Scandinavia has come to London by way of New York at this contemporary Nordic restaurant. James Stagg pays a visit
The Danish term hygge has been the go-to word of the winter to describe that general feeling of wellness achieved through enjoying simple pleasures, mostly experienced while wearing a nice Scandinavian-style wool jumper, so it's tempting to put the warm glow experienced when entering Aquavit down to its Nordic origins.
The 142-cover restaurant, forming part of the St James's Market development in London, has been inspired by its two-Michelin-starred New York namesake, which has Emma Bengtsson in the kitchen. It has been brought to the UK by chief executive Philip Hamilton, who has installed Bengtsson as executive chef
alongside head chef Henrik Ritzen, (formerly of Lutyens and the Arts Club).
It has been designed by Martin Brudnizki with a glass facade that floods the space with light, illuminating a double-height room built around a bar and a mezzanine level. The dining room has been inspired by the pared-back, timber-clad design of Gothenburg City Hall in Sweden, with a marble bar and huge textile wall hangings providing opulent focal points.
Swedish pair Bengtsson and Ritzen have devised a menu based on dishes served at Aquavit New York, but simplified for a faster-paced brasserie. "The chefs all made fun of me with my tweezers in the first service, so I soon put those away," says Bengtsson. "But even if there's less on the plate it's still phenomenal."
e is also working on an afternoon tea, based on the Swedish break of coffee with a cake or bun, known as fika. "We want to do it in an afternoon tea format, but in an authentic way," Ritzen says. All the bread is made in-house along with classic Danish pastries, such as cinnamon and cardamom buns. The Á la carte menu is split into four, with a smorgasbord selection leading into the traditional starters, mains and desserts. One of the smorgasbord dishes, the liver pÁ¢té (£5), was Bengtsson's signature starter in New York.
"Liver and lardo is poached and mixed with onions, egg and spice to create a soupy consistency," she says. "This is cooked in a water bath." Another smorgasbord close to Bengtsson's heart is blood pudding, lingonberries, bacon and lardo (£6). "I put this on the menu in New York as soon as I took over," she says. "This was one of those dishes I hated as a kid, but I now love. I wanted to do the dish, but amazingly - to bring it back to life and take care of it."
Bengtsson's recipe combines pig's blood with allspice and a dry mix of rye flour, egg, apple and red onion, before being cooked gently in a water bath. It arrives as a hearty slab of seared rich blood pudding, over which is draped a transparent layer of lardo, served with crispy bacon and lingonberries.
ng the starters, crab, rye brioche and fennel (£14) has been a particular success, the in-house rye brioche and pickled fennel working perfectly to emphasise the freshness of the white meat. Main courses, including duck breast, rowans and parsnip (£21) and turbot, horseradish and brown butter (£34), focus on precise cooking and dainty presentation that doesn't distract from the core ingredients. A dish Ritzen delights in preparing is veal cheek, dill and salt-baked onions (£23). "We make a stock from veal trimmings and braise the cheek in it for five hours until it is falling apart. The stock is then reduced and we add cream, butter and Á¤ttika - a strong 12% distilled vinegar." The dish is reminiscent of a blanquette of veal, with an intense dill flavour and high acidity.
When it comes to desserts, diners are often led to the signature Arctic bird's nest (£12), a nest of chocolate twigs cocooning an egg with a white chocolate shell filled with goat's cheese ice-cream and a yolk of sea buckthorn curd.
The menu will change seasonally, though Ritzen wants to make sure there is a reassuring consistency. "We're tinkering a bit, but we're a big place and have a lot of people coming through, so we don't want to change things too much," he says. "We want people to know that the blood pudding is always outstanding."
From the menu
Herrings: Brantevik, mustard, curry £12
Mackerel tartare, sorrel, lumpfish roe £7
Venison tartare, blueberries, lingonberries, juniper £12
Langoustines, smoked eel, crown dill broth £17
Cod, shrimps, cucumber, egg, dill £22
Monkfish, Sandefjord sauce, trout roe, fennel £28
Best end of lamb, cabbage, lingonberries £26
Rosehip soup, almond ice-cream, almond cake, rum £7
Apple crumble, charcoal vanilla ice-cream, rye and oat £8
Aquavit, St James's Market,
1 Carlton Street, London SW1Y 4QQ