In his review of Aquavit in Midtown this week, Pete Wells kept the three-star rating that former New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton gave the restaurant in 2010, along with a glowing review of the eatery’s newest executive chef, Emma Bengtsson.
Wells begins his review with kudos for Aquavit’s resilience as a New York culinary institution, because, as he explains, “Time drags down restaurants in New York. It turns hot spots into castoffs and grand dining rooms into whispery museums.” He seems to at least partially credit Bengtsson with the restaurant’s buoyancy, and quickly begins unpacking for the reader her brilliancy as a chef.
Among the compliments he pays her, the critic highlights how well “she juxtaposes flavors and textures in ways that are both complex and finely tuned”; she wins him over with her originality, as he finds “her ideas [to be] fresh without aping fashionable Nordic trope.” He specifically appreciates that the chef has not left behind the ingenuity she exhibited as the restaurant’s baker and pastry chef, which she now showcases by building “contrasts of color and shape that underscore ones of flavor and texture… It’s tempting to see a pastry chef’s training at work in Ms. Bengtsson’s dynamic handling of color, her appreciation of things that go crunch, her use of fruit in savory dishes, and her sense of sugar as a seasoning.”
To Wells, the standout dishes are the Arctic char with nettles, shrimp, and peas; grapefruit and lemon dessert; gravlax with asparagus; Matjes herring and quail egg; gravlax with asparagus; suckling pig with radicchio, apple, and mustard; and the “chocolate and texture” dessert. The one dish he did not enjoy was “a pâté of calf’s liver encased in unnervingly sweet cucumber jelly. It looked like an expensive paperweight and tasted, to me, like a Jell-O salad concocted by a deranged ’60s housewife.” He concedes, however, that “it wouldn’t seem nearly as strange to somebody raised in Sweden, as Ms. Bengtsson was.”
So, what stood in the way of a perfect four-star rating? The critic just couldn’t get comfortable in the space.
He first subtly mentions his distaste for the space in the second full paragraph of the piece, stating matter of factly that “Aquavit still seems to be struggling to find the right tone in its dining room, which still isn’t as comfortable as it could be.” The reader probably believes this is the last judgement he or she will read about it, as the review proceeds, this emphasis becomes more heavy-handed and we soon realize that to Wells, the space is a real strike against the perceived intended experience of a meal there.
He transitions from praising the kitchen to lamenting the interior design about two-thirds of the way through the piece with the line: “In short, Ms. Bengtsson’s food is wonderful. I only wish there were a little less stiffness involved in eating it.” The critic then details everything that struck him as off-putting, noting, for instance, that “one night, as the meal rounded the corner into its third hour, my lower back began to understand that the spindly armchairs were not necessarily conceived with the rigors of 21st-century tasting menus in mind. My dining companion was perched in an uncomfortable yoga pose because her banquette cushions were too far from the table for her to sit back and relax.” With both a five- and eight-course menu to choose from that can each take multiple hours to consume, it seems as if the décor should mirror the required endurance of the guests. The chairs aren’t the only things marring the ambience, as Wells describes the waitstaff as “somber… This becomes unnerving when they stand in a row at the back of the dining room, all dressed in black.”
None of this completely ruins the experience for Wells, however, and in the end, Aquavit retains all three stars. As for the chairs, may we suggest Ikea?