Friday, July 24, 2009

Aquavit: NYC Restaurant Week, Summer 2009

Last night, my co-worker Tia and I made our highly-anticipated, first New York City Restaurant Week Summer 2009 voyage. Our destination? Scandinavian “haute” spot Aquavit.

Aquavit’s been on my list for some time. Chef/co-owner Marcus Samuelsson has such an interesting story: born in Ethiopia and orphaned at an early age, he was taken in and raised by a young Swedish couple. It was while observing his grandmother—a professional cook—during his childhood on the West Coast of Sweden, that Samuelsson first developed a passion for Scandinavian cooking. At the tender age of 25, Samuelsson became executive chef of Aquavit, and went on to become the youngest chef to receive a three-star review in The New York Times. He is now a multiple James Beard winner, a noted humanitarian, and über-chef extraordinaire. All hail Samuelsson!

Aquavit made its first appearance on Tia’s list merely two days ago when she learned that the restaurant took its namesake from a Scandinavian liquor, essentially a very strong, spiced vodka, distilled from grain or potatoes, then aged and flavored with different ingredients. “Scandinavian moonshine,” Tia would whisper happily in anticipation whenever she passed by my cubicle.

The restaurant is three areas in one. You’ve got the casual Café upfront; a hip bar/lounge with backlit jugs of Aquavit prominently aligning shelves; and the business-elegant Dining Room in back.

On Thursday night, Tia and I were seated at the back of the Dining Room next to a semi-private table containing a large group of very important-looking, impeccably dressed and extremely beautiful foreigners. Scandinavian royalty, we wondered? Tia caught my eye and discreetly pointed to the most striking fellow, who was deep in conversation with a man standing above him. I followed her gaze. But the man standing above him, with smooth, coffee-colored skin, and warm, kind eyes, was the one who caught my attention. My jaw dropped in delight.

“…That’s Marcus Samuelsson!”

(“So?” some of you may ask. “Samuelsson is the chef—of course he’s gonna be at his own restaurant.” Except not really. Spotting Samuelsson at Aquavit would be akin to running into Anthony Bourdain at Les Halles, Mario Batali at Babbo, or Bobby Flay at Mesa Grill. It just doesn’t really happen that often. These chefs have so many projects, it’s impossible for them to be in the kitchen every night. So we were impressed. And a little giddy.)

Samuelsson disappeared into the kitchen, not to be seen again for the rest of the evening, but I suspect his presence had something to do with the top-notch service we experienced. Cause it was on.

Drinks, of course, were homemade Aquavit. Individual glasses are $7. We opted for a flight of three ($17).
I know I just finished telling you it was on, but, well... it was on in a moment. From left to right you’ve got: the unbelievably nasty Fig & Cardamom, the Nyquil-tasting Lingonberry, and Horseradish (which actually really did taste like horseradish) coupled with what could only be 100 percent pure alcohol.

Safe to say I didn’t enjoy Aquavit the beverage. But I didn’t really expect to like it. I can’t handle hard liquor and if I’m being honest, I don’t enjoy it. I just wanted to try it is all…is that ok with you?

Moments later, a choice of rye, white, or flat bread was offered to us, along with this:
Yep. That’s popcorn. Tia and I stared at it for a moment.

“I guess Erin could’ve come with us after all,” I said thoughtfully, remembering the face our mutual buddy Erin made when I told her we would be sampling seafood (Erin doesn’t do seafood). I popped a few kernels in my mouth.

Crunchy. Buttery. Cheesy. …Popcorn: available at your local movie theater.

Ballsy. I liked it.

The next thing we knew, appetizers from the Restaurant Week menu ($35 for three courses) were placed before us. This was perhaps the one misstep of the evening—I would’ve liked a few more seconds to finish my bread and contemplate that popcorn before we got our first course. I think our servers realized this, and the pacing ceased to be an issue for the rest of the evening.)

First up was the Herring Plate:
And mercy, what a generous plate it was! In the center, you’ve got Västerbotten cheese and boiled potatoes. On the outside, clockwise, starting with the bottom right, you’ve got: curried herring with apple and chives; vodka lime herring with salmon roe and dill; pickled herring with horseradish and black pepper; and matjes herring with red onions and sour cream.

I ordered this because I’m a sucker for samplers, even though I suspected from the get-go that I wasn’t a fan of herring (In my limited experience, I’ve found the pickling to be too powerful.) The first bite of the pickled herring confirmed this. The next three, however, were pleasant surprises, especially the vodka lime. The salmon roe, such a potent flavor, difficult to pair with anything due to its salty and fishy taste, perfectly balanced the pickling. I really enjoyed this dish.

