When you grow up in a cold grey place and have to endure six months without sunshine, it is difficult to resist the temptation to go raping and pillaging. Give or take a thousand years and the Scandinavians appear to have outgrown their baser instincts. Today’s Scandinavians are peaceable people who worry about stuff like where the polar bears will sit when the ice caps melt. Thanks to their ancestors’ habit of raiding neighbouring states in search of attractive conjugal partners, contemporary Scandinavians are also a remarkably good looking bunch.
I was in Sweden last year for the celebration of mid summer, an alcohol fuelled festival celebrating a long forgotten pagan god (probably the same chap who blessed the raping and pillaging). We started out with a cleansing ceremony which consisted of skinny dipping in an icy lake. Most Swedes don’t appear to own any swim wear. We then wandered through some woods eating wild berries and making wreaths out of wild flowers for the evening’s ceremonies. It was all a bit Kumbaya.
Fortunately the evening’s celebrations were properly Bacchanalian. The only ice that was melting was in our drinks. No polar bears were harmed. Mostly we drank rounds of aquavit and schnapps while singing ancient nordic anthems whose broad theme was “fetch me another drink”.
If the idea of getting drunk with a bunch of beautiful naked people is off putting, a Michelin starred version of the evening can be had at the Aquavit restaurants in London, New York and Tokyo. The London branch of Aquavit opened last year in a beautiful space in St James Market. I was dining with a college buddy with Swedish antecedents. He and I bonded many years ago over shared values; martinis and fast cars.
Aquavit is an attractive light filled restaurant filled with Scandinavian design touches. There are abstract wall hangings by some chap named Olaf who is apparently well known for making abstract wall hangings. The silver ware by George Jensen, is simple and beautiful. The waiter’s outfits are designed by a Norwegian who may have stitched clothes for ABBA. In the midst of all this designing someone forgot to provide basic training to the wait staff who are uniformly incompetent but very attractive and well groomed.
The food is a contemporary take on Swedish staples – fish, wild game and berry flavoured sauces. While we tasted much of the menu, the more traditional dishes made a greater impact. Herring made three ways is the standout appetiser. The cold, tart flavour of the fish nicely complemented by the accompaniments (mustard, chives and roe, Brantevik eel). Beef Rydberg, a Swedish hangover cure dish is particularly well done here. Meat, eggs and potatoes, the three basic brunch food groups are put together with Scandi flair – beautifully cooked squares of beef tenderloin in an onion marmalade, crisp potatoes, horseradish and an egg yolk. There is good food on offer here, but nothing that makes me go wow!
There’s a decent selection of the usual spirits, but the aquavit spirit suggestions are particularly well matched. And who can resist a whole cart of aquavit with an invitation to taste a flight?
Aquavit in New York has two Michelin stars. The London branch has some way to go, even though it has already scored a star. The service needs sharpening, the food is acceptable and occasionally good, but not outstanding. At this price point, in this city, it needs to try harder.