Saturday, September 24, 2005

Potatoes Evermore - New York City Entry #13

I spent the winter and spring of 2003 warmly tucked in Uppsala, the comfortable University town forty minutes northwest of Stockholm. I have many fond memories of my hosts, but as for food two words will suffice: potatoes and Operakällaren. The latter is the perfect Swedish restaurant located in the Stockholm opera house. Of all the many meals that I have enjoyed over the years that dinner at Operakällaren was perhaps the only one of which I could find no flaws. The high-ceilinged traditional 18th Century dining room made no concession to Scandinavian modern, but the food drew from the best of the last three centuries (I understand that the decor has recently been remodeled and the cocktail bar is contemporary).

I provide this background to justify my claim that Swedes do - under the right circumstances - appreciate and prepare cuisine of the highest caliber. My visit to Aquavit proved delightful, but not surprising.

After a dozen New York outings, I had yet to find a restaurant that I could label brilliant. I was beginning to despair, feeling grumpiness around the corner. Aquavit brightened my palate.

I understand from a dining companion, an Aquavit admirer, that the previous location - dominated by a waterfall and a superb atrium - was an architectural marvel. The recent move brings a pleasant modernist room with clean lines and soft tones, but not a place that begs recording in Architectural Digest.

The food is, however, brilliantly constructed. Although I rarely start with a cocktail, in memory of my wintery months and in honor of the restaurant I ordered House Infused Pear Vanilla Black Pepper Aquavit. Skol! Joy! I cannot begin to explain how but this trio matches the icy purity of the aquavit. Pear, vanilla, and pepper share spicy aromas, which, although distinct, mix beautifully.

Marcus Samuelsson's cuisine nods at Scandinavian ingredients, but as at the Operakällaren, this is no folk cuisine. Chef Samuelsson is a global artist, and any misbegotten diner who expects boiled cod, peas, and potatoes should beware. I have eaten much smoked salmon, but never with goat cheese ice cream; venison was never served with a star anise broth.

We began with a doubly amusing bouche. First, a sashimi grade tuna in a slight coconut broth, followed by parsnip puree with American caviar on brioche toast. This pair did precisely what starters are supposed to do: amaze us with the skills of the chef: little matters that suggest the larger canvas of cuisine soon to appear. Samuelsson is a chef who is skilled in working with contrasting tastes, producing not clash but synergy. The coconut brought out the slight saltiness of the tuna, mingling salt and sweet. Something similar might be said of the mix of caviar and parsnip, but with the slightly bitter taste of the root vegetable embracing the salty eggs. I was sated and the meal had just begun.

As a first course I selected Kumamoto Oysters: half dozen bivalves topped by marinated salmon roe and dill oil, sitting on a dollop of smoked potato cream and a crouton. The presentation, here and elsewhere, revealed a intuition of Scandinavian design, witty and imbued with the beauty of simplicity. Our waiter explained that the chef wished for diners to slide the combination as a bite: six bites of heaven. The oysters were at the peak of perfection, and each ingredient made for a totality that could not easily be divided.

My second course was the Lemon Cured Duck Breast with Potato-Braised Duck Leg Hash, Walnut Vinaigrette, Duck Egg, and Glögg Sauce. How could one eat at Aquavit without potato: it wouldn't feel right. The lemon cured duck breast was so delightfully piquant that I forgave an egg that might better have been slightly runny and a more generously ladled sauce.

The disappointment of the evening was the intermezzo, a Buttermilk-Yuzu sorbet. How the heavy buttermilk matched the citrusy yuzu and how it was to be a palate cleanser, not a palate coater, I cannot explain.

Dessert set matters right. I ordered the signature Arctic Circle, a frozen goat cheese dessert with blueberry sorbet and passion fruit curd. Although I wished the dessert was served slightly less frozen, a few minutes of conversation cured the problem, spawning happy memories of those cloudberries that I enjoyed on my Swedish sabbatical. Again the symphony of flavors was thoughtful, startling, and brave.

Marcus Samuelsson is a creative and influential chef, a master at the top of his craft, and should I get lonely during a winter afternoon, I can appear at Aquavit's Café hat in hand for my nostalgic order of Meatballs, Mashed Potatoes, and Lingonberries. Now that's eating.

65 East 55th Street
Manhattan (Midtown East)

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