Icy shots (I repeat, shots) of that alcoholic beverage still flow freely here — when was the last time you had shots at Per Se? The caraway and fennel-infused spirit is precisely what to drink with Bengtsson's scallop and sea urchin, a duo of crustaceans that tastes right and relevant even if there's nothing new about this pairing. The diver scallop, one-dimensional and cloying elsewhere, exhibits a powerful brininess here, with a hint of sugar from the Maine urchin and a lick of acidity from a pungent vinaigrette. The whole affair, colored in swaths of green, red, white, and orange, ends up looking like a psychedelic tidal pool somewhere in the North Atlantic, a magical place where the ocean tastes like good balsamic.
And so here, alas, it's worth giving credit to the Michelin Guide for putting Aquavit back on my radar, a feat it accomplished by bestowing a rare honor upon Bengtsson — two stars. That makes her the second woman in America, after Dominique Crenn, to receive that accolade.
She's not the first chef to make a name for herself at Aquavit. The Midtown mainstay, which opened in 1987 at a Rockefeller townhouse on 54th St., garnered national acclaim in the 1990s under the auspicious reign of chef Marcus Samuelsson, an Ethiopian-born Swede whose "New Scandinavian Cuisine," took a global view of Northern European fare, an approach that resulted in one of the most memorable meals of my life in 2003. I remember Kumamoto oysters with curry mango sorbet, cured salmon with tandoori spices, smoked arctic char in a Japanese-like mushroom consomme, and on a later visit, foie gras lava cake.
But now, at the 55th St. digs (Aquavit relocated in 2005), we get a different approach to Scandinavia. There's crispy cod skin with bleak roe, fragrant rye crisps with fennel seeds, and bacon-topped pig's blood cakes — the flavor of boudin noir times five.
Bengtsson, who was previously pastry chef at Aquavit, is continuing the good work of her predecessor, Marcus Jernmark, in producing fare that's leaner, more focused, and more Swedish than Samuelsson's. Her cooking is a happy midpoint between classic European cuisine and the strongly indigenous "no olive oil let's use sea buckthorn" New Nordic ethos espoused by Noma's René Redzepi. That means no tandoori spices on Bengtsson's chopped gravlax, just a classic hay smoke (for a hint of sweetness), and a garnish of roe (for textural pop and a clean punch of oil). It's nothing groundbreaking. It's just perfect.
There are just enough jolts of culinary lightening in Bengtsson's cooking to warrant the attention of anyone who cares about fine dining in New York.
Is Aquavit's food as exciting and compelling as the offerings at Atelier Crenn, Atera, Blanca, Elizabeth, Annisa, the late Aska, or Manresa? Not necessarily, and perhaps that's where Michelin and this critic would disagree. Aquavit's pedestrian, 5 - 6oz lamb chop has no place on an ambitious tasting. And while brined cod with fried anchovy is straight up FlavorTown, the 4oz portion, on the same menu as the lamb, is another gut buster. That's up to ten ounces of protein in two consecutive courses. Not cool. But still. There are just enough jolts of culinary lightening in Bengtsson's cooking to warrant the attention of anyone who cares about fine dining in New York. The price is right too, with a five-course menu at $95, and an eight-course tasting at $135. Order the longer menu, as that's the only way to sample the epic sweetbread preparation. The duck-fat cooked organs are wrapped in compressed fuji apples and topped with a blue cheese foam — an accidental fondue course. Another highlight: barley risotto with summer truffles, as a rich, earthy, al dente porridge.
And for those who haven't dropped by Aquavit in a while, note that the former dining room, a windowless affair that evoked an executive lounge in Corporate Purgatory, is now reserved for private events. Guests now enjoy their three-hour tastings up front in the old bistro room, an airier space overlooking 55th Street. Smart move.
Another bonus: Should you bring a pocketbook or backpack into the dining room, the wait staff will provide a raccoon fur-covered stool for it to rest upon. It's the type of adornment one might expect for a restaurant that smells like a campfire, which this one does, thanks to a ubiquitous (albeit judicious) use of smoke throughout the meal, perfuming striped bass (good), leek and potato soup (very good) and Swiss chard-wrapped duck leg (even better).
That duck leg, incidentally, plays a supporting role to a breast boasting such densely crispy skin that I'm halfway tempted to call it the new archetype for this dish throughout the city. And amping up the iron-y funk are tiny bits of crispy duck skin scattered throughout the plate. Cleanse the palate with chili mango aquavit and the evening starts to take on a warm glow.
The evening improves further with the arrival of the Arctic Nest, a naturalistic riff on the classic Aquavit dessert. In the past guests were served a cylinder of goat fromage parfait topped with blueberry sorbet and a swooping honey tuile. It looked like a modernist sculpture in an overpriced Danish design store. Bengtsson, in turn, has reimagined that delicacy as a goat cheese egg, filled with a "sea buckthorn" yolk and all nestled in a tangle of tuiles shaped to resemble a proper avian abode. The tart-sweet-crunchy combo is as good as ever, and so is Aquavit. Finish off with pate de fruit flavored like "Sour Patch Kids" and raise a glass to Hakan Swahn for continuing to make his restaurant a breeding ground for important New York chefs.
Photographer: Daniel Krieger