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Aquavit Cafe

Note: Click here for a more recent visit to Aquavit Cafe. It was less impressive the second time around.

My friend and I dined at Aquavit Cafe last Friday night. As Frank Bruni noted in that day’s paper, there are now several restaurants in New York that have an informal cafe attached to a fancy main dining room. I’ve tried several of these “little sister” restaurants, and the Aquavit Cafe is the most refined of them. Despite its comparative informality, tables are generously spaced, and there’s plenty of fabric to deaden the sound. Service is top-notch.

We started with cocktails (a bit pricey at $14 ea.), two kinds of Swedish bread with luscious goat cheese butter, and an amuse of toast with sour cream and a hot mushroom sauce.

My friend ordered the Herring Sampler ($12), while I had the Salmon Sampler ($18), and we each sampled each other’s plates. My friend observed that my appetizer had “enough salmon to feed all of Chelsea.” Okay, not quite, but it was a large portion. On days when I’ve had a full lunch, it could be dinner all by itself. But it is also perfectly prepared, and not at all “fishy.”

Quite to our surprise, the kitchen sent out mid-course plates, compliments of the house. We aren’t celebrities or regulars, and we weren’t spending much on liquor, so this was most unexpected. My friend was served a lobster roll, while I got a plate of duck carpaccio.

For the entrees, my friend had the Swedish meatballs ($18), one of chef Marcus Samuelson’s specialties, made with beef, veal, and pork. It was an enormous portion, and even after I shared a bit of it, she was unable to finish. I ordered the hog smoked salmon, which was poached in wine, cauliflower, pearl onions and lentils. (I know, salmon twice — what was I thinking)? This was a bit bland, as I am wont to find with fish courses, but technically excellent. The kitchen recommends paired wines with each entree, and we adopted their excellent suggestions ($14 ea.).

When my friend ordered, our waiter noted that her appetizer and entree choice were both on the prix fixe, so she might as well get that, and have dessert in the bargain. She had the Arctic Circle, a terrific goat cheese parfait with blueberry sorbet and passion fruit curd. Although I had not ordered dessert, the kitchen sent out a plate of chocolate cake for me anyway, compliments of the house.

We left Aquavit happy as could be, stuffed to the gills, and eager to try the main dining room. The bill for all of that food was just $121 with tax. I left a 25% tip.

Aquavit Cafe (65 E. 55th St. between Park & Madison Aves, East Midtown)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: **
Overall: ***

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