Aska, in Williamsburg, won't be outdone in the race to be the most Nordic of them all.
At some indefinite point during one of my nearly three-hour meals at the restaurant, chef Fredrik Berselius, who does a lot of the serving himself, brings over a small ramekin of ashes and tells me to eat them. There's no magic trick here, this is not some highfalutin Ferran Adrià-inspired course where the squid ink colored dust rehydrates into beluga caviar when it reacts with saliva. These are actual ashes, albeit ones forged from lamb heart. The organ has been cured, shaved, and placed under flaming bedstraw for so long that it hasn't so much been cooked as it's been cremated. The appropriate serving vessel would be an urn.
I dip my spoon into the cinders. Underneath is a paste of warm celery root cream. The black-and-white palette isn't quite aesthetically pleasing here as it is with the famous New York cookie — this is more like liquefied bone underneath the dust of a volcanic apocalypse.
Berselius, an athletically dapper guy who looks like he'd go recreational pole vaulting in John Varvatos before a shift, likens the flavor of the ashes to the aroma of cow manure on hot asphalt. He means that, he says, "in the best possible way."
Allow me to describe it a little differently: The white paste is sweet and silky. Pickled celery root adds a gentle tang. And then the noir carcinogens start working their magic. It doesn't taste like anything at first, but as I swallow, the gentle musk of sheep lingers on your palate, like a final dying breath, and then disappears.
I ask Berselius what inspired the dish. He replies that he'd like to get philosophical. I tell him to go ahead. And he explains that, while watching a blood red dusk in the Western Catskills, he envisioned a sheep being set ablaze as it walked into the sun.
A prevailing — and not inaccurate — narrative of the New York dining scene is that the rapidly rising cost of running a restaurant here has produced increasingly uniform restaurants, including infinite Italian spots, sushi parlors, steakhouses, and fast casual joints serving fried chicken sandwiches. This is not a time to take risks; this is a time to stay in business.
And yet, amid the tough realities of running a restaurant, restless Brooklyn chefs (along with a few wily crews in Manhattan) are fighting against the mainstream-ization of food, opening up creative and challenging establishments. We saw this with turnip Wellington and food waste sandwiches at Semilla. We saw this with carrot crepes and watermelon sushi at Olmsted.
And now we're at the naturalistic Aska, where you half expect the chef to remove a floorboard, hand you a piece of sandpaper, and tell you to inhale as much moss-laced sawdust as you like. The restaurant unmistakably belongs to the larger Nordic movement, but it's also an auteur-esque outlier that shatters some of the stodgy norms of fine dining. Just as one doesn't typically encounter serious chiles at serious sushi spots -— so as not to upset the palate, I suppose — I can't think of a single other restaurant of Aska's caliber that relishes in such concentrated flavors of funk, fermentation, oceanic offal, and death.
The meal begins with bladder wrack seaweed that's been dried, dotted with blue mussel emulsion, and placed over a collection of rocks. It looks like a twig and tastes like a gluten-free tuna fish sandwich laced with MSG.
The meal ends with a pig's blood fudge truffle coated in lavender. It looks like a truffle, and tastes like pig's blood coated in lavender.
Aska was born from the ashes of Frej, a $45 tasting menu pop-up at Kinfolk Studios in 2012. Berselius eventually changed the name to its current one, established it as a permanent-ish space, and received a Michelin star for, among other things, pig's blood crackers, pig's blood terrine, and sea buckthorn purees. But it closed in early 2014 to find a larger, more comfortable venue, a process that ended up taking bit longer than expected (it always does). Well now Berselius is cooking again. And the pig's blood is back — not just as dessert truffles, but as a sweet, funky, coagulated, rose-topped pancake.
Aska 2.0 opened in August just underneath the Williamsburg bridge. The bi-level space, a restored 1860s warehouse and garden, gives the 37-year-old Berselius a chance to prove to New York that he deserves to be taken as seriously as the city's best chefs. He does, and he charges accordingly: The restaurant's signature offering is a $215 service-included menu that diners fully pre-pay for when reserving. Add on wine pairings and dinner for two is $718.
That price includes a sharp parting gift: a grey ceramic cheese knife. When I returned for a second visit, my waiter handed me a white knife. They both sit in my cutlery drawer alongside my caviar spoons and truffle shaver. I stare at them all with envy when I reach for a pair of takeout chopsticks.
With such lofty prices come not just regiftable utensils but sleek, Scandinavian-chic hunting lodge environs. A candle sits in the curl of deer antler. A reindeer skull lies above the open kitchen. A cute little Swedish flag sits on the bar across tall cylinders of marigold and birch-infused aquavit (they taste like liquid bonfire). Sheep pelts adorn smooth wood chairs. Good cookbooks (Manresa, Benu), lie just within reach of both my table and the toilet (though it's too dark to read inside the latter — for the best). And overhead track lighting makes every table a mini-Instagram studio. An outdoor garden lets a Catskills-based ceramics artist spin ultra-local pottery for dinner service.
