Of Smoky and Salty Nordic Voyages in the Michelin Heart of Manhattan

If you don’t know where you want to go,
Then it doesn’t matter how you get there.

A culinary adventure of life with many missteps and juxtapositions and philandering travels have brought me to try some of the world’s most diabolical of cuisines. And in the wonderland of New York, where the urgency and energy prevents all sleep and mandates an inhalation of alternate proportions, I stumbled upon a Nordic, Michelin joint, if not rather by accident. Almost like Alice falling into the rabbit hole.

Aquavit is a double Michelin Star and only Nordic restaurant of the caliber in the country, hosting a formal dining room and one serving a casual Nordic fare for lunch, too. Chef Emma Bengtsson sticks to a 500 year old culinary tradition of Sweden, which, surrounded water and a land soaked in seawater and gamey forests, focuses on food from the wild. As a vegetarian, this meant that all my veggies were fermented, smoked and salty, which was a tribute to the historical cooking styles of the years. Marrying this with gastronomy and Michelin plating sensibilities meant it was akin to a Queen’s game of croquet for any adventuring Alice.

It started with an Alice style game of croquet, a beaker like vase of lollies and indulgences, namely fresh green strawberries in their colorful richness, pickled tomato with rosemary, and a garlic yoghurt and pistachio on a stick. Collectively, they were a sour to sweet variant that played beautifully with a summery cool texture and burst of flavor. 

The single rice crisp caramelized onion purée and dil was strong on scent, low on portion and reminded me of other triple Michelin star joys, where I ensured to savor every crackle and taste the combination of dil and onion in their sourness as they coated my tongue.

Comparably, the inventive preparation of a cracker in tuna box was riveting, owing to the fishing society of Scandinavian cities: crispy white cracker with toasted grains in a pink sardine tub were higher on presentation than taste, but the crackle was unmistakable.

The variety of bread and homemade smoked butter started the series of familiar scents and tastes: a charred, smoked feeling that coated almost every course of the meal. The architectural presentation of the cheddar and sesame crisps was as tasty to nibble as it was structurally upright, with a salt brick in the center of it all. The variety of breads from raisin cinnamon to sourdough with homemade smoked butter was partly offset with the cold soup sipper.

The sourness of the fermented vegetables with green almonds was a simple looking dish with a complex, smokey flavor that lasted long after the aftertaste – from radishes to carrots to beets, all vertically shaved, the impeccable taste of saltiness reflected the Scandinavian seawater sensibilities. 

By comparison the rather Italian style bruschetta was a bed of tomatoes with curled cucumbers, radicchio, dil and buttermilk cheese snow with a dash of dil jam. While lower on a taste variety, it was architecturally splendid, almost like a floral bloom.

The porcini barley risotto with shaved perigold truffle and a poached heirloom egg was cooked in hay smoke, with an aroma that was unmistakable. Tastewise, it was a clutter of greens and hearty risotto, one which was savory and decadent like it’s European origins.

And then came the rather lengthy plethora of desserts, adding to my habitual needs of eating multiple courses of dessert on a single sitting.

The warm rhubarb sauce crumble with skyr, goat cheese ice cream and cardamom and yellow florets was rather indifferent to look at but has dollops of palette cleansing sauces to cut the richness of the former bites. While I felt foam was an overdone gastronomical tactic, it worked here due to the mild crunchiness of the green almonds and the freshness of the cardamom.

Keeping up with the ritual of smoked food from Swedish origins, the smoked vanilla creme brûlée bites were slabs of juxtaposed smoky sweetness with peanuts, rosemary, pumpkin seeds and dil flowers. In an otherwise saccharine series of ingredients, I found myself pleasantly thrilled with the lack of saccharine sweetness, and with a remarkable series of musical crunches.

The next dessert was shaped like a mound of colorful hemispheres, perfectly and sensually round in hues of sunset and skin: rosehip, almond, lemongrass and biscuit. The contrast of texture from spongy to meringue to crackly to the temperate differences of warm biscuit to frozen sorbet was a gastronomical accomplishment. It was a party in my mouth as I cleansed the plate clean with the whisk of a tongue.

And it ended, just like how it had started, when Alice fell into the rabbit hole with lychee cotton candy on a stick and brown sugar beignet. It was like the fresh French fluff and the density of the Southern beignets on one plate in the epicenter of the world, or so we feel.

What ended was something I could not even fathom to taste after a heap of desserts, for it was a tray of six quadrants of dessert varying from pistachio white chocolate truffles to passionfruit gummy candy and more – all of which I had to pack into a pretty box to whisk away to my own version of wonderland.

Where is Alice off to next?

9 responses to “Of Smoky and Salty Nordic Voyages in the Michelin Heart of Manhattan

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