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The Aquavit Experience

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. 

Photo by  Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Photo by  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 culinary field.

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 life”       Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Evelyn Rivera stands before the “water of life”       Photo 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 other.

“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 Marcus Samuelsson.

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 melding.

Owner: Hakan Swahn
13 West 54 Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
New York, NY 10019

Phone: 212-307-7311
Fax: 212-957-9043 

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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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. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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