Proximity to product is important here, most of the time. When I ask for a shaken cocktail I learn that Aska only serves stirred potables. The bartender says bringing in carts of citrus wouldn't be local or efficient.
Later that evening, I'm slurping down caviar so delicate it has the texture and tremble of panna cotta. The fishy beads don't so much pop as they dissolve on the tongue, acting as salt to a lightly sweet onion soup. Is this an undiscovered breed of New York State caviar?
"It's from Finland."
There are certain laws to the contemporary gastronomic universe. Bread in a la carte restaurants won't be free. Avocado toast at breakfast won't be cheap. And if you're in a Nordic-leaning restaurant in New York, it probably serves a tasting menu. It's a heck of a thing, really: New York City is so over-saturated with fine dining restaurants that it has five of them (that's five more than many U.S. cities) dedicated to a subregion of Europe that most gourmands didn't care about until Rene Redzepi opened Noma in Copenhagen and started serving lemongrass-flavored live ants for lunch.
Those five Nordic tasting spots are, incidentally, the two-decade-old Aquavit (as excitingly smoky as ever), Greenpoint's Luksus (where the only beverage is beer), Tribeca's Danish-inflected Atera (think: eel-filled aebelskivers and mushrooms that hover above the plate), Grand Central's Agern (which caters to those who want a tasting menu in a train station), and now Aska, which offers the longest tasting of them all, at 19 courses.
I should point out there are cheaper ways of dining here. Shortly after opening, Berselius introduced a shortened, 10-course menu for $145. And downstairs, where a butterflied seal skin procured by the bartender's mother acts as a throw rug, Aska offers a la carte lounge plates. The lounge, "is where the neighborhood gathers," the website states, and those who recoil in the exorbitance of the North Williamsburg waterfront district will smirk at the notion of locals dropping by for $18 cocktails and $4.50 oysters — add on tax and you're at $59 per dozen.
Each Montauk Pearl is cleanly shucked, topped with a pickled currant, and squirted with just enough juniper oil to make you wonder whether these bivalves were harvested from a magical underwater coniferous tree growing deep in Long Island Sound. They're perfect. But really, charging as much for a one bite dish as you might for two empanadas is a great way to make people swear off service-included pricing forever, even if everything else in the bar room is often a steal, and occasionally a masterpiece.
A pesto-and-sour-cream smeared pancake is studded with cubes of dry-aged beef that were funkier and more expertly marbled than any $60 dry-aged steak I've had this year. The pancake, a light meal, costs just $14.
The true magic, of course, happens upstairs.
A waiter hands you a pair of scissors and tells you to cut open a bouquet of blowtorched chamomile and yarrow. Inside lies a barely-cooked langoustine that tastes like sugar and pine. You drag it with your hands through a sauce made from its head, and the flavor of the sea reappears, albeit gently. Berselius, when working with seafood, is a master of pacing, teasing you with a sandy breeze before knocking you over with a bone crunching wave, then repeating it all over again.
After the langoustine comes that private jet tidal pool of Finnish caviar — a delicate but assertive taste of the sea. Then he cranks up the ocean level big time with a chaud-froid scallop, hot and seared on top while cold on the bottom and drenched in brown butter. It's an accessible study in shellfish sweetness until you bite into a red gob of scallop roe, which, unlike trout roe, packs a low tide unctuousness that recalls a sundried horseshoe crab that's been picked apart by seagulls. I mean that, to borrow a Berselius term, "in best possible way."
The chef dials things back with a "drive through the Swedish countryside": poached skate wing rolled in wood sorrel, bronze fennel, cosmos petals, and flowering dill. It's a short herbal reprieve until the wave hits again, in the form of concentrated crab consommé and a fat slice of Norwegian king crab. It tastes of salt and clean guts. Moments later you're handed a squid and kelp tart with violets. It tastes of the ocean and dirty (but delicious) guts.
Things get blurry. A skin contact wine here. Some booze-free birch water there. Maybe another shot of aquavit. "Wolf Like Me" blasts through the sound system as you spoon your way through a kataifi-like nest of lichens over cooked cream and mushroom broth. The aroma stings of juniper and bitter forest while the flavors evoke an earthy dessert.
Maybe dry-aged beef comes later. Or maybe it'll be hay-grilled woodcock — with a warning to watch out for hunter's pellets.
A waiter politely asks if he may remove the bread and whipped lardo — eight times the strength of barbecue pulled pork — before a scoop of birchwood ice cream with mushrooms arrives. You politely respond that he may not. And then you encounter those pig's blood petits fours. He takes the lardo away. Aska is full, and Berselius, one of the most creative and challenging chefs since Paul Liebrandt (under whom he worked), is making some of the city's best fancy food. Say what you will about about the finance bros and Meatpacking hordes in Williamsburg, but dining here has never been better. Aska is a large part of that.