By Sarah Noorbakhsh
To the average diner, Swedish food is just about as mysterious as the country’s language. What sounds to the untrained ear like a symphony of double k’s and t’s mixed with umlaut crowned vowels is to the uncultured eater a smorgasbord of alien foods that may perhaps contain meatballs and salmon. For a classy crash-course in Swedish cuisine, however, Tokyoites can now turn to newly opened Aquavit Tokyo, the first Asian branch of its New York predecessor.
The most surprising thing about Swedish cuisine is its uncanny resemblance to Japanese food. Ingredients in Swedish dishes are similarly simple and delicate with a focus on fish, but what really stands out is the preparation. Executive Chef Kazuhiko Tsurumi explains, “The use of pickling as a food preservation technique in Sweden is really similar to Japan, as are the fish-based broths used by both countries.”
Within one dish at Aquavit, a veritable rainbow of sensations can be found; the flavor of blue cheese is balanced by Norwegian smoked salmon and accented by a tangy espresso mustard sauce in the Gravlax. In the impressive looking—and tasting—Lobster Roll, lobster meat and shiitake mushrooms are wrapped in pickled apples and topped with trout roe, a cloud of egg-based dressing dabbed immodestly on the side. A must for the adventurous would be the Herring Sampler: herring brought directly from Europe are prepared in four different ways and served with what the menu terms “necessary accessories”—a mystery morsel to pique your interest.
Ikea-devotees be cursed, there is not a sign of a Swedish meatball anywhere on the menu. Meat lovers have the immediate dilemma of a choice between braised lamb and deer, but in this game-starved metropolis the venison wins out. Three thick slices—served at the perfect temperature— are oh-so wonderfully tender, and can be eaten together with either the tangy lingonberry sauce or tender spinach. If there was one complaint to be had with Aquavit it would be that the dinner menu is limited to a course—yes, only one—with a selection of just one appetizer and one main. Both a fish and a meat dish have become all but standard in the world of courses dinners, and the lack of opportunity to try a wider variety of interesting creations could be a letdown.
A suitable word to describe Aquavit would have to be “unpretentious.” The high-ceilings feel free and lighthearted, and the space-age looking chairs are so comfortable, they invite patrons to linger long after the last bites of artful little Christmas-flavored ginger cookies and red Swedish fish candies are gone. The food is playful, as is the décor, with the strange shapes of antique Dansk saltshakers and pepper mills dotting each table, and the black Arne Jacobsen egg chairs planted in the lounge just begging for a sit.
Like a sheep in wolf’s clothing, Aquavit parades a straight-out-of-New York stylishness but offers up an easy feeling of familiarity. The restaurant is perfect for a flavor adventure, especially for those looking for a hands-on education about all the Scandinavian country can offer.