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Trading Spaces

Aquavit may have moved to a cold, bland location, but the food is as warm and imaginative as ever.

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The dining room at Aquavit.  

It’s a tricky proposition, picking up and moving a successful restaurant. Like most businesses, restaurants want to lock in a customer; more than most businesses, however, they depend on the illusion of stolidity and a sense of place to do it. To please fickle New Yorkers, canny restaurateurs are always tinkering with the food they serve and the look of the room. To blow up their physical identity, though, and then try to put it back together again in a different location is a rash step, and one fraught with peril. But lately, two of the city’s more established, even entrenched dining institutions are attempting, in different ways, to do just that. The respected East Side sushi house Sushi of Gari has opened a larger outpost on the West Side called Gari. And the great Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit has abandoned, after seventeen years, the ornate double-height dining room it once occupied in an old Rockefeller townhouse behind MoMA for a new space on the ground floor of an anonymous windblown skyscraper off Park Avenue.

Initially, the difference between the old, familiar Aquavit and the new, hyperstylized, postmillennial version is a little jarring. The entrance to the restaurant’s new quarters resembles a bleakly modernist public square on the outskirts of, say, Göteborg, replete with scraggly trees and rows of abandoned marble benches. Inside, the bar has been greatly expanded into a long lounge area, where you can twirl about in high-backed Jacobsen “egg” chairs. The restaurant’s homemade aquavits used to be stored behind the bar; now they’re displayed along the wall, like pieces of art, in luminous square tankards. The dining room is small, even claustrophobic, by the standards of the grandiose old space, but the café, once part of the bar, now has a room of its own, appointed with simple butcher-block tables, pendulous sixties-era chandeliers, and orange cone chairs of the type you might see in the executive lounge of an excessively posh Scandinavian airline.

Once you’ve adjusted to this new aesthetic, however, the food at Aquavit continues to be excellent; in fact, it’s arguably better than before. Marcus Samuelsson and his executive chef, Nils Norén, have made a few subtle changes to the main dining-room menu. Their famous mini lobster roll, a thin Tootsie Roll of poached lobster wrapped in apples instead of tomatoes, includes a sprinkling of trout roe and is chased with a glass of ginger-ale granite. Chef Samuelsson still encases his salmon in a delicious brioche crust, but another classic invention, Wagyu-beef carpaccio (a pleasing jelly roll of beef stuffed with, of all things, mashed taro root), is now served in a light Japanese-style broth flavored with shrimp and mushrooms. Among the brand-new dishes, there’s a nice, properly pink piece of lamb loin, chunks of striped bass garnished with segments of monkfish liver, and a lemon-cured duck breast arranged over a bed of rich confit and potato hash, with a single, perfectly orange, perfectly round duck-egg yolk on the side.

The real innovations at the redesigned Aquavit, however, are in the new café. Samuelsson has stocked the menu with traditional Swedish favorites like beef Rydberg (diced sirloin with sweet onions and raw egg), excellent bites of herring flavored with vodka or curry and apples, and an eccentric, salty-sweet mound of egg salad and anchovies called “Gentleman’s Delight.” There are open-faced sandwiches, the best of which holds a brick-size portion of calf’s-liver pâté, and various nourishing soups, notably a creamy, faintly cheesy cauliflower purée showered with sweet raisins. There are also the patented Aquavit meatballs, stacked like cannon shot, samplers of elegantly prepared salmon, and a dish of slow-cooked pork that, perhaps, hadn’t been cooked long enough the night I tried it. The desserts are the familiar high-minded agglomeration of parfaits and warm chocolate cakes, but my favorite remains the apple sorbet served with white chocolate and a cloud of fennel crème. And there are the aquavits, of course. The oddest of the new flavors is something called roasted-pumpkin-and-espresso. If you miss the old restaurant, drink a glass, or three, and your fond memories will be obliterated forever.

The original sushi of Gari, which opened several years ago on the Upper East Side, is a uniquely Japanese restaurant. It’s small in a neighborly, almost anonymous way. Like many great restaurants in Japan, it’s shaped by the quirks of its proprietor, and caters to a select, even fanatical, clientele. By comparison, Masatoshi “Gari” Sugio’s new West Side outpost is a more conventional, even prosaic place. The décor at Gari (shiny glass windows, blond wood tables, a sushi bar hewn in the minimalist Nordic style) glows in a familiar modernist way. And aside from Mr. Sugio’s imaginative sushi, the menu reads like it was ripped from some anonymous fusion restaurant in suburban L.A. There’s a de rigueur offering of tuna tartare; a decent roast chicken dunked in a familiar teriyaki-style glaze; a pricey Kobe-beef facsimile from Texas called “Mishima Beef” that costs a cool $45; and a standard but tasty portion of Chilean sea bass marinated in miso.

None of these non-sushi items is very arresting, and a couple are downright grisly. An appetizer of traditional Japanese barbecued beef ribs was mostly bone and gristle both times I ordered it, and a promising little casserole pot containing rice and hamachi was steamed to a kind of gray, gummy blandness. Sugio’s sushi and sashimi omakases are as fine as ever, although my sushi-snob friends had a few quibbles. They informed me that the chef commutes to the West Side mainly on Monday nights, when Sushi of Gari is closed. They also thought the rice was a little stale, and seemed to lack the proper amount of vinegar. So what? If you’ve never had the pleasure of chef Sugio’s great swooping sushi constructions (toro dabbed with sweet tofu sauce, soft anago supported by surfboards of avocado, to name two), Gari is a good place to start. But be warned. The sushi omakase starts at $65 for just ten pieces. And if you like to eat early like I do, it’s a mild shock to see tables full of prosperous neighborhood kids wolfing down these delicacies like they’re on an after-school outing to McDonald’s.

Aquavit
Address: 65 E. 55th St., nr. Park Ave.; 212-307-7311

Hours: Dinner, Monday through Sunday, 5:30 P.M. to 10:30 P.M. Lunch, Monday through Saturday, noon to 2:15 P.M. Sunday brunch, noon to 2:30 P.M.

Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $20; entrées, $18 to $32.

Ideal Meal: Wagyu-beef carpaccio, salmon in brioche crust, apple sorbet.

Note: If you prefer to try the new café menu, order the smorgasbord plate, a satisfying assemblage of herring, salmon, and Swedish meatballs, sprinkled, in high Aquavit style, with lingonberries.

Gari
Address: 370 Columbus Ave., nr. 77th St.; 212-362-4816

Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 P.M. to 11 P.M., Friday and Saturday, 5 P.M. to 11:30 P.M., Sunday 5 P.M. to 10 P.M.

Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $21; entrées, $23 to $45.

Ideal Meal: Chef’s sushi omakase or the tuna plate, Sugio’s inspired dissertation on the textures and tastes of raw tuna.

Note: To enjoy the full glory of the sushi experience, avoid the communal table attached to the bar, and place yourself directly in front of the sushi chefs.


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