21 August 2008
Aquavit: An Initial Review
Sexy chef Marcus Samuelsson's restaurant, Aquavit, appeared unexpectedly in the midst of Midtown skyscrapers. I was meeting Emily for a spur-of-the-moment chic dinner in honor of the extension of Restaurant Week.
How fitting for us to choose a foodie-haven restaurant named after Sweden's version of moonshine! For me, 'fine dining' is the culmination of gastronomic bliss while unwinding with friends. No way better to achieve this than by pairing food with interesting and tasty alcohols and wines! Aquavit is all the more remarkable for brewing 14 of their own flavors of the traditional Swedish spirit - delicious.
Aquavit has two dining sections, organized much like Gramercy Tavern: a formal dining room with prix-fixe menus in the back, and a much more accessible (both in location, reservations, and price) front café. I was pleasantly surprised at the comfortable atmosphere in the front café, which rather than trigger my Adverse Midtown Reaction, made us both excited to try something new on the Swedish menu.
The polite yet hip waiter informed us that Aquavit does not actually participate in Restaurant Week, but he spoke with the chef to create a menu to accommodate us with a very boring garden salad and meatballs menu for $35. Actually, the prices were reasonable enough that we eschewed that option, deciding instead to create our own tasting of Sweden. First, we ordered from their deliciously inventive cocktail list ($14/each): a Midtown Martini for me in honor of the neighborhood (cucumber aquavit, dry vermouth, salted cucumber garnish), and Emily celebrated my new post on Leblon with a Cranberry Caipirinha (Aquvit NYC, lime, cranberries).
To start we shared the Crayfish Bisque. It was one of those dishes so dazzling that it boggled our tongues and tastebuds! The creamy broth seemed to be made from crayfish broth and butternut squash. It was spicy like a pumpkin pie. In the middle a giant mystery dumpling supported three large and succulent pieces of crayfish. The texture was even more amazing than the flavor. We could not wrap our heads around the dumpling - the dough part had the consistency of a Chinese bun, yet was savory and complex. The waiter approached our table with a secret smile that knew we were stumped.
"It's white bean purée!" he announced triumphantly. Turned out our "dumpling" dough was actually a mixture of white beans and shimp, cradling slivers of foie gras. This dish captured the genius of Samuelsson: he turned a Scandinavian comfort food classic on its head, making it even more interesting by borrowing ingredients and techniques from other cultures.
For our main course, we both couldn't resist ordering the Swedish meatballs. While it was an improvement over what I have had at the Ikea cafeteria, it was a little boring as Samuelsson colored inside the lines on this one. He served a mountain of slightly dry meatballs over creamy mashed potatoes, complemented by a traditional lingonberry sauce and cucumber salad with dill. Very filling, but his meatballs needed both more breadcrumbs to retain moisture and gravy. It was exactly what we ordered, which after the inspired bisque was disappointing.
I look forward to going back to sample more of the seafood items on the menu. The restaurant is a marvelous dining experience I recommend for its originality and inviting atmosphere. A gourmet experience both in the dining room and on the plate, which in the front café, doesn't have to cost you an entire paycheck.