Nordic Fantasy

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Then there is the contrast of the robust potato bread, all satisfying crackle and crunch, the substantial yang to all that vegetable yin.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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