When I visited: July 2017 and November 2017
Location: London, St James
Rating in the Michelin Guide: 1 star (the New York restaurant has 2 stars)
What to wear: Men – jeans or nice trousers and a shirt; women – jeans and a smart top or a smart dress
Ambience: Slick and stylish
Course of the meal: Matje herring with blackened potato, sour cream and egg yolk
If I could change one thing: More vegetarian options
The revamped St James’ Market area of London has lots of promising-looking restaurants and bars and the first one I have sampled, Aquavit, is a great addition. Aquavit’s origins are in New York, where the restaurant has 2 Michelin stars. Going to the London branch reminded me of how few great Nordic food options I have come across in London and how light and delicious this type of food can be when done well.
The first thing you notice about Aquavit is how slick it is. Bang & Olufsen speakers adorn the walls; the light fittings are spectacular; there are abstract tapestries hanging on the walls and full-on posy flower arrangements on each table. The bathrooms are lovely and even the ante-chambers have speakers in them so you don’t lose any sense of the music as you walk through.
Thankfully, the food lives up to all the stylish promise of the décor. My partner Owl and I started with summary cocktails – the pictured Midsummer Spritz (which includes sparkling wine and was perfect) and a Scandi Mule (containing OP Anderson (a Scandinavian liqueur), lemongrass, rosemary, grapefruit syrup and ginger beer). They were both great and the kind of drinks you want to nurse for a while while sampling some of the smorgasbord (small starting starter) options.
We went for the gravlax (very fresh salmon with an amazing mustard and dill sauce), the Matje herring with blackened potato, sour cream and egg yolk (a stunning dish) and the shrimp Skagen, which was like a traditional Danish open sandwich on dense, almost fruity-tasting bread. We also got a cool bread selection – Danish rye, sourdough and crisp bread with butter served with a wooden knife and a herby cream.
Our mains were the duck breast with carrots, garlic scapes and liquorice (the sauce really enhanced this dish) and the monkfish with brown crab, peas, fennel and horseradish, which was a substantial ‘fish steak’ kind of course. We had a couple of glasses of wine to accompany the mains – a Portuguese white which was recommended as good for going with fish, and a Merlot which was soft enough not to overpower the flavours in the duck dish.
My partner Owl went for the ‘Not far from Alaska’ dessert – a soft chewy meringue supporting three quenelles of sorbet and cream, raspberries, blackberries and red berries. We shared some gorgeous jasmine tea in huge pot with a blueberry shape on top and were given handmade toffees with hazelnut pieces as bonus petits fours.
I could have ordered almost anything from the menu and am planning to go back again as soon as possible. My only slight gripe would be that there weren’t many vegetarian options, although pescatarians would be more than OK as there are lots of fish choices. The restaurant wasn’t very busy at peak dinner time on a Saturday night but got more busy later on – it has a post-theatre menu among other options so this may be why. It is tucked away so it is not the kind of place you will walk into unless you happen to be on that street or if you know about it. I think that, like Balthazar, Aquavit is a very welcome addition to London.
Aquavit was busier on this visit, which was nice to see – this may have had something to do with the fact that since my last visit it had gained a Michelin star. We sat at the bar and shared some small plates and cocktails – the Matje herring dish was as amazing as ever and the atmosphere was even better with more people in the restaurant and impressively big Christmas trees adorning the place.