Into the Wild at Aska in Williamsburg
Photograph by Dominic Perri
It's always been the mark of a great chef to treat the ugly and unpleasant with a bit of tenderness, to find the delicious where it's least expected. At Aska, in Williamsburg, Swedish-born chef Fredrik Berselius cooks hairy roots, bitter lichen, and monkfish, the hideous, bottom-dwelling loner that conceals a wormy liver, rich like foie gras, but with double the funk. Berselius serves the liver alongside the meat in a dark sauce made from the bones—a dish that rewards those who want to get down with a profound, oceanic meatiness.
As for the humble black radish, Berselius shaves it like a gloriously perfumed truffle, paving a hot potato soup with its raw, black-edged petals. Even seen through a daze of winter root-vegetable fatigue, it is indisputably beautiful, reminding us that the magic of cooking isn't just in the transformation of ingredients, but in a chef's understanding of juxtaposition. By resisting all other garnishes—no distracting herb, no colorful float of fat or padding of flavor—Berselius gives us the true, hard taste of a Northeastern winter. Radish. Potato. Repeat.
Let's call this thing New York Nordic. At a glance Aska might epitomize the import of New Scandinavian cuisine with the chef's emphasis on wild, esoteric ingredients, micro-seasonality, and devotion to technique, but it also maintains a distinctly Brooklyn feel, set back in a converted industrial space with painted brick walls and a concrete floor in Williamsburg.
Berselius was working at Paul Liebrandt's gem, Corton, when he met Richard Kuo; the two chefs made a name for themselves last year cooking modern Scandinavian food three nights a week in this same spot (Kuo moved on to open Pearl & Ash). Their pop-up, Frej, was well-timed and very popular, and it helped that a five-course dinner was $45. I half-expected the team to get drunk on their early success and debut as full-timers with something expensive and pretentious, but that hasn't been the case at all.
A seven-course tasting at Aska is just $65 and kicks off after two or three small bites and the arrival of warm, golden rolls of caraway-studded bread served with soft salted butter, churned in-house. Try a drink or two from the charming, sprightly beverage director Shiraz Noor, who mixes oddball drinks outside of the classic-cocktail-revival spectrum, shaking up his own generation's obsessions to construct spiked vegetable juices ($12) and shots of caffeinated, boozy energy drinks ($6). Yes, the front of house is young. This crew in rumpled cardigans and plaid does not have the deep, classic background once required for fine-dining service, but the servers do have style and confidence and rhythm to suit the kitchen's ambitions. It's because of the service (and not the giant space heaters that hang from the ceiling) that Aska feels warm from the moment you walk in.
The kitchen works closely with the front of house—lanky, severe-looking cooks in long, dark aprons bring out most of the food, finish dishes with sauces, and rush back to their stations. The menu changes often, but in the winter they might bring you tiny wild oysters from Rhode Island in a bright green broth of cucumber and dill. Or a lovely herring cobbled over with potatoes and juniper froth, paired with a glass of rye-infused aquavit. Two weeks ago, there was a squelch of root vegetables and pickled lichen in a murky chicken broth, and a bright egg yolk shone through it like the sun behind clouds. Dessert was a bowl of cardamom ice cream with salted brown-butter mousse and a powdery crumble of hazelnuts, and it was so delicious that I won't even complain about it being the only choice of sweets.
Not everything at Aska works. It's harder to see the merit of Berselius's intensity when it's applied to, say, a scabby crisp of pig's blood (making crackers from blood is a neat technique, but it wastes the edge of sweetness, the richness of texture), or a bite of scallop so deeply concentrated it whiffs like a bag of seaside garbage. But what's a good adventure without a few wrong turns and weirdos along the way?
If you're not in the mood for iffy riffs on pig's blood, fine. But go to Aska anyway, without a reservation, and at least order a beer and a Swedish-style hot dog ($5) at the low-key bar. The long, curved weenie comes in a soft, pockmarked Swedish flatbread known as tunnbröd, with a billow of smooth, hot mashed potatoes, brown mustard, fried onions, and a bushel of fresh, feathery dill. Aska may not be perfect, but it sure as hell isn't boring.
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