Entries in Aquavit (4)


Review Recap: Aquavit

Yesterday, Sam Sifton demoted Aquavit from three stars down to two:

Aquavit is now 23. It has been in this location since 2005, when it moved east from the Rockefeller Townhouses, across Fifth Avenue. . . .

Gone are the fireworks of the Samuelsson era, the high-wire act of matching Scandinavian food to French technique and the flavors of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. (Ruth Reichl of The New York Times awarded the restaurant three stars in 1995. William Grimes did so again in 2001; in 1988, before Mr. Samuelsson’s arrival, the restaurant was given two stars by Bryan Miller.)

Aquavit’s dining room can be somewhat lonely these days, only a little more than half full at peak hours. There is a sour scent to some of the passageways, the sort that flowers cannot battle.

But Mr. Jernmark has moved the menu toward a quiet, seasonal intensity that is well worth investigating.

This was an unsurprising outcome for a restaurant no one ever seems to talk about any more.

We certainly do not assume that Sam Sifton is reading this blog, but we note that, for several weeks running, there has not been a “terrific” or a “delicious” in his reviews. Now he needs to drop the overwrought literary references:

It has been a Swedish summer here in New York. There seem to be Stieg Larsson novels on every fourth lap on the D train choogling over the Manhattan Bridge, on every third iPad glowing in the dark of the jitney driving east on the Long Island Expressway toward Montauk.

Remind me: the D train and the iPad have what to do with Aquavit?


Return to Aquavit Cafe

My friend and I were wowed by our dinner at Aquavit Cafe in April. The kitchen sent out a bunch of free food, and everything we had was first-rate, so we decided to try it again on Saturday night.

We both decided on the prix fixe ($37), choosing the herring sampler and the Swedish meatballs. I chose the Arctic Circle for dessert. I described these dishes in two earlier reports (here and here), so I won’t repeat myself. This time, there was no free food—not that I had any right to expect any. Service was somewhat less efficient than before.

A $20 wine pairing is available with the prix fixe. The herring sampler came with beer and potato vodka, as in the main dining room. It’s a Swedish tradition, and I can’t complain. But the meatballs came with the most bitter Merlot I’ve ever been served. Didn’t these guys see Sideways? This was an uninspired choice, to say the least. Happily, fizzy dessert wine with our third course washed away the Merlot’s acidic taste.

I continue to like Aquavit Cafe for an offbeat casual dinner. It’s also an excellent date place, as you can actually hear yourself talk—an increasingly rare luxury in Manhattan restaurants.

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

Food: *½
Service: *
Ambiance: **
Overall: *½



Note: This is a review under chef Marcus Samuelsson, who no longer cooks at Aquavit. (He remains a minority partner.) Marcus Jernmark is his replacement.

My friend and I had a terrific meal at the Aquavit Cafe in April (report here), so we were tempted to try the main dining room. Our dinner there a couple of weeks ago was peculiarly underwhelming.

We had the three-course prix fixe ($80). My friend started with the Herring Sampler, which came with a glass of beer and a shot of what must have been 100-proof potato vodka. I had a foie gras starter, but the accompanying strips of bacon stole the show.

For the main course, my friend had the bacon wrapped New York strip, and again, she found that the bacon stole the show. Spice rubbed venison loin came in a peculiar apple-pine broth that turned the dish into a swimming pool. I found the dessert choices underwhelming, and settled on a selection of three scoops of ice cream.

Aquavit is, of course, capable of great things, but on this occasion we weren’t wowed. The design is supposed to suggest Scandinavian minimalism, but my friend, who has spent a lot of time in Sweden, found the space sterile.

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

Food: **
Service: **½
Ambiance: **½
Overall: **


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: ***