Image courtesy Muppet Wiki

When you think of Swedish cuisine, the first words that come to mind are most likely “Bork, bork, bork!”  Once you get past the image of the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, you’ve got little meatballs, herring, and cafeteria food from IKEA.  At least that was pretty much the extent of things for us until we first heard about Marcus Samuelsson.

Image courtesy of Bravo TV

Samuelsson was adopted by a Swedish couple from his home in Ethiopia, and his adopted grandmother instilled in him a love of cooking.  His story really gets good after he came to America and made a name for himself as the chef (and now co-owner) of Aquavit.  He’s won multiple James Beard Foundation awards, published several popular cookbooks, cooked at the White House and guest judged on Top Chef (he’s about to compete in the second season of Top Chef Masters).

The combination of the chef’s mystique and the fact that we knew next to nothing about Swedish cuisine was too much to resist.  When it came time to plan a trip to New York for Mike’s parents’ anniversary, we suggested dinner at Aquavit.  Fortunately, everyone else was as intrigued as we were, so they agreed.

Aquavit offers two different meal experiences.  In the Dining Room, guests select either a chef’s tasting menu ($105 per person) or a select-your-own-courses prix fixe menu ($78 per person).  The Bistro, on the other hand, allows diners to choose from an impressive menu of Scandinavian classics with some modern American dishes thrown in.  With appetizers in the $10-$13 range and entrees running from $14 to $29, the Bistro’s menu makes for a more economical way to sample Aquavit’s fare – and the one we opted for.

What the heck is a smorgasbord?  Find out after the jump.

We arrived at 55th Street a bit early for our reservation, so we headed around the corner for a quick drink.  We’ve already told you about our detour to the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis for their classic Red Snapper cocktails.  When we got back to Aquavit, we still had a few minutes to wait for our table, so we decided to check out the sleek, white bar to see what they were serving.

I was alternately fascinated and disappointed with myself for noting the many similarities between the design aesthetic of Aquavit and that of IKEA’s most forward-looking pieces.  I couldn’t quite decide if I were being horribly insulting or if it really were a case of the Swedish furniture store’s inspirations coming from a very similar place.  In either case, I soon found myself surrounded by light wood and white molded pieces.

We were shown to our table, and almost immediately we were greeted with another bit of Swedish cheer: in lieu of butter or dipping oil, Aquavit sends out rounds of lightly browned bread with a delicious house-made salmon spread.  It’s rich and just a little sweet, with the silken texture of the salmon and the savory notes coming through loud and clear.  The spread was a big hit at the table- we even requested some additional bread to help catch every last bit.

As promised, there was something for just about everyone on the menu.  There were expected items, like Swedish meatballs and cured salmon (known as gravlax). There were takes on American dishes with Scandinavian accents, like the pork chops in tarragon-mustard sauce and the mushroom “barlotto” of risotto-style barley.  And there, at the end of the entree list, was a dish that I just couldn’t resist:  a smörgåsbord!

The menu described the smörgåsbord as an “assortment of Swedish bites,” and it sounded like the perfect way to experience the flavors that make up traditional Swedish dining.  I ordered it, and I found myself looking at more than a dozen little works of art.  Each bite was sculpted, shaped, or otherwise arranged, with the end result being an impressively composed plate that represented the essence of a Swedish cold-plate buffet.  There were three different kinds of herring, cured salmon topped with roe, and even a few small meat dishes in among the fish.  I found myself savoring flavors (Dill!  Sweet vinegar!) and textures in a way that I might never have done with a standard entree.

In the lower left corner of the menu, Aquavit boasts a selection of infusions featuring the astringent eau de vie that gives the restaurant its name.  Combinations like coriander & crown dill, blueberry & elderflower and fig & cardamom practically beg to be tasted, and Aquavit accommodates with sipping shots for $7 and tasting flights of three for $17.  They might taste a little like burning, but they go down smooth and the infused flavors are clear and distinct.

We left Aquavit with plenty of time to make it to the theater, but we couldn’t help feeling like we had already experienced some kind of performance.  The attention to details, the flavors and the service were all impeccable; everyone at the table raved about their own dish as though they had created it themselves.  Based on our one experience, Marcus Samuelsson deserves all the attention he has received for what he’s accomplished at Aquavit: successfully bringing modern Scandinavian cuisine into the American conscious.

Aquavit
65 E. 55th Street
New York, NY
Aquavit on Urbanspoon