May 18, 2016
In one of the best lines ever written about food, Clifton Fadiman called cheese “milk’s leap to immortality.”
That’s how I felt about the roasted beet at Agern.
These are vegetables that have been deeply understood, in the best sense, by the chef. It’s as if Gunnar Gislason knows what tubers dream of, understanding that carrots, weary of their simple orangeness, long to be considered complex. He knows that kohlrabi resents being shunted aside, beets are convinced they’re destined for stardom, and pine needles yearn to show off their sweet side.
To experience Agern at its best, you have to suspend disbelief and enter Mr. Gislason’s world. This is not familiar food; it is a wild ride into unexpected territory.
The meal begins gently, with a clear subtle broth that dares to whisper; it is so subtle you have to concentrate. And then, yes, there it is, the taste of the ocean, the taste of the forest, gently mingling. The chef is demanding your attention, warning you to eat slowly and with concentration.
Like an image emerging from the mist, an oyster appears on pine needles, echoing the flavor of the broth, bringing it into focus. As bracing as cold water splashed in the face, this is like tasting a memory.
Next there are a series of tiny vegetable tidbits, little trumpets shouting flavor. The combination of a tiny fresh, sweet carrot and a hefty slice that’s been dried and dehydrated is the most memorable carrot experience of my life. The celery root and parsnip are equally intense, little nuggets of vegetable power.
Then there is the contrast of the robust potato bread, all satisfying crackle and crunch, the substantial yang to all that vegetable yin.
Raw slices of scallop mingle with maitake mushroom, the crunch of daikon, the crackle of sunflower seeds. Scallops are normally retiring creatures, but here they become sassy, daring to strut their stuff.
Another surprise: you expect beef heart tartare to be scary food for Vikings. Not in Gislason’s hands; this is the most delicate of dishes, little scraps of heart hiding behind bright green leaves. The timid little morsels are overwhelmed by the crunch of the vegetables, the sweetness of mayonnaise and that scatter of sumac.
And now here is the beet leaping toward immortality with the help of a little creme fraiche, the bracing sourness of sorrel, and the heat of horseradish. The chef himself comes out to urge the sweet salt-roasted orb out of its rock salt crust, as if to underline his respect for the dish.
Somewhere along this journey various breads appear – one more delicious than the next – along with this presentation of butters. On the left, butter touched with buttermilk. On the right, whipped lamb fat with lamb cracklings.
Cod, with potatoes, fennel fronds and nasturtium leaves is lovely, but the most ordinary dish of the night. Eating it I thought, oh, this is the chef trying to fit in. It’s a dish you might find in any good French restaurant.
Lamb, however, is another tour de force. The meat, both braised and roasted, with dandelions, Jerusalem artichokes and dill, is a reminder that the chef is from Iceland (where Gislason was chef at Dill).
Rambling to a close, we end on a little ode to pine: leaves and nuts strewn with skyr granita. You can almost feel those pine trees grinning.
Agern isn’t cheap: the prix fixe menu is $145 (tips included). The restaurant is the brainchild of Claus Meyer, one of the partners in Copenhagen’s Noma, and the word is clearly out in Denmark. The night I was there the restaurant was filled with tables of handsome Danish men eating this food with appreciative gusto. So here’s the question: will New Yorkers respond to this fascinating food in the same spirit?
I hope so. This is just the beginning. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
May 17, 2016
Four days of extraordinary eating has convinced me that this is a very exciting time for food in New York City. I’ll be writing about the best of those meals over the next few days. But right now I want to point out the latest trend in cutting edge cuisine: bread.
For starters there is the bread above, at Del Posto, served in a plate designed by the chef, Mark Ladner. The bread is just what you want: crusty, flavorful, fluffy inside. But it’s that butter substitute that really gets your attention. It’ looks like mozzarella, but it’s crème fraîche and cultured cream whipped into a frenzy. I dare you to leave even one scrap on the plate.
Then there’s the bread at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Complex and chewy, it tastes not only of wheat, but of the weather. Eating this bread made me think of drinking wine; it is bread with terroir. (And I loved it so much that I forgot to take its picture.)
Then there is the bread at the new Agern in Grand Central. The brainchild of Claus Meyer, who co-founded Noma, the restaurant is serving absolutely fascinating food; it is unlike anything else you’ll find in New York right now. They certainly care about their bread, which arrives in two different forms:
This crusty loaf, which is very light inside. It’s served with butter that’s been lightly whipped with a bit of buttermilk (think acid tang), and whipped lamb fat laced with lamb cracklings.
Later in the meal a second little loaf appears: this dense slightly moist rye bread, tasting faintly of caraway.
And then the other night at Le Turtle, before the perfect Caesar salad and the fabulous chicken cooked in hay, this delightful loaf appeared:
It was surrounded by butter: one plain, one tossed with lovage and citrus (sprightly, spring-like, herbal), and a third spangled with snails (frankly I didn’t think they added much).
Tomorrow: more about the meals.
April 27, 2016
You should probably take this with a grain of salt; I have many reasons to wish the new Nix well.
For one thing it is owned by my former boss, James Truman, who astonished the world (and me along with it), by walking away from the best job in publishing simply because he felt like it. He was the Editorial Director of Conde Nast, he had no idea what he was going to do next, but he’d had enough. It’s hard not to admire that spirit. Still, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that he’d go into the restaurant business.
For another thing, Nix is around the corner from the apartment I grew up in. I walked along the sidewalk where the restaurant now stands almost every day for fifteen years, and just being here feels like coming home.
And for the third, I was having dinner with one of my oldest friends, a man who has the bad taste to live in Paris which means I don’t see nearly enough of him.
On the downside, Nix is vegetarian. Upscale vegetarian. And that kind of gives me pause; it feels trendy and a little precious. So when I ordered the first bite, tandoori bread with a couple of dips, I was feeling skeptical. Then this arrived:
Nothing precious about that!
These are the dips….
The one at the top is labnah with marinated cucumbers; I couldn’t stop eating it. The pink one is a take on muhamara – walnuts and red peppers – and every bit as appealing. A great start.
Jicama, carved into ribbons, served with blood oranges, chiles, crisped onions. Light and totally refreshing.
A fascinating vegetarian take on the almost-ubiquitous pork belly buns, made famous by David Chang and now served almost everywhere. Chef John Fraser has made them his own by replacing that fat chunk of meat with tempura-fried cauliflower. Suddenly the dish feels new.
This is, as you can see, far from uncomplicated cooking. But it all feels fresh and tastes wonderful. I loved these fava beans.
And these little pea dumplings, with their white asparagus were spectacularly good.
Then there was dessert. It reminded me a bit of the pineapple Heston Blumenthal serves at Dinner in London, roasting the fruit on a spit. Fraser tweaks it by roasting the pineapple in the tandoori oven, which intensifies the flavor until it is almost achingly delicious. As for that “whipped cream” on top … it’s made of vegetables – and I forgave it.
Should you be wondering where the name comes from… Nix v. Hedden was a Supreme Court decision of 1893, declaring that the tomato be classified as a vegetable rather than a fruit.
*This is a reference to a much-loved and long-lamented restaurant on Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street called Prexy’s. They boasted that they served “burgers with a college education.”