Mother Nature Gets Her Freak On at Williamsburg's Aska
Seaweed and charred squid tart, with edible flowers
In July, the soft-spoken, angularly handsome chef Fredrik Berselius finally revived Aska, his acclaimed Nordic restaurant, after extended delays. Now he strides through the place's dining room with purpose, gracing the nine tables with an impish smile, adding saucepans of crab broth to the king crab dish. At times, it seems the 37-year-old Swedish native, who grew up near Stockholm, can hardly contain his excitement. Having visited his discreetly marked eatery, located on a sloping stretch under the Williamsburg Bridge, neither can I.
The first Aska (Swedish for "ashes") closed in 2014 after Berselius's ambitions outgrew the limited confines at Kinfolk Studios, the arts-friendly Wythe Avenue hangout where he'd earned a Michelin star. This new iteration is a wildly different beast. The soaring, circa-1860s factory space comprises a cobblestone-lined courtyard where bundles of carrot tops dry in the sun — as well as a sleek downstairs lounge. Upstairs, the cloistral main chamber feels blissfully secluded thanks to a wide berth between tables and the close attentions of the staff.
Gone are the comparatively affordable $65 and $115 prix fixes. Instead, Aska offers two elaborate, hours-long chef's tastings: a ten-course, $145 leisurely jog and a nineteen-course, $215 marathon. It's a risky move, but Berselius has never had a problem challenging diners. Three years ago, that meant austere plates of fried herring heads with brown butter, and brussels sprouts served on the branch. Here, there are more theatrics, like the serving of crisp-fried bladderwrack seaweed and emulsified blue mussels that begins the meal, the gnarled marine plant adrift among rocks and mollusk shells. It seems weird, but not for weirdness' sake.
In his hushed open kitchen, Berselius conspires with his crew of chefs. Together, they're putting out some of the wildest, most uncompromisingly expressive cooking around, painstakingly assembled down to the last pickled ramp seed. Wild mushrooms enhance prehistoric-looking fried lichen, which is sourced from the same Catskills artist who provides the restaurant's stoneware. And a Coachella-ready seaweed and charred squid tart dons a crown of edible flowers.
Still, some courses hark back to the old Aska's earlier, more daringly elemental approach to Nordic cuisine, including an acrid ash made from burning cured lamb heart in bedstraw until it disintegrates. It looks like gunpowder on the plate, where it hides a tart pickled sunchoke cream underneath. Profoundly earthy, it's the kind of thing Odin might have spoon-fed baby Thor. Then there are the bouquets of charred chamomile embedded with langoustines; snip open the bundles with garden scissors, then drag the crustaceans through a reduction of langoustine heads and tangy pickled chamomile buds. For dessert, pickled milkweed buds and fermented strawberry juice give a jolt to strawberries compressed with fennel, and mild milk sorbet.
Like a musician riffing on his classic tunes, Berselius revisits favorite ingredients to mine their potential. Pushing the limits of his preservation techniques, he pickles linden flowers for a month and dry-ages beef for a hundred and twenty days, serving rosy slabs with "last year's" electrifyingly sour salted plums and cubes of cured fat. He also follows up one of Aska 1.0's polarizing recipes, a pig's-blood chip smeared with sea buckthorn jam, with a pair of new dishes. He fashions a mignardise truffle by mixing pig's blood with molasses. Then there are the tiny flapjacks, made with blood-spiked batter, slicked with rose hip jam, and covered in cured rose petals and cherry blossoms. Opt for the beverage pairing and the pancake comes with a cup of local milk infused with vanilla-like woodruff — an after-school snack for the Twilight set.
Sommelier Hewah Bahrami peppers her wine list with wonderfully out-there selections, like a digestif made from tempranillo grapes in the amarone style. And if you try just one of head bartender Selma Slabiak's cocktails, make it the Edda, a martini variant made with a distilled Baltic amber that's 30 million years old (take that, fifty-year-old scotch). If the tasting experience is too daunting, you can always enjoy your drink downstairs coupled with small plates (broccoli with that mussel emulsion, for instance) that hint at the majesty of the main event. If the lounge is Berselius's way of throwing the neighborhood a bone, it's up to us to dutifully suck out the marrow.
47 South 5th Street, Brooklyn
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