With the proliferation of Noma disciples in culinary hubs around the world, New York included, our city is looking more New Nordic than ever. Skál chef Ben Spiegel indeed apprenticed at Noma before trekking to another forage-mad restaurant, the Willows Inn on Washington State’s wooded Lummi Island. Here he cooks in a different sort of wilderness: the sparse, far-flung edge of Chinatown.
Steeped in warm light and near-drunken cheer, the sleek yet cottagelike room offers refuge from the desolate street, with shelves of children’s books and mismatched china on the walls.
Unlike the refined aesthetic of Noma or Williamsburg’s Aska, Skál’s adventurous flavors—from Iceland, Scandinavia and North America—take rustic forms. For starters, ragged beef tartare ($13) looks as if it were sliced with a chain saw, its wonderfully chewy scraps bound with creamy, briny minced clams. Smoky duck wings ($14) appear to have washed ashore, cloaked in seaweed and piled atop a lush black puddle of crushed mussels and squid ink. They call it black mayo; some might call it bizarre, but it is worth licking off the plate.
Entrées are less consistent, with adequate proteins often outdone by stellar vegetables on the side. In the hanger-steak dish ($27), the meat is underseasoned and the herring sauce oversalted, but you’ll find solace in a thatch of grilled escarole doused in nutty brown butter. Monkfish ($24 plays nice with its buttery, sauerkraut-tinged sauce, but supple, meaty cabbage (grilled, then steamed) steals the show.
Whereas Noma-esque food is known for challenging diners, Skál eases us more gently into its strange Scandinavian climes, casting unfamiliar tastes in familiar guises. You’d never call it comfort food, but in the brave new world of Nordic cuisine, it’s the closest thing we’ve got.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Meal highlights: Beef tartare, duck wings, heirloom carrots, fried smelts, monkfish
Behind the bar: A raven sculpture from Iceland watches over a bar that turns out steady, boozy cocktails, like a sturdy glass of rye—sweetened with vermouth and spiced with cardamom—that soothes like a Reykjavík hot spring.
Vibe: The close quarters and homespun design give Skál the feel of a supper club.
Cocktail chatter: The intimate room draws inspiration from a baðstofa, the communal living area in traditional Icelandic farmhouses, where workers would eat, sleep and read (hence the books).
Soundcheck: In a snug, wood-walled space packed tight with intrepid diners, the noise has nowhere to hide.
By Daniel S. Meyer