Over on Tia’s side, was Chilled Corn Soup with smoked salmon and beets:
This tasted of summer and sweetness and a hint of the ocean. Again, very enjoyable.

For entrees, I got the Swedish Meatballs with lingonberries, cream sauce, and mashed potatoes:
I’ve been reading some smack online about these meatballs—that IKEA’s are better, that they are too dry. Pure smack is all it is. These meatballs are great! Faintly spiced, incredibly moist. And the mashed potatoes were some of the creamiest I’ve tasted. Perhaps the most amazing aspect about this dish was how deliciously sweet the lingonberries could be here, yet so foul in the Aquavit.)

I was even more impressed with Tia’s dish: Seared Salmon with fennel, tomato vinaigrette, and asparagus:
This dish brought back to mind Samuelsson’s appearance on Top Chef: Season 5, when contestants were asked to prepare a mock “Last Supper” for a panel of superstar chefs (Lidia Bastianich chose roast chicken, Susan Ungaro wanted shrimp scampi, Wylie Dufresne opted for Eggs Benedict, and Jacques Pepin wanted him some squab and peas.) Samuelsson, in typical Norseman fashion, asked the super-talented/super-arrogant Stefan Richter for salmon, spinach and potatoes.

Aquavit’s salmon is served medium-rare. It doesn't look it in the photo, but the middle is sushi rare. The mild-mannered, endearingly polite Samuelsson was probably more disappointed than he let on with Stefan’s overcooked salmon on Season 5, considering how rare Aquavit’s salmon ventures. But it is absolutely exquisite. So unbelievably fresh, not at all fishy, like it was retrieved from the ocean hours before dinner service and rushed to the table. The seasoning was light, the texture velvety—it conjured up childhood memories of frolicking on the beaches of Göteborg without ever setting foot on Swedish sand (I know. It was weird). And that skin —so flavorful and crisp, almost like it was peeled from a rotisserie chicken. Masterful.

Here’s a look at dessert:

Chocolate Mousse with peanut powder and grape sorbet:
Isn’t that a work of art? I wondered why the dish seemed so familiar and soulful, and then it hit me: “It’s a take on peanut butter and jelly!” I exclaimed to Tia. Her face lit up in wonder as if I had just computed Pi to its last digit. (We were both pretty tanked from the Aquavit at this point…. yes, we drank it anyway.)

Tia’s “Artic Circle,” a goat cheese parfait, passion fruit curd and blueberry sorbet:
This was a little sweet for me, but I did appreciate how the tang of the goat cheese balanced the dish. Tia was a huge fan. We took a short rest over dessert, and when a server came to clear our plates, Tia seized her spoon to guard the last bite of melting parfait. The server smiled and kept on walking.

As a treat (and a true Restaurant Week first for me), our waiter returned with two complimentary gift certificates ($24.07 each) toward our next dinner at Aquavit.

Aquavit has been a fixture of Manhattan since 1987. Walking in last night to find a relevant and exciting dining destination, proficient service, and clean and inspired flavors (and ballsy— don’t forget ballsy), was at once a comfort and delight.

Woot, Aquavit: you delivered.

65 East 55th Street
New York NY 10022
(212) 307-7311


  1. Absolutely amazing... It's just like you said, "Woot, Aquavit: you delivered."

  2. Sounds divine. And looks even better. That last dessert: gorgeous! (How do you do this in low light? I am hopeless.)

    --Hungry Pumpkin/

  3. We had an amazing time.

    Low light is a royal pain. A fast lens is a good investment. My lens is on the cheaper end, but it does the trick (most of the time). I use a 50mm fixed lens with a 1.8 f stop (It's also handy because it's pretty small). If it's dark, I pump the ISO to 1600. Even then, it can be dicey in low light - the most important thing is to keep the camera steady (If the picture is in focus, you can often lighten it a bit in Photoshop; if it's blurry, nothing can save it.) Blur is definitely the biggest problem in low light.

    I hope this helps - believe me, I know it's challenging - I struggle with the photography every dinner. I'm constantly disappointed... but constantly learning. :)

  4. I'm uber-jealous I didnt get to go!!!!
    It sounds amazing, and as always I did feel like I was there while reading your words Ms. Kennedy!!!!!!

  5. im heading to nyc (from toronto, canada) this friday. aquavit is now on my to do list after reading this post.

  6. Iqster, please share your experience. If they were as "on" as they were for me, I don't think you will be disappointed. Have a great time in New York.