Aquavit Restaurant

Aquavit, a restaurant aptly named after the Scandinavian drink of celebration, is a midtown mainstay of both traditional and fusion Scandinavian cuisine. It has offered diners a wonderful Scandinavian experience since its beginnings in 1987 on the West side in a Rockefeller townhouse on 54th Street. Since 2005, it has occupied a very modern space on the East side on 55th Street. The restaurant features the perfect setting for the enjoyment of Scandinavian food. Through the noteworthy black doors, the restaurant is broken into a number of rooms that are all decorated with Scandinavian furniture and accessories from top designers. In the front is the modern and playful space of the café. Winding alongside is the sleek bar and lounge that leads to the main dining room, which has been imbued with business-like class and elegance. The dining room features Scandinavian food with a modern twist developed through a French lens, whereas the café serves more traditional and rustic Swedish foods with weekend smörgåsbord brunches. There you will find Swedish meatblass, gravlax, and all types of pickled herring—all the well-known stereotypically Scandinavian foods.

I first became interested in Scandinavian cuisine many years ago by watching Scandinavian Cooking on PBS. I'm also a fan of Aquavit’s Marcus Samuelsson. But I had never eaten any Scandinavian food in a restaurant setting, especially a well-established restaurant like Aquavit. I had been planning my first visit for a long time. Finally the opportunity arrived this past Wednesday during New York City's Winter Restaurant Week, which runs until February 7. Both my friend Amanda and I were very excited. I, as usual, had set my standards very high, but by the end of the meal, instead of being let down, I was pleasantly surprised, heartily filled, and pleased to no end.

I’ve been obsessed with trying the Scandinavian drink, aquavit or akvavit as it is more commonly spelled, known as the water of life, for sometime now. It is typically enjoyed at the start of and throughout dinner, usually with the toast, Skål, shouted before each sip. The restaurant offers a few imported varieties, but more importantly features a lengthy list of in-house-made aquavits. I was intrigued to say the least by all the options lain before me. The server suggested we try a flight of three kinds so that we could compare the different flavors side by side. We ordered the white cranberry, bottled in Sweden and sold by the restaurant itself; the Danish Aalborg Taffel caraway and orange; and the house-made anise, caraway, and fennel. They were all very unique in their own respects. The white cranberry was slightly sweet and very clean. The house-made anise combination seemed overpowering in its flavor compared to my favorite of the three, which was the Aalborg caraway with a hint of orange. I know I will be looking for a bottle it at my liquor store. The server also suggested a beer chaser, which Amanda chose. Some say it is traditional, but purists, like me, agree that it negates the flavor of the aquavit. So I chose not to partake in the beer.

For our first course, Amanda went the traditional Swedish route and chose the matjes herring with sour cream, pickled onions, dill, and crispy beets. The term matjes means the herring is cooked first and then submerged in a brine, so it is actually pickled for a short period of time. The herring was salty, briny, and very flavorful. It was nicely complemented by the aquavits we ordered, especially the Aalborg. I almost ordered the Anjou pear salad with Danish blue cheese, walnuts, and celeriac, but decided I would try something more unique since it's a salad similar to ones I've had and made before. So I ordered the artichoke bisque garnished with truffle crème fraîche, rapeseed oil, and crispy venison. The soup was exceptionally rich and creamy, and of course flavorful. The crispy venison, which resembled jerky in its texture, seemed out of place and I feel the dish would have been better without it.

For my main coarse I enjoyed the seared salmon with shrimp brandade, marinated salmon roe, and dill mashed potatoes. The salmon was cooked and seasoned just right, and was incredibly moist and tender with the crispiest skin. It was topped with the marinated salmon roe, which saw a combination of finely chopped vegetables, dill, and the roe. Amanda had the whole roasted Cornish hen served with sautéed parsnips, spinach, and Brussels sprouts as well as a sage béchamel. The hen was just slightly underdone, so that the breast was very moist and succulent, but the dark meat was a bit too pink and resistant. Otherwise the flavors were spot on. It was a very huge serving for just one person and might have made a nice shared dish. Amanda, when presented with her whole hen, didn't know exactly where or how to start carving, but managed to wrestle the hen rather well just nearing a runaway leg incident. The other main course choice was a mushroom barley risotto, or as the menu calls it "barlotto," accompanied by Västerbotten cheese.

To complement dessert, I thought of trying some dessert wines, however, the server suggested we try some of the sweeter and fruitier aquavits. So, we once again chose a flight of three of the house-made aquavits: blueberry and elderflower, coconut and espresso, and blood orange and clove. With these flavors, the aquavits tasted more like liqueurs and the alcohol did not come on so strong. Our server highly recommended the blueberry elderflower as it is one of the most popular, but for some reason it did not appear on the menu. It was exceptional, tasting almost of lychee, very fragrant and fruity. The coconut espresso was an ideal pairing with Amanda’s chosen dessert of chocolate mousse with toasted hazelnuts and mango sorbet. The mousse was perfection and the aquavit just brought out its chocolate flavor even more. I ordered the spice cake with candied pecans, cream cheese, and orange sherbet. The combination of the cheese and sherbet reminded me of the cream sickles I used to love getting from the neighborhood ice-cream truck as a kid. The spice cake was a basic spice cake, but one that reminded me of all the countless spices uniquely used in Scandinavian cuisine all bound together in one dessert. The clove and blood orange aquavit, also recommended by the server, was a wonderful match for it.

From the elegant and modern interiors to the Scandinavian-inspired menus, Aquavit is truly a New York City landmark, one that hopefully will remain for many years to come. I thoroughly enjoy eating at restaurants with such renown as Aquavit, because I know I will almost never be let down. It's a tried and true eatery offering an exceptional experience. I must say that the service too was top-notch with a server that was very knowledgeable and down to earth, a virtuous trait that can be rarely found today in fine-dining staffs. If you are presented with the opportunity or have the chance to dine at Aquavit, it is a moment to savor. Right now this week, during NYC Restaurant Week, is the ideal time to attend. As part of Winter Restaurant Week, the dining room offers $35 prix-fixe dinners. The restaurant’s café also offers $24 lunches. The restaurant week menu for both the café and dining room are the same.

Restaurant Aquavit
65 East 55th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues
New York, NY 10022
212-307-7311
Open daily for dinner, Sunday through Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; for lunch, Monday through Friday 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.; and for Sunday brunch, 12 to 2:30 p.m.
À la carte prices for café lunch and dinner and dining room lunch range from $10 to $29. Main dining room prix fixe dinner is $78 and chef’s tasting menu is $95.