We’ve always had this thing for Scandinavia. As a young couple on our first trip to Europe, we did the typical England-France-Italy route like all our friends but were compelled to add Denmark and Sweden to our itinerary. When they were buying French Provincial sofas and Early American bedroom sets, we were furnishing our first apartment in sleek Scandinavian, accessorizing with Orrefors crystal, and collecting Arabia dinnerware – which, incidentally, comes from Finland. And while they were learning the intricacies of Escoffier cuisine, we preferred the open sandwiches, the herrings and boiled potatoes, the delectable dishes of the smorgasbord
|It’s been many years since then, but our
taste for things Scandinavian has not abated. Still for some reason, we
did not get around to visiting Aquavit, the Swedish restaurant that opened
in Manhattan back in 1987, until a few weeks ago. Rest assured, we will
not wait long to return. And when we do, we plan to bring along our sons
who are vegetarians. They
will find an entire menu to choose from.
The experience of Aquavit, however, goes beyond dining.
It is the total Scandinavian aesthetic that begins with the
understated identification of the restaurant – a bronze nameplate
on a seven-story midtown brownstone that today is owned by Unibank,
but once belonged to Nelson Rockefeller and family. The
low-key motif continues five steps down into the entrance level, a
long, softly lit cocktail area.
At its far end is another descent, and here the heart stops.
West 54th Street off Fifth Avenue seems millions of miles
away as we enter what seems to be a clearing in a Nordic forest
surrounded by white birches, banks of white poinsettias, and
branches of crab apple.
Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
We look up a seven-story
atrium and see the dark winter sky through the skylight and a huge mobile
suspended in the air looking like a series of free-floating kites.
Directly ahead, a sculpted waterfall sends sheets of water down a copper
façade: Aquavit, the water of life.
It is the night after Christmas when many restaurants
are closed, but nearly every table in this spacious dining room with its
black and chrome Marcel Breuer-style chairs is taken. Seated beside the
waterfall with the sound of water cascading into the pool below a
soothing constant, we begin the Aquavit experience with the icy,
potato-based spirit the restaurant is named for, one flavored with the
tart lingonberry, the other with the fruity cloudberry that only grow in
the lands of the north.
Evelyn Rivera appears to
take our order dressed in a Scandinavian-modern
uniform that befits a flight attendant on a spaceship.
Evelyn tells us she comes from Florida and is of Puerto Rican
ancestry. Yet in the year she
has been at Aquavit, she has become knowledgeable and enthusiastic about
Swedish cuisine and the unique creations of its chef, Marcus Samuelsson,
the celebrity chef we have already heard much about. “It’s very
wonderful to work for someone who has such a passion for food,” she
says. “You have to learn a lot because the menu changes so often, and
the chef combines such interesting flavors.”
|We learn that Marcus Sameulsson was born in Ethiopia and orphaned
at the age of three when his parents died in a tuberculosis
epidemic. Through the efforts of a Swedish nurse in a field hospital
in Addis Ababa, he and his sister were adopted by a Swedish couple.
The two children grew up on the west coast of Sweden where Marcus’
adopted grandmother taught him to cook and inspired him to enter the
At the age of 24, after working in restaurants throughout Europe,
the young chef came to Aquavit.
That was in 1995. Since then, he has earned multiple star ratings from the New
York Times, Forbes, and Crain’s and was named
the best “Rising Star Chef” by the James Beard Foundation.
Evelyn Rivera stands before the “water of
by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Such a fascinating,
unexpected story; what an interesting complexity it brings to the Aquavit
experience. As we want to sample as much of it as possible, we decide on a
tasting menu. “Marcus likes
to play,” Evelyn warns us. “Expect unusual combinations of foods and
presentations using stones, tiles, even glass blocks.”
And so we begin with lime
sherbet in a martini glass. On it rests a single oyster in a pearly shell
topped with a dollop of Sevruga caviar that glistens like a heap of
miniature black pearls. This starkly beautiful dish is but a harbinger of
what Evelyn has predicted. Consider the following: a crisp taco filled
with smoked herring served on a marble tablet; Tandoori smoked salmon with
goat cheese parfait, a spoonful of Beluga caviar and black mussels set on
an oval-shaped rock covered with coarse sea-salt; a lobster roll topped
with Sevruga caviar accompanied by pickled Asian pear and ephemeral
lobster and potato foam; and a baked shrimp ball infused with a puree of
paella that is based on fingerling potatoes and accompanied by salmon red
roe. The combination of
flavors and textures is dazzling, the presentations striking.
All fit within the Scandinavian concept but raise the bar to a new
and different plane.
At this point, Aquavit’s
general manager Philip Montane stops by our table with glasses of
house-made ginger ale gratinee spiked with a Mandarin-flavored vodka to
clear the palate. Philip, who
came here from his own Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, tells us the
restaurant’s staff is made up of as much as twenty-five different
nationalities, and their native cuisine enters into the eclectic and ever
changing menu Marcus Samuelsson creates.
“You’re gonna love
this,” Evelyn says, as she present slices of Kobi beef beef from Japan along
with ravioli filled with taro root puree and beef brisket dressed in
truffle oil and green tea. “The
beef is beer fed, so we suggest you have some Kirn beer to go along with
it.” We do, and it is a terrific combination. The beef is tender and
flavorful; the ravioli deliciously different from any we’ve had before,
the green tea adding a strangely pleasing piquancy. Next comes a sampling
of sea bass topped with water chestnuts served on a white square plate
with Miro-like designs, and seared tuna and scallops so rare they could be
mistaken for Sashimi.
A last dish remains on our
tasting menu: an almond flour cake with foie gras inside and pear ice
cream on the side. Who would think of putting foie gras in a cake, we
wonder. A single taste convinces: these ingredients are meant for each
“But where are the
Swedish meatballs, the beef Rydberg, the Janson’s Temptation?” we ask.
Upstairs in the informal
café, Evelyn tell us, where the traditional dishes are served. This
spectacular dining room is reserved for the spectacular creations of
|Lingering over coffee after
desserts of carrot cake with walnuts and a heavenly concoction called
Arctic Circle, a goat cheese meringue with blueberry sauce and blueberry
sorbet, we strike up a conversation with a Swedish family at the next
table. Mother, father, sister and brother – all perfectly and naturally,
one suspects, blonde. The parents are diplomats; the siblings work in New
York. Aquavit is their favorite restaurant, they tell us. On our way out,
we stop at the bar and chat with two stunning African women, their hair
done up in elaborate rolled braids. One is from Eritrea, the other
Ethiopia. They laugh when we
tell them about the Aquavit chef. They didn’t know he was born in Ethiopia. “Maybe that’s
why we keep coming back here,” they say.
Philip Lopane had told us the clientele at Aquavit is mostly
American and Swedish, of course.
“But they come from so many other places too,” he says.
“We get lots of Mexicans and many Japanese.”
The Swedish family at the next table. Photo by
Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
We still love all things Scandinavian.
But after dining at Aquavit, our sense of its scope has
mushroomed into a world of new possibilities. Scandinavian
minimalism has met East African flamboyance. And it’s a magical
Owner: Hakan Swahn
13 West 54 Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
New York, NY 10019
Photos by Harvey
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights