Scandinavia is at the top of every wayfaring gastronome's must-visit list lately. With young Nordic chefs racking up international accolades and glossy magazine spreads, the region's food scene—known for the extreme locavore cooking showcased at restaurants like Copenhagen's Noma—is suddenly the hottest on earth. But while New Nordic cuisine may be trending around the globe, it's taken its sweet time in trickling down to New York.
Attentive diners may have spotted hints of the region's influence in Gotham already—some foraged ingredients here, some studied plating there. But at the Acme reboot on Great Jones Street, it's finally arrived in earnest, thanks to Danish chef Mads Refslund, who cofounded Noma with superstar Ren Redzepi (but left after a year to do his own thing). The former Cajun dive may be the last place in the city you'd expect to find cutting-edge cooking. But defying convention and expectations is what put the Scandinavian trailblazers on the map to begin with.
The new cool-kid owners—restaurateur Jean-Marc Houmard of Indochine and former Boom Boom Room bar manager Jon Neidich—have transformed this once-grungy spot into a raffish and chic downtown bistro, featuring a retro mix of Pop Art and antiques. A room this seductive could draw a stylish crowd even with a menu of burgers and fries, but Refslund can do better than that.
His menu delivers an easy introduction to the avant-garde cuisine of Northern Europe, unpretentious and moderately priced. His food is undeniably creative, but not so cerebral you can't sit back and enjoy it. And while the chef isn't out foraging along the banks of the East River—not yet, at least—he is showcasing the sorts of intense, earthy flavors that are hallmarks of New Nordic cooking.
Refslund's new-wave bistro fare features some unusual pairings, but even the most oddball combinations work. His spin on steak tartare marries hand-cut raw bison with delicious sweet shrimp—an elemental surf-and-turf spooned like retro canaps into bitter endive and radicchio leaves. A stew of plump clams, scallops, pearl barley and artichokes is a beautiful, clean medley with a rich, buttery sunflower seed broth.
Nordic chefs are well known for putting the most humble ingredients on a pedestal, for making even roots and tubers seem sexy. Refslund's black heirloom carrots, slow-roasted with pine needles, have a wild, almost primal quality, the sweet-and-sour tang of a blood orange vinaigrette mixed with the salt and fat from translucent slivers of melting lardo on top. Al dente sunchokes, baked whole over hay—and served under a funky foam made from New England Gruyre—taste like soil, in the best possible way.
All of these flavors are intriguing—and mostly new to New York—but accessible enough not to alienate Acme's hot crowd or upstage its cool space. The big family-style portions of meat, fish and fowl that round out the collection of shareable plates are even more down-to-earth. Refslund's rustic spin on a classic blanquette (an old-school French stew) arrives in a Chinese clay pot, a mellow cream sauce blanketing silky poached chicken, new potatoes and deep-fried poached runny eggs. A tender pork chop is soulful cooking too, with tart pickled cranberries and raw bitter greens.
Desserts have the same rough-hewn qualities as everything else. While old-fashioned Danish doughnuts are a bit too dense, a warm porridge of dark bread soaked in beer is a delicious mess of hot, cold, salty and sweet elements, with salted caramel ice cream and white-chocolate foam.
There's a hint of Trojan-horse mythology to the way Acme has reinvented itself, quietly putting one of the leading faces of New Nordic cuisine to work in what was once a downtown dump. But with the scene heating up and the food establishment cottoning to the exciting plates coming out of the kitchen, Scandinavian gastronomy may have finally found the foothold it deserves in NYC.
Eat this: Bison tartare with sweet shrimp, pearl barley with scallops and clams, hay-roasted sunchokes, black carrots with lardo, chicken and eggs, beer-and-bread porridge
Drink this: The house cocktails (each $12) include offbeat vegetal drinks like the Graffiti Green, a well-balanced concoction made with gin, green pepper and basil. There are also more classic libations, like a sweet and tart honey-lime daiquiri with spiced rum and rye. The well-priced wine list features an international mix of food-friendly bottles, including a crisp Gavi di Gavi from I Monclavi of Piedmont ($48).
Sit here: There's drop-in dining available at the bustling bar, but the real scene is back in the dining room. The green leather banquettes along the wall are more spacious and comfortable than the hard bistro chairs in the middle of the room. A new basement bar offers more casual late-night dining.
Conversation piece: Mads Refslund signed on with Acme after a chance encounter with owner Jean-Marc Houmard during a vacation in New York. He abandoned plans for a new restaurant in Copenhagen to focus on his stateside debut, but still spends time in Denmark, where he's been shooting a reality show on which he teaches Danish inmates how to cook.