Finding your way to Agern, tucked elusively behind a Nordic food court (also orchestrated by chef Claus Meyer), might be as esoteric as the menu itself. Not to dissuade you, I wholly recommend this restaurant. It's just that the new influx of Scandinavians on the culinary scene seem vigorously more interested in titillating and intriguing you than feeding you. And in most cases, at no small fee. The menu is accessible from three approaches: two tasting menus (an omnivoric Land + Sea or vegetarian Field + Forest), or a la carte. Strangely, however, the prices to order in the latter manner are not listed (at least not on the lunch menu). Our server, perhaps encouraging us towards a tasting menu, said he could bring the other menu, which included the prices, creating a situation both awkward and conspicuous. Agern likes to do things its own way, so when I ordered an iced tea on that muggy summer afternoon, what arrived looked like a bloody mary, but was their special hibiscus-agave mocktail... which is NOT an iced tea. Service here definitely needs some buffing, as sincerely as they do seem to be trying. Also, while explaining the menu, he stated that he would inquire about any food allergies and aversions if we chose a tasting, but he never did. Thus, when our first course arrived, a trio of Snacks, included was a raw oyster to which one of us (that would be me) at the table were averse. To
no tragic end, however, as an extra glistening raw oyster decorated with a tiny borage blossom was well appreciated by my tablemate. I should've traded him for the little toadstool-shaped turnip concoction, its cap fashioned out of a thin slice of the vegetable and conjoined with a dollop of a remoulade-heavy turnip slaw, crisp and lusciously creamy. The
other was a tiny "taco" of raw kohlrabi filled with ever-so-gently cured fluke, delicate and decadent at the same time. The flavors are superlative- there is a balance of sensations: of lightness and depth, complimentary textures, sweetness and bite that are simply magical. But the Ikea aesthetic of simplicity and minimalism is running full throttle, where the complexity lies in the ideation and composition, but the finished product is pure and elemental. So to is the decor; the tables are of pale wood, their imperfections highlighted as part of the design. Spindly-legged chairs flank the bar, and more substantial ones of deeply stained wood surround the dining tables.
So we progressed to our first courses, again throwing our waiter a curveball and requesting a second course dish as an appetizer. It seemed like and appetizer, anyways: a liquidy succotash of roasted and fermented corn studded with golden chantrelles and a puree of golden raspberries sounded extremely appealing, but hardly substantial enough for an entree. Our waiter said he would ask the chef if this was possible, and in that he never returned with a denial of the request that was, in fact, approved . So when it arrived, I had to wonder if the chef had downsized the dish in accordance with a demotion from a main, but he reassured us that no, that was the actual size of the dish regardless of when it was served. Which was laughably small. Ridiculously small/ Gorgeous as it was- a masterpiece in buttercup yellow glowing from a rough, gunmetal clay plate. But if there was a half cup of food there I would be surprised, and as a main course, even a bird-like waif would have emerged hungry. It was as delicious as it was tiny, though, each component of the dish sharing an attribute with another while retaining its own identity.
Sweetness, earthiness, a bit of tang, a nudge of butter: revolutionarily good. A Salt and Ash baked beet played again with monochromatics, this time a study in crimson with huckleberries and beet juice staining the horseradish and frondy microgreens to a coordinating vermilion. Apparently there is a little more pomp at dinner, when the salty ashen crust is shattered a table and presented for two, but I was happy enough with the whole things for myself, superlatively beet-y, cool and earthy-sweet. The compote of huckleberries and diced beet below imparted a bit of tang and the bite of horseradish, highlighting the humble attributes of the tuber itself.
menu presented by enhancing the pleasantly saline broth beneath, swiftly elevating it beyond its spartan components. A roasted guinea hen was a little spartan in its own right, although not at all in flavor but just its slightly meager portion. There were translucent furls of nectarine for brightness and bold onions charred smoky to round out the plate, but the five small nuggets of poultry that anchor the dish seemed a bit skimpy.
There are no side dishes offered, although one wonders if one could make another request to reformat any given dish as a supplementary course... or better, just come a little less hungry, and appreciate the masterful execution of Meyer's inspired creations, brought to life by Executive Head Chef Gunnar Gislasan, a robust and solid looking Icelander who has won that country's Restaurant of the Year for his innovative Dill every year since it opened in 2009.
One benefit of the modest portions at Agern is that you will easily have room for dessert(s). The rhubarb with angelica and sorrel sorbet was disappointingly unrhubarby, but quite wonderful as a sweetly creamy deconstructed cake-and-ice-cream concoction. The rhubarb was relegated to two raw shards as garnish, and a smidge of compote at the periphery of the creamy green orb of sorbet showered in a matching crumble of cake. Another dessert, newly added to the menu, featured blueberries, fat and syrupy, coddled a scoop of lemon verbena ice cream- a very simply but refreshing little summer dessert. They actually made nice
bedfellows, the two of them, where the rhubarb dessert benefited from the fruitiness of the blueberries, and the latter from the cakey crumbles and creamy ice cream. These, and most everything, are adorned with precious little leaflets, sometimes adding a hint of lemon, or else mint, but always a thoughtful contribution to the overall flavor profile. Attention to detail, in the food, is the overwhelming expertise of Agern. One would hope that a little of this will translate over to the service as the restaurant matures, and that perhaps the attention to the fine points might expand to to include ensuring a greater sense of satisfaction overall. And that might include filling the diner's belly along with his imagination.
Grand Central Terminal
89 East 42nd Street, New York, NY 10017
89 East 42nd Street, New York, NY 10017