Dining alone is one of the more useful adult skills I’ve learned in the past three years. During my teenage years, I dined alone at home, eating weird things at weird hours. Then when I turned 18, I got into restaurants and came to view dining as an inherently social activity. But it took another several years to become comfortable on my own in a restaurant.
On a short trip to New York City last summer, I found myself with time to explore on my own. Naturally, I tend to fill in empty spots on my schedule with food, and I wasn’t going to let not having a dining partner get in the way of that.
I snagged a lunch reservation for one at Aquavit, an elegant Nordic restaurant in midtown Manhattan with two Michelin stars, for my last day of the trip.
The interior of Aquavit has a clean, light decor of white and grays, mixed with wood in medium and dark tones. My table was along a window of mirrored glass; I could see out to East 55th Street, but nobody could see in. Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” played softly in the background.
After ordering a non-alcoholic mojito, I nibbled on some Danish rye bread and a sourdough roll while perusing the menu. I opted for the three-course prix fixe. It was a good call.
Of course, the salmon used in the gravlax was of the highest quality: fresh and silky. When starting with a perfect ingredient, I’m always curious to see what a restaurant does next. A dish too complex won’t let the diner see that the fish on its own is perfect, but at the same time, the restaurant wants to show some culinary skills.
And in this regard, the execution of the gravlax was flawless. All the other flavors—spicy, tangy, herby—hit one note just below the salmon.
Next up was the bouillabaisse, Aquavit’s take on the Provençal fish stew from Marseilles. There was a lot going on in this Scandinavian version—so many that it was hard to get all the components all into a single bite—but somehow, it all worked. The hot pickled tomatoes added a juicy, vinegary kick.
I have to admit that the dessert did not jump off the menu for me when I was choosing the prix-fixe. But not wanting to be That Customer who gets all high-maintenance with the prix-fixe, I figured I’d give the dessert on the menu a shot, knowing that Momofuku Milk Bar was only a five-minute walk away.
Thank goodness I didn’t try to swap, because this was one of the more memorable desserts I’ve had in a while. The savarin, a vanilla sponge cake, was topped with a dollop of rum ice cream with a piece of almond brittle, all in a pool of fragrant rose hip sauce that was poured table side.
A simple, romantic dessert with every element perfectly balanced; cold ice cream, warm sauce; smooth ice cream, soft cake, crunchy brittle.
I left the restaurant regretful that it was my last day in New York City, because I immediately wanted to try Aquavit for dinner.
After my meal, I looked up Pete Wells’ three-star New York Times review of Aquavit. He wrote that chef Emma Bengtsson “juxtaposes flavors and textures in ways that are both complex and finely tuned,” and that rang true to my experience. Every flavor and texture added something to the palate without overpowering anything else.
About year since my meal, I came upon a draft of this blog post that I thought had become lost in the ether when I switched computers. I’m going back through some of those no-longer-lost older drafts and posting about the restaurants that stand out in my memory even as time passes.
Aquavit is worth learning to dine alone for. And if I end up dining alone again during my next meal at Aquavit, hey, I won’t have to worry about a dining partner trying to steal my hot pickled tomatoes.
INFORMATION as of August 2016