65 East 55th St (b/w Park & Madison)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 307-7311
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Area: East 50s
I must confess that I am a HUGE fan of Marcus Samuelsson and his food. He is a visionary chef, wildly creative with a fanciful side and a keen perception for texture, flavor, and flash (not to mention that he is quite handsome), but I had not been to Aquavit in a few years. While what was on the plate always dazzled, I thought the room felt dated, and while people gushed about the waterfall, it never really did anything for me. It reminded me of something from a Mall in Paramus. (I prefer the real waterfalls streaming down the sides of mountains to the ones trickling down sheets of glass.) Marcus himself, when we were talking the other day, said it was very “New Jersey.” A few weeks ago, Marcus and his team picked up shop and moved away from “New Jersey,” a few blocks over (65 East 55th Street, between Park and Madison) to a stunning new space that features a sunny café up front, followed by a long modern lounge with a high wavy ceiling that looks like an ocean’s swell, stopped mid-undulation, and a handsome formal dining room in the back.
The new location—statuesquely modern in design by Owen & Mandolfo of New York and Arkitema of Copenhagen —has done wonders for the feel of this restaurant. Up in the light-filled café where I had lunch last week, you’ll find walls lined like corrugated cardboard, sturdy hard wood tables, comfortable earth-toned banquettes, Caribbean walnut floors, and elegant chandelier earring-styled light fixtures hung with shimmering pearl sea-shell like circles. (These are called Fun Lamps and were created by Danish designer Verner Panton.) The space is casually elegant and quite a comfortable place to dine, straddling the line between modern cafeteria and luxurious café.
The menu at the Café is quite extensive, and includes Smorgasbord items like herring, salmon, and assorted salads, and main courses that bridge traditional and contemporary Swedish fare—Beef Rydberg with sautéed potatoes, mustard cream and egg yolk ($27), and Roasted Cod with Tomatoes, Mussel Sauce, and Fingerling Potatoes ($28). We started with the Smorgasbord Platter ($19)—an oversized smoked and cured fish platter that grandmothers in Flatbush would kvell over. I could almost hear the yapping this platter would incite: “Shirley! Sylvia! Mildred! Do you see this herring? Oh my goodness! Wait, taste this smoked salmon! Oy! OY!” Yes, the ladies from Synagogue would love lunch at the café. We did too.
I enjoyed much of the massive Smorgasbord Platter, especially the Gravlax with Espresso Mustard Sauce, Lemon and Dill, the Hot-Smoked Salmon with Horseradish, Yogurt and Cucumber, the Vodka Lime Herring with Salmon Roe and Dill, and the Matjes Herring with Red Onion and Sour Cream. Other items did not fare as well. The cold Swedish meatballs were uninspired and tasted like leftovers from the night before, the curried herring with apples and chives was too sweet, as was the smoked pork loin that came with a fat polka dot of porcini ketchup that was overwhelmingly cloying.
But I loved the Smoked Mackerel ($13) that arrived in three little open-faced sandwiches lined up like dominoes—each one made up of a fabulous smoky hunk of meaty mackerel laid out on a lift of puffy cream cheese, topped with some pickled onions and a sprinkle of black pepper. The potato salad ($7) was nice as well—a very traditional dish composed of thick coin-shaped circles of potatoes in a mustard sauce with chopped egg and pearl onions that would be perfect for a picnic in Central Park. (Come to think of it, Marcus should do a basket for the concerts in the Park during the summer.)
The best part of my meal though was something quite unexpected—Tomato Soup ($14). Please, people! Do not miss this soup! It is an arresting magenta-colored puree that is poured over a garnish of porcini mushrooms, raisins, nuggets of bacon, and I believe some crisped capers. The soup has a luscious texture, slightly pulpy but silky on the tongue at the same time, and a deeply sweet and lightly tart flavor that is made even sharper by the contrast of the raisins. I was quite taken by this soup. It’s nice when something so seemingly ordinary turns out to be far more complex and intriguing than you would ever imagine.
Main courses, for the most part, did not compare to that soup. An unusually thick fillet of skate was served tucked into a large mound of sweet pea puree and a terrific caramel colored pool of mustard cream sauce. The fish was perfectly sautéed and browned from butter, but it lacked punch. While the mustard sauce was brilliant, the butterscotch-colored sweet pea puree was bland, and the monotone color pattern on the plate—all that beige—was drab and unappealing. The hot smoked salmon was a beautiful dish though, a bright pink fillet topped with asparagus and shaved mushrooms, in a horseradish broth. The fish was nicely cooked—its flesh was moist and tender—but unfortunately it smelled like (sorry) a barnyard. Maybe it was the ultra freshness of the mushrooms—but it reminded me of summers I spent riding horses and working in barns in Vermont. I could almost feel the wet hay under my feet. Not bad memories at all, actually, but not exactly the smell you want to greet you while having lunch.
Things did improve when, as a token from the kitchen, we were served a dish from the formal dining room menu that was miraculous. The Foie Gras Ganache—a molten centered button of foie gras custard that oozed out with the prick of a fork—was served with balls of pickled melon draped with slivers of duck pastrami, a scoop of puckery mint-yogurt sorbet, and a black pepper gastrix. The experience of this eating this dish—the shock of the cold tart yogurt sorbet, the warm, sticky sweet-peppery gastrix, the hot, rich custard—was among the most sensual and satisfying edible experiences of recent memory. You can’t fake this. Clearly, we were not in New Jersey anymore.
Review By: Andrea Strong