Aquavit was one of the first restaurants announced for the St James’s Market development, and its arrival caused quite a stir amongst London’s food lovers. A pioneering New York City hotspot since 1987 thanks to its innovative modern Nordic dishes, Aquavit further cemented its reputation as one of the Big Apple’s finest when it was awarded a first Michelin star in 2013; and in 2015, former pastry chef Emma Bengtsson was appointed executive chef, and her work garnered a second star for the restaurant.
Now, the London restaurant – elegantly designed by Swedish-born Martin Brudnizki, responsible for Sexy Fish and Scott’s – is up and running, bringing a more relaxed version of the New York original to St James’s. Though there are differences between the two sites – notably the London restaurant’s larger size – Bengtsson is hopeful that Aquavit will soon become a St James’s institution. “You always take a risk when you do something new,” says the chef. “This restaurant is going in a different direction than New York, which I think is really good – it gives it an edge. The quality, the product, the techniques and the passion for it are all coming over, but it’s a whole new spin on it.” She believes that London has been ready for a restaurant like Aquavit for some time – and the more informal slant to the London outpost is perfectly suited to today’s dining scene. “I think this vibe suits London a lot. This is the kind of place that London really embraces and needs,” says the chef. “We’re coming to a point where we’re moving away from white tablecloths, and moving towards a warmer, more approachable climate.”
The key indicator of this approachability is the all-day dining menu, designed to honour the culinary traditions of Scandinavia. Bengtsson and Aquavit London’s head chef, Henrik Ritzén, are introducing Londoners to regional specialties such those featured on the smörgåsbord section of the menu, including shrimp skagen, glassblower herrings, gravadlax and vendace roe; starters like venison tartar with wild blueberries, lingonberries and juniper, and langoustines with smoked eel and crown dill; and mains including turbot with horseradish and brown nut butter and Swedish meatballs with lingonberries and pickled cucumber. Bengtsson’s famed New York signature, the Arctic Bird’s Nest, appears on the dessert menu too.
Both Bengtsson and Ritzén’s upbringings in Sweden helped shape their interest in cooking – and particularly the dedication to locally-sourced, simple produce. “Swedish cuisine is about going back to basics. It’s about being honest with what comes from nature and not overcomplicating things,” says Ritzén. He says that the emphasis is always placed on the ingredient – and preparing dishes at Aquavit involves letting the produce speak for itself. “It’s all about good quality ingredients, with as little as possible done with them. There’s salt, acidity or bitterness involved; but it’s very clean and it’s very approachable.” The chef thinks that this is an ethos that diners are increasingly buying into. “More and more people are craving that approach. They want to understand what they are eating.” Henrik gives the example of Aquavit’s turbot dish – fast becoming a classic in the area. “It’s basically just the perfect piece of turbot, poached and served with horseradish, brown butter and lemon. That’s it.”
While much of the menu features ingredients grown around the British Isles, Ritzén and Bengtsson are going back to the source for some of the more specialist Nordic produce required to bring the vision to life. “There are a few things we’ve had to get from Sweden, like the vendace roe and some of the berries unique to Scandinavia. Luckily there are a couple of good suppliers here that have things like Ättika, which is a high percentage distilled vinegar. It’s important for capturing the flavour for pickles,” says the chef.
Despite focusing on a cuisine in which Londoners are not fully educated, the team hopes that Aquavit will become a spot that customers will return to frequently, rather than as an occasional treat. “We had a big challenge because we don’t want to be a restaurant where people just come once and think it’s great – but then maybe only come again the following year,” explains Ritzén. “We want to have a restaurant that people come back to – at least once a month.”
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