With a New Chef at the Burners, Skál Medals in Icelandic Fusion
All photos by Bradley Hawks
Call Skál (37 Canal Street) an Icelandic restaurant and owner Olibjorn Stephenson, a blond, bushy-bearded Reykjavík expat, will shake his head. "We use the north as inspiration," he says before grabbing a bottle of Brennivín, the spiced Icelandic schnapps that tastes of caraway. The island nation's go-to shot, commonly referred to as the "Black Death" owing to its dark label, only made it stateside this year. At Skál it shows up in "The Raven," a cocktail that marries the peppery spirit with thyme, Venezuelan rum, and Dubonnet. A little sweet, herbaceous with a dry finish — at $15, it's the most expensive drink on the menu. (Appropriately, the restaurant's name is the Icelandic variant of "skoal," the universal Scandinavian drinking salute.)
Looking around, you get the sense Stephenson bought the former Les Enfants Terribles site — on a corner space along the far-east reaches of Canal Street — simply to carve out his own powder-blue slice of home amid all the iron and brick. Vintage china hangs on the walls, and a miniature ship swings above the winding black-and-white bar, its navy-blue canvas sails catching a breeze in warmer weather. The sliding-glass doors that line the dining room are closed tight now, heightening the airy room's "seaside refuge" vibe.
Even with such obvious Nordic influences at play, lovers of hákarl — the fermented shark fetishized by adventurous TV travel-show hosts — should adjust their itchy wool sweaters and keep moving. Since opening last year with forager Ben Spiegel at the helm, Skál has shied away from serving traditional Icelandic cuisine, though much of Spiegel's food (beef tartare with chopped clams, charred broccoli with anchovy breadcrumbs) had a spartan appeal that jelled with the restaurant's subarctic ethos. Those dishes, along with a few others, have remained on the menu even after chef James Kim replaced Spiegel this past June.
"Skál's a great fit, because I hate being confined to a certain category," says Kim. He doesn't say it boastfully, but the new chef's hard-to-pin-down palette works to his advantage. Bored by brussels sprouts? He sets his pan-roasted mini-cabbages alongside crunchy pecans and pieces of torn brown bread in one clever starter, dousing the dish in a tarragon cream sauce whose herbal richness pervades with homespun comfort. Equally impressive is a special of flash-seared American wagyu served tataki-style with a saucer of seasoned quail-egg yolk and black flakes of Icelandic lava salt; meltingly tender, the marbled beef gains even more lusciousness from the molten yolk.
There's a confidence to Kim's food, which straddles the line between simplicity and intricacy with an enviable balance that might seem unfounded for a guy with no formal training — one who landed in New York five years ago on a whim after a decade-long career as a fashion designer in Los Angeles. Needless to say, the transition went smoother than most second-career stabs, and the chef now combines his visual prowess with the culinary skills he acquired working in respected kitchens like Balthazar and Roberta's. "Just as I did when I was in fashion, I like to create things backwards. I look at a protein or a vegetable and try to think back to my best meal with that particular product. I write down some flavors and emotions from that memory and I try to repeat that exact sensation."
Maybe that's why Skál's menu — despite its initial impression as a minefield of New American proteins: hanger steak, pork chop, popular catches like arctic char and striped bass — feels refreshing. Whereas some of Spiegel's plates could be disjointed to the point of confusion, not so Kim's, which push boundaries with toe-dipping caution, forgoing flashiness in favor of gastronomic equilibrium. Offered at both lunch and dinner, the steak is served over a "tonnato" sauce that substitutes Icelandic salted herring for the tuna from which the Piedmontese aioli draws its name. The herring was a Spiegel touch, but nowadays the steak arrives under a latticed cloud of smoked shoestring potatoes that add an earthy depth missing from earlier versions. The pork chop, cut in half to expose a perfect pink center, is nearly as tender as the quivering mass of braised bacon that commandeers a plate of seared scallops, whose sweetness mimics an accompanying pile of late-summer corn seasoned with serrano chiles. And striped bass, one of Kim's current favorites, pairs the delicate, white-fleshed fish with equally light ingredients: halved muscat grapes, butter-softened cabbage, slices of grilled cucumber, and a sweet-sour swipe of lemon curd.
Scrolling down the menu on my latest visit, one ingredient in particular caught my eye, part of a cured arctic char appetizer. I've encountered reindeer lichen only once before, at the East Village coffee shop and progressive tasting counter Box Kite, whose chefs, Dave Gulino and Justin Slojkowski, recently departed in search of a kitchen that doesn't share the dimensions of an airplane lavatory. Sure enough, Slojkowski is working as Skál's chef de cuisine; it turns out he and Kim worked together at both Roberta's and Acme. The two have begun offering a 16-course tasting menu on Sundays.
Desserts dazzle as much as the savory offerings, and take a similarly progressive approach. Hearing the phrase "lava sauce" in relation to a chocolate dessert wasn't exactly reassuring, but the rough mounds of brownie that anchored this fall dessert were covered in a sauce made from Icelandic "lava" stout beer, along with chocolate mousse and a winter squash purée that did its best impression of pumpkin spice. The other sweet selection topped pound cake with thyme mousse and a verdant cucumber-matcha green-tea granita to counter the buttery cake.
Their execution, as with much of Kim's menu, speaks to an unbridled creativity. That Skál's owners have embraced this passion and encouraged their young talent to grow and explore on his own terms shows a rare amount of good will. Slojkowski was even brought on to help run the show while he and Kim open a ramen shop in New Rochelle. For as long as he's still in the kitchen, you should embrace it, too.
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