In 1987, Aquavit introduced New York to modern Scandinavian cooking, and for the first few years, its elegant upgrade of the region’s stereotypically bland fare did well enough. But when Marcus Samuelsson, a Swede of Ethiopian descent, took over the kitchen in 1995, it signaled a new era for Aquavit. His food—integrating Asian, African and Middle Eastern flavors into the Nordic repertoire—transformed it one of the city’s most exciting restaurants.
As of last year, Aquavit had spawned offshoots in Minneapolis, Stockholm and Tokyo—a budding empire with an increasingly absent chef. Samuelsson, exploring his cultural roots, had begun working on an African-themed restaurant called Red Rooster (opening later this year in Harlem), while an understudy quietly took over .
Diners expecting Samuelsson’s barely smoked arctic char finished in duck fat or his delicate salmon rubbed in Ethiopian spices discovered the menu had changed. Once as beautifully composed as a Japanese omakase, the food had become clumsy and complicated. Sure enough, the owners eventually issued a press release confirming: The Samuelsson era was over.
Never underestimate the importance of marquee talent. Under Aquavit’s new chef, Marcus Jernmark, the food falls well short of the standards Samuelsson set. On a recent weeknight, the nearly empty dining room, with gray banquettes in wood booths, was as depressing as a corporate boardroom.
The menu reads just as ambitious as it ever has. But an appetizer of “hay-smoked sweetbreads, fava beans, grilled bread, apple cider” turned out to be a clunky mess featuring two sinewy lobes blackened in bitter ash. Another starter, steak salad with “beef loin, shaved foie gras, grilled and crispy artichokes,” lacked both seasoning and the advertised duck liver.
Jernmark does well with the traditional cooking offered in the restaurant’s casual bistro. His Swedish meatballs are plump with a great peppery kick; his herring—in curry, cream and vinegar—are still among the best in New York. But in the pricier dining room, he seems hamstrung by high expectations.
His entres there are copiously portioned, as if generosity makes up for their shortcomings. Three seared scallops, missing the right caramel sheen, recline on an inelegant bed of quinoa and fennel, with lobster butter-poached to the rubbery precipice. Arctic char, a Samuelsson signature, anchors an even more disjointed dish, a slab of flaky fish obscuring a flurry of disparate elements—cured char, cauliflower, hazelnuts and Hollandaise sauce.
As if to compensate for these flaws, the restaurant lays on the extras. But these preludes, prologues and intermezzos only dig Jernmark into a deeper hole. A gravlax amuse— a salmon rosette with mustard sauce—is standard-issue catered-wedding fare. A midcourse demitasse of creamy lobster bisque is absurdly portioned and overpoweringly rich.
The sweets that follow—the “Arctic Circle” goat-cheese parfait that’s been on the menu for years, for one—are more consistently polished than so much else. They’re also less ambitious. Aquavit under Jernmark remains a fine destination for traditional Scandinavian fare, but with Samuelsson gone, it’s little more than that.
Drink this: The house-infused horseradish aquavit—the Swedish national hooch—is a great match for cured fish.
Eat this: Meatballs, gravlax, herring sampler
Sit here: Skip the dining room and order from the bistro menu at the bar.
Conversation piece: Before moving into skyscraper digs in 2005, Aquavit occupied an old Rockefeller townhouse on West 54th Street.