October 16, 2021

As I enjoy dining at this level with greater frequency, I am struggling with a dichotomy. Am I getting more used to cooking at this level, and therefore less impressed? Or am I getting more refined... educated... aware, therefore able to differentiate between outstanding cooking and the truly unique? Recent visits to Joe Beef and Atera demonstrate that I can still be blown away by great food, but the former must also be in play.

This struggle presented itself at the 2 Michelin star Aquavit. This restaurant is top notch. Service was nearly impeccable, the atmosphere was excellent and the food is refined and delicious. The head chef comes to meet each table with a very warm, friendly and genuine appreciation that you have visited her restaurant. While COVID has understandably stunted many restaurants in their arrival back to full form (see Per Se and Blue Hill), Aquavit seemed to not miss a beat. The restaurant had the right "rhythm" and was firing on all cylinders. In this day of staff shortages and supply chain disruptions, that fact alone demonstrates very high level achievement.

The food was excellent and diverse. We had the larger 8-course grand tasting menu and the meal's arc was outstanding. Dishes were generous without being overwhelming (a misstep fully embraced by Jungsik). I was very full at the end, but never wincing at the thought of the next course. Wines were well matched throughout the pairing.

The highest notes were kombo-cured fluke (super well conceived with top-notch execution) and the treatment of the king crab, the cook of which was literal perfection. The sweetbreads also showed a high level of understanding of how to treat this ingredient combined with superior execution and delivery. Their well-known signature - a dessert known as the bird's nest - lives up to the hype both visually and in diverse flavor. The sheer number of elements was astounding, yet merged into an authentic whole, matched with a truly superb and well-paired dessert wine. 

So what's the problem, right? Here is my concern.

Which dish will I dream about? None of them.
What dish would I come back to have again? None of them.
Which made me giggle? None of them.

For the price point of this experience (which was at the high end), I should be begging you to go have this dish, or insisting that you try that one. And I am not.

Hence...my dichotomy above.

Aquavit is fully worthy of it's 2 Michelin stars. It is an extremely well-executed concept and belongs in this echelon of restaurant. At 2/3 the price, it would be stellar. At this price, it falls a just a bit short, held back not by its few and minor missteps, but by high points which did not reach high enough.

It is 100% worth a visit, but not worth a return. That seems a reasonable expectation at this level, does it not?

Shimp tartlet, celeriac, potato crisp
Crispy pancake, crayfish, chanterelles, caviar
Kombu-cured fluke, fennel, watercress
Langostine tartare, osetra caviar, brown butter emulsion, pickled apple, gold leaf...
Added salted cream with Nasturtium (flower)...
The resulting dish
Nowegian king crab with fried starch pearls, caramelized cream and tomato oil. Absolutely delicious and the most amazingly cooked (butter poached?) crab I have ever had. So very soft and buttery.
2nd presentation - crab dip with edible flowers, frisee radishes. Really delicious and well done.
Crispy sweetbreads, plums, meyer lemon, ginger, pear jous. Very well conceived and executed. Don't typically love sweetbreads but this was super enjoyable.
Butter poached halibut, bed salt baked celeriac, trout roe, fish roe, sauce (forget the name) with creme fraiche, butter, onion dashi. Terrific ingredients, beautiful presentation but fell short on flavor. The bed of celeriac puree along the bottom dominated.
Long Island duck breast, butternut squash, crispy brussel sprouts, apple butter, sea buckthorn sauce (a tart yellow berry), thyme and garlic oil
Their signature dessert - Arctic Birds Nest. Really blows you away visually, so many individual components (the nest is honey twills chocolate underneath, berries, ice cream, milk skin, on and an on). Lived up to the hype.
Adding frozen yumminess on top.
Perfect table with a view into the entire kitchen. The super quiet automated sliding door panel had me intrigued. I want one of those in my house. :D

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Replying to Steven Smith