement. Soooo luxurious and bright. Pristine raw sweet langoustine with a shmear of briny uni, hidden under a salad of celery, lovage, and granny smith. Decadent yet crisp, so well balanced with the veggies and herbs.
Apps, Round 2:
Dinner at Aquavit is incomplete without two things: herring, and gravlax. This was a new prep as well, moving away from the traditional. We were given plates of gravlax, pickled beets, and - I believe - blood orange. Chef Jernmark appeared with a pot, billowing the tell-tale mist of liquid nitrogen. From it he scattered across the plate a line of shards and pebbles - frozen and shattered foie gras. Great tableside touch.
So - foie gras and gravlax? Bird liver and fish? Seems odd, but my mind floated back to one of the few dishes I really loved by Samuelsson - his duck-liver crusted tuna, which I've waxed poetic about before. So, same restaurant, different chef, same unexpected combination. Let's just say liver and fish should be served together more often. This was incredible - the gravlax very much the star (as it should be) - which, if it weren't silky enough, the foie adding that intensly luxurious mouthfeel. This was a little adventure on the plate - when eating the gravlax, it shone, adding a bit of beet, the sweetness would amplify the natural sweetness of the liver and bring it to fore. One of Jernmark's best creatiions yet.
Apps, Round 3:
This was a "risotto" of a sort, Barley cooked in a rich dried morel stock. Served with a small poached egg, and since fresh morels aren't in season yet - porcini (I ain't complaining) and stinging nettles, giving a hint of spring to come. Here we were moving to the other side of Scandinavian food - while the first few courses were bright and clean, this was very straightforward, rich and hearty, the kind of thing you'd want to sit over a big bowl of after a long day hunting moose.
Apps, Round 4:
White Asparagus & "Forgotten" Beets
The scallop dish was fun - grilled gem lettuce, anchovy emulsion, and little crisp garlic chips. An inspired take on a Caesar Salad. One of the better dishes of the evening, for me - I'm a big fan of bitter flavors, so the slight edge the char gave to the lettuce was nice. The anchovy emulsion was great - reminded me more of the high-end Italian white anchovies than the usual tinned kind.
Asparagus came with their signature "forgotten" beets - so called because the chef forgot some beets in the oven one night and found them wonderfully carmelized and concentrated the next morning. A little forest tableau on the plate, with smoked trout roe, rye crisps, and a hint of spruce.
At some point I switched beers to Haandbryggeriet's "Norwegian Wood" - a dark ale made with smoked malt, infused with juniper, which was a traditional spice to use in Norway for beer before they had hops. Very intense smoke - maybe a bit assertive with the savories, I think it actually would have paired well with dessert in lieu of a scotch.
The entrees were somewhat more traditional plates - just hearty good stuff, along the lines of the Morel Barley. The Wagyu was a brick of meltingly tender (there's an overused unoriginal phrase) short rib, served with swiss chard, sunchoke, and little roulades of raw tenderloin wrapped around what I believe was a lovage pesto. A real winter-into-spring dish, the brightness of the lovage balancing the richness of the short rib.
Lamb was a perfectly rare loin with a few sweetbreads - his take on sweetbreads is different than most. Usually seared so they're creamy and lush, which is great for an appetizer, here they're slow braised for 12 hours to render out the fat, then crisped, giving them a much meatier texture - for those who've had the fennel-dusted sweetbreads at Babbo, it's somewhat similar. Came with pickled carrot ribbons, marcona almonds, and as a hint of spring the year's first fiddlehead ferns. There was something very delicious on the plate that I couldn't place as well - it looked like a twig, though it had a vegetal texture, and a sorrel-like tartness, and after a bit I realized a taste of thyme. I thought at first maybe a pickled thyme sprig, but it was thicker than any sprig I've seen. Or something pickled with thyme? I forgot to ask afterwards, but whatever it was it's an ingredient I want to play with at home.
At this point, Chef Jernmark came back out and as we were the last diners in the place, we had a nice long chat - much needed, as we were ridiculously stuffed at that point, and a break before desserts was quite welcome.
Orange Creme Brulee
Chocolate and Texture
Arctic Bird's Nest
Dulce de Leche Beignets
As if the amount of food we'd consumed already wasn't enough, a parade of desserts arrived. I didn't get more a than a couple small bites of the brulee so I can't comment too much on it - strange, I love oranges but for some reason it's not my favorite flavor in desserts, so i'm not the best best qualified to review that dish. Chocolate and Textures was just what the name implies - different textures of chocolate, plus a number of other flavors. Crisp pastry ribbons, green tea ice cream, some tiny green balls (I kept calling them "frog's eggs") of tapioca. There were a LOT of elements, can't remember them all sadly, and I was in a bit of a daze at that point.
The Arctic Bird's Nest (only picture) is one of their signature desserts, a great presentation and tasty to boot - some of the components change seasonally, this time it was goat cheese "eggs" with a sea buckthorn "yolk" hidden inside, one of the eggs coated in silver to commemorate their 25th Anniversary. Hidden under the eggs was a delicious raspberry sorbet, and a few fresh raspberries scattered around the nest for good measure.
And so... another meal with overly detailed long-winded descriptions in the books. It seems every meal we have at Aquavit is better than the last. It's hard to believe it wasn't terribly long ago (three years?) I wrote a post on this site essentially writing them off - finding them overpriced for what they served, the food good but (one dish aside) not terribly memorable. Boy, has that changed. I'm so glad we decided to give them another go a couple years ago.
I doubt it will happen, since Sifton re-reviewed them during his tenure at The Times and older restaurants tend not be revisited terribly often, but I'd love to see Pete Wells give them a go. Sifton just went too early. The amount of growth that kitchen has gone through since he visited is enormous.
Jernmark's hit a stride, and far surpassed his predecessors there, and is one of the most exciting and creative chefs in NYC right now. If they were below 14th Street or in Williamsburg, they'd probably be getting a lot more notice and hipster cred than they are, but sadly many people still think of them either as an old warhorse serving Swedish meatballs, or don't realize there's been a new chef in charge for quite some time now.
Are they on the way to two Michelin stars? Hard to say, since no one knows what the Mysterious Michelin Men like (or why, say, Gordon Ramsey at The London still has two stars...) but they're certainly swinging for the fences.