For years New York wasn’t big enough to hold two Swedish restaurants. With a handsome celebrity chef and one of the most expensive menus in town, Aquavit was the exclusive destination for Scandinavian dining. Then Christer’s appeared four years ago, followed by Ulrika’s. When the first tanked, Ulrika’s was left as the sole challenger, with prices that undercut the competition and an adventuresome culinary bent that encouraged comparison. In what is probably a deliberate contrast to Aquavit’s dramatic Adam Tihany design, Ulrika’s is determinedly cottage-like, lined with blond woods and kitschy folk art. Notes of restrained whimsy predominate: bar-stool seats are shaped like buttons, though I’m not sure the “butt/button” joke works in Swedish.
While Aquavit attracts wealthy bons vivants, Ulrika’s is aimed squarely at Swedes, many of whom knew chef Ulrika Bengtsson when she cooked at the Swedish consulate. Iron-gray hair brushed straight back, men sporting embroidered gold crests on their blazers squire young women in smart business suits or, more paternally, flocks of family members in their Sunday best. Their gutturals and fricatives resonate softly across the room as in an Ingmar Bergman film. Flights of flavored aquavit—the signature Swedish liquor, packing quite a wallop—are the preferred prelude to a meal. For $10 you can sample four. Ginger and caraway-anise rule; rhubarb falls flat with a sourish taste, while raspberry is soda-poppish.
The menu divides evenly into two parts. “Swedish Classics” features outright comfort food Mom might make, while “And More” offers the sort of fusion one might find in a forward-looking Stockholm restaurant. Ulrika’s is at its most spectacular in the classic appetizers. A hush falls over the table as pickled herring ($14) appears, five small heaps preserved by contending methods, confirming the utter obsession Scandinavians have with herring. Working from left to right you’ll taste herbal herring, mustard herring, tomato herring, plain pickled herring, and matjes herring, each with a distinct color and flavor. Darkest and richest, matjes (“maiden”) comes heaped with sour cream and chopped purple onion, while herbal, bathed in green-onion puree, seems on the verge of turning Japanese. Delivered with a culinary wink, there’s also a heap of the mayonnaisey herring salad called “gentleman’s delight.” On the side cower a small boiled potato and a smaller wedge of the sharp white cheese called vasterbotten.
Another spectacular appetizer from the same part of the menu is Ulrika’s fish soup ($10; entrée, $18). Cream-based, teeming with fish and shellfish, and lightly flavored with saffron and fennel, it’s a riff on bouillabaisse that scores a home run by its very nonchalance. In a similar fishy vein, a very nice gravlax made with Scottish salmon is offered, and so is raraka, miniature servings of chopped onion, sour cream, toast points, and “bleak roe.” These golden eggs from the fish called vendace could be mistaken for ocean sand in texture and taste. Bleak indeed.
The classics category peters out when it comes to entrées. Laxpudding merits its name, a bland casserole of salmon and potatoes that wastes both ingredients. Kottbullar ($17) is virtually the same Swedish meatball platter you get for five bucks at IKEA, though Ulrika’s balls are lighter and bigger. The right-menu entrées are preferable, especially those involving big hunks of fish. My favorite is a heavy cylinder of mackerel ($21) wrapped like a birthday present with a ribbon of its own skin and sprinkled with chives. On the side is a pastry box filled with mashed potatoes rife with small shrimp. The only thing that surprised me? It wasn’t dotted with herring.