Sweden has not staged a land invasion since the poorly understood and more-puckish-than-belligerent Åland Crisis of 1918. But a few years ago, that land of white snow, blue eyes and extraordinary health care began establishing sleeper cells in New York. Its Omaha was Williamsburg’s hipster beach.
First came the moustaches, establishing a front line on the upper lips of Gothenburg emigrés. Then came the music: Peter Bjorn and John’s whistles shrieked through the streets like Wagner’s Die Walküre. Jens Lekman lured our men to sleep while the infectious hooks of Love Is All seduced their girlfriends. Finally, the ground was made ready. In February, chef Fredrik Berselius opened Aska, a stunning Swedish restaurant on Wythe Avenue, and all the Swedes and semi-Swedes, the legions of Nordic fifth columnists and Scandinavian sympathizers, rose up and made reservations.
In Aska, which means “ashes,” one can discern both the promise and the pitfalls of the Scandinavian soul. Fun is taken very seriously here. Whimsy is something to be discovered, like the form hiding in a block of marble, by constant careful chipping. Thus, bright murals of diurnal birds hang in relative darkness. Fantastical landscapes of moss and wood are contained in terraria, discretely placed on a shelf. The hostess is beautiful and she wears a sweatshirt.
This studied humbleness is a hallmark of what many Americans call New Scandinavian or New Nordic cuisine, and what many Scandinavians call Nordisk Mad. The latter term was coined by René Redzepi, the chef of Copenhagen’s Noma, which has been ranked the best restaurant in the world for the last three years in San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
When I visited Aska recently, news had not yet broken that Eamon Rockey, an original partner, had departed, but he wasn’t there. Neither was the chef, Mr. Berselius, who was off cooking in Iceland at something called the Food and Fun Fest. In his absence, a young bearded man named Gabriel Andersson—which is funny because only young bearded men seem to work there—was in charge. It’s tempting to hector Mr. Berselius for not being in the kitchen of his own restaurant, but it’s to his credit that his operation seemed as modular as Ikea’s IVAR shelving system, and much more sturdy.
Aska offers two tasting menus—a seven-course menu for $65 and a 10-course menu for $115. The Value for Money (VfM) is high. In one seven-course menu, the surprises and delights were squared. Each course, when it was trotted out by a seemingly consumptive Swede, looked simple but contained multitudes.
Unsurprisingly, many of the amuse-bouche arrived on various types of flooring material, a staple of Nordisk Mad. Two tiny prawns, culled from the waters of Maine, were served on a small plinth of black walnut, for example. Each had the flesh of his or her belly removed, sprinkled with salt and placed raw on his or her respective head, which had been fried in shrimp butter. Surprisingly, the crisp fried carapace, brain juice and lychee-like flesh created a really good tasting Venn diagram of texture and flavor.
And those wooden slats were Zelig-like. No sooner had the shrimp corpses been disposed of than the slats returned, bearing pig’s-blood crisps dotted with bright orange ploofs of sea-buckthorn berry gelée and garnished with fresh sea-buckthorn berry. The pig’s-blood crisp, which had been dehydrated, tasted like a crispy bloodstain—in a good way—and the sea-buckthorn berry brought an astringency from which any hemocentric food could benefit. But I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the dish, which came early on and unlisted in the procession, was a joke.
The Swedes have such a dry sense of humor.
Of the six savory courses listed on the menu, three were harvested from the sea and three from the field. In general, the waterborne beat the landlubbing. The best part of a plate of sunchokes—served raw, cut thin and scattered so they fell over the plate like bleached autumn leaves—wasn’t the sunchokes themselves, though their nuttiness was pleasing, nor was it the pig trotter, which lurked underneath like an unguent Polonius, nor even the sweet apple purée. It was the psych-out.
If you’ve eaten for any sustained period in New York City, you’ve come to expect pig lurking in every disguise. So when the bearded man said sunchoke and pig trotter and showed me the plate, I steeled myself to eat a pile of sliced pig feet. Happy was I not to.
True to the Gaussian curve, the best bite of the meal fell in the exact center. It’s listed on the laconic menu—again, sly Swedish joke or fine dining cliché?—simply as “Scallop, dill.”* Predictably, that description undersells. The scallops are hand-harvested from Nantucket Bay and brought to the kitchen live. They’re served raw, topped with a touch of dill purée and a chip made from scallops. Also in the scallop shell is a broth made from scallop scraps and scallop roe. It’s a feedback loop of scallop. But in that shell, Aska finds its raison d’etre. Therein lurks the sweet softness of the scallop, the crunch of it dry, the salinity of the roe and the fragrance of the broth.
The sea has been undone, folded in on itself and reconstituted with greater precision, molarity and accuracy. Chef Berselius has taken something that covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and made it bite-size.
But is Aska Nordisk Mad? A new book by Alessandro Porcelli called Cook It Raw seems to suggest it isn’t. The book, which comes out next month, chronicles the annual invitation-only challenge founded by Mr. Porcelli, a Copenhagen food consultant, in 2009, in which an elite cadre of chefs each create a dish inspired by their environments using hyperlocal ingredients.
The first Cook It Raw was in Copenhagen, hosted by René Redzepi, then it moved to Collio, Italy, and Lapland, Finland. In the first iteration, chefs, including David Chang, Daniel Patterson and Albert Adrià, were asked to “explore nature through a zero energy cooking challenge.” They headed off to the grounds of Dragsholm Castle to forage sorrel, green strawberries and woodruff. That night, one chef, Inaki Aizpitarte, served lobster, pigeon liver, chicken liver and wood sorel as spare dots on a huge white plate. Massimo Bottura, chef at the fifth-best restaurant in the world, served something called “Pollution—20:30 Modena.” It was, by all accounts, delicious.
Clearly, what animates Messrs. Redzepi and Porcelli isn’t any particular technique like dehydration, or a specific ingredient like sea-buckthorn berry. It’s an approach to one’s environment, a ballsy usage of it, a keen listening to it. At Aska, all the phenotypic traits of Nordisk Mad are there—wood, beards, terra cotta, rawness—but I’m not convinced the genes are the same. The scallops arrived from Massachusetts, the shrimp from Maine, the sea-buckthorn berries either from Nova Scotia or remitted from Sweden by post. Fjord to City: Drop Dead.
One wishes Mr. Berselius grasped more at the roots of Nordisk Mad, where the philosophy intersects with the earth, and not at its pretty petals, spectacular but removed. What of the lichens of Greenpoint? What of the bark of Prospect Park? I kid, a bit, but only a bit, because though Aska looks good and tastes great, until Mr. Berselius starts to see the forest for the trees, it raises more questions than it answers.
*It comes after “Sunchoke, trotter, apple” and before “Monkfish, salsify, bay leaf.” Why have menus retreated into silence like sullen teenagers? Menus of America, let your kids go to the movies!