Perhaps the Scandinavian trend we all predicted a few years back didn’t take hold with the vengeance we expected, but restaurants celebrating the culinary canon of those countries near the Arctic circle continue to take root here, a testament to the ever-changing nature of the New York City gastronomic landscape. The newest entrant is SKÁL (37 Canal Street, 212-777-7518)–which translates to “cheers” in Danish–an Icelandic spot bringing a bit of Erik The Red to the lower Lower East Side with an ambitious menu in a homey space that formerly housed Les Enfants Terribles.
Having visited Iceland to get a view of something other than a brick wall across from my apartment, I can attest to the natural beauty of the land and the people who call it home. A volcanic island isolated geographically from its Nordic brethren, Iceland’s physical location makes it an undiscovered culinary scene.
Ben Spiegel, a Canadian chef who gained notoriety at the lauded Willows Inn on Lummi Island in Seattle, came to New York to follow his girlfriend. If he chooses to leave, it might be avid patrons following him wherever he lands next. Spiegel traveled often while he was growing up in the Toronto area, and it was on those trips that he became connected with food and the ingredients that existed in nature. At 19, he spent six months living in a pig barn at Michael Statlander’s Eigensinn Farm, splitting his time between the kitchen and the land. His journey also included a stint at famed Copenhagen dining destination Noma. If there’s a pre-requisite to becoming a successful forager, you can rest assured Spiegel has completed all of the courses required.
Not that he’s exactly foraging here. While the terrains of Denmark and Iceland are ideal for gathering pure ingredients, New York City’s urban landscape poses a challenge. Moreover, chefs are all picking out of the same pot. But Spiegel has picked up a few tricks in his time on the east coast, and he counts the Union Square Greenmarket as a favorite place to fill his kitchen’s walk-in and pantry. “This woman’s cabbage is so damn good,” Spiegel joyously recounted by way of example. On another trip to the market, the chef came across a woman who’d forgotten about her potatoes in a refrigerator for a year. He purchased the forgotten product–which was still good–and it was one of the best potatoes he’d ever eaten. He put them to use in his dish of Atlantic cod with last season’s potatoes, flowers, and greens.
Above all, Spiegel is bent on keeping things interesting and surprising in a city saturated with restaurant options. “How are we going to keep you from getting bored?” he asks.
Hit the next page for photos of the Icelandic inspired cuisine and space at SKÁL.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 17, 2013