212 307 7311
55th Street between Madison and Park
UPDATE 04/10/2005: Aquavit has moved to 55th Street. The waterfall is no more. On the plus side, the new space is beautiful, with high ceilings and soft light, and the cooking is as good as ever. The herring plate seems even heartier and more imaginative. The hake was cooked to perfection with its outside crisped and its inside melting. The root vegetables, as in cauliflower soup and the sunchokes with the sea bass, were rich and earthy. Still, the old space is gone. It is the end of an era, but Aquavit lives on.
THE KALEBERG REVIEW
Back in the 1950s and 1960s there was Scandanavian food in the United States, but it generally fell in the category of shmorgasbord. There was a lot of food, including pickled herring and dark brown bread. It is possible that this was representative of Scandanavian food at the time.
Things have changed since then, and one of the changes is Aquavit, a great, truly modern Scandanavian restaurant on 54th Street, right behind the Museum of Modern Art. A meal at Aquavit is always a wonderful experience, starting with the dining room itself. It is one of those New York City "found" spaces, somewhere between the buildings on 54th and those on 55th Street. The ceiling is several stories above and, at lunch, you can watch people at work in their offices while you dine.
The food is special as well. It is clearly inspired by classic Scandanavian cooking with lots of seafood, pickled fish, and sometimes, aquavit itself. The food is also a clear product of the chef, who uses a broad range of ingredients and is not afraid to borrow a bit, both ideas and techniques.
We enjoyed the jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke) soup with grilled watermelon and foie gras. It was not particularly Scandanavian, but at Aquavit, it felt Scandanavian. Jerusalem artichokes are not easy to categorize, but these were sweet and hearty. The foie gras added an excellent darker note. Another time, we had this dish with melon and sea urchin, and the sea urchin provided this darker, mustier note and worked just as well.
Aquavit has great appetizers. You cannot go wrong ordering oysters. If you have more of an appetite gor the shmorgasbord. It is a distant descendant of its 1960s counterpart. Aquavit pickles its own herring and makes its own gravlax and smoked salmon. They are vibrant and unctuous, and they melt in the mouth. The Swedish meatballs are so good, it is a shame they have to share a name with the usual product.
The entrees are as good as the appetizers, if not better. Not every restaurant can claim this. Many, having astounded the diner with the starter, lose their nerve and ease off for the main dish. Aquavit keeps the good stuff coming. They have sweet Atlantic salmon served in brioche, much lighter than a colubiac, served with pickled cauliflower deep fried in tempura batter. The flavor combination is unexpected but excellent.
Order anything with arctic char in it. Arctic char is an oily fish, and Aquavit usually pairs it with something meaty. One time it was a meat and tomato broth, another time a rich, beef stock. The buckwheat risotto with trumpet of death mushrooms further heightened the flavor contrast.
You cannot go wrong ordering fish at Aquavit. They have a divine sense of tuna. They know what to do with scallops. Smoked, sauteed or fried, there is a sure hand in the kitchen.
They do just as well with their non-aquatic dishes. They served us squab slices, rich and red, with cucumber and ginger pickled onions on a bed of parsley root puree. Parsley root tastes more like a parsnip than a green herb, but few places take advantage of its unusual flavor. Aquavit does.
Unafraid of intense flavors they produce an amazing angus beef steak crusted with mushrooms, for those who are afraid of adventure, but want gustatory thrills none the less.
We rarely have room for dessert, but we can speak highly of Aquavit's buttermilk sorbet with a salsa of pineapple and watermelon. And, their carrot cake was the real thing. It actually tasted of carrots.
Thanks to Aquavit, we don't miss the old fashioned Scandanavian shmorgasbord joints. Aquavit has taken the best of their Northern European tastes and ingredients and reassembled them in marvelous new forms. The food is both familiar and different and always wonderful.
Aquavit has a cookbook. We have made the crab rolls in rice paper wrappers with mango salsa and were most impressed. We don't recommend the cookbook for beginners, but is does have a lot of fascinating recipes and we intend to try a good number of them.