If Claus Meyer gets his way, New Yorkers may soon be reaching for open-faced smørrebrød sandwiches instead of burgers and bagels. The co-founder of Copenhagen’s storied Noma restaurant — who owns numerous bakeries and restaurants back home in Denmark — expanded to New York earlier this year, launching a multipronged and multimillion-dollar Nordic invasion that includes a Brooklyn bakery, an impending cooking school in Brownsville, and a trio of ambitious Grand Central Terminal properties.
The crown jewel of the latter (and maybe the whole operation) is Agern. The dining room — all sweeping curves and blond wood — is tucked away in a serenely handsome and high-ceilinged windowless chamber that once housed a men’s smoking lounge. Its dual entrances are somewhat inconspicuous, up a staircase from the Dane’s hot dog kiosk on one side, and adjacent his massive, Nordic Vanderbilt Hall food court on the other. Diners seated at the bar sip herbal cocktails while spearing the sprigs of arctic thyme that cover tender duck and a whole roasted rutabaga. Helming Agern’s kitchen is Icelandic chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason, whom Meyer describes to the Voice as possessing, among other qualities, the “soul and backbone of a Viking” and the “touch of a geisha.”
While I might choose different terminology, Gíslason’s calculated approach to hyper-seasonality often yields formidable tastes in delicate trappings. Take his collection of snacks, in which “ocean broth” conjures the surf with seaweed and wild celery, and mackerel gets paired with horseradish and rye bread crumbs. The set of small plates skillfully launches Agern’s two tasting menus ($120 for vegetarians, $145 for carnivores) or fetches $14 à la carte. A dish of chewy dehydrated carrots may sound odd, like veggie Tootsie Rolls, but alongside sea buckthorn leaves and a translucent carrot sliver, it’s a lively introduction to this kitchen’s talents.
Six years ago, Gíslason delved into his rural Icelandic roots to open Dill, a restaurant in Reykjavík that celebrates regional ingredients and old-fashioned cooking techniques, like geothermally boiled sea salt and arctic char smoked over hay mixed with sheep’s manure. With all due respect to the Union Square Greenmarket, I wouldn’t blame him for feeling a little homesick here despite the ubiquity of peppery deadnettle. To the contrary, at Agern, he appears to be relishing his new surroundings, topping beef heart with green garlic and tart green strawberries, and contrasting the sweetness of daikon and raw scallop against the earthiness of sunflower seeds and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. His crew, led by chef de cuisine Joseph Yardley, butchers whole Pennsylvania lamb, serving it as an array of braised and roasted cuts dusted with dill pollen and sauced with lamb jus and apple cider vinegar from Meyer’s hundred-year-old Danish orchard.
Many of the à la carte entrées (like a $34 skate wing in brown butter) don’t seem out of the step with the tip-included pricing, though $56 plates of duck raise an eyebrow or two. At least for the $68 you’ll spend on dry-aged, grass-fed beef, Agern saddles you with American-sized slabs of juicy rib eye topped with shredded horseradish greens. But when a single dish costs around half as much as Gíslason’s tasting menu, the latter may prove more appealing.
As it turns out, Agern’s “Field + Forest” prix fixe offers one of the city’s greatest vegetarian fine-dining experiences, and thanks to Nordic cuisine’s propensity for produce, there’s much to enjoy. Under Gíslason’s direction, potato salad looks and tastes like an amusement park ride, its cured egg yolk cut into modernist ribbons and mixing it up with pickled rose petals and green rhubarb-flecked spuds. Baked beets are excavated from their salt crust with knife taps from amiable waitstaff; sliced tableside, they’re laid over beet tartare cut with horseradish. And the breads, from sourdough to sunflower-seed-covered rye, are spectacular.
East Coast wineries, breweries, and cider houses dominate the beverage list, and sommelier Chad Walsh occasionally goes quirky, pouring Grimm ale brewed with berries or a 2012 Red Newt “laboratory series” riesling from the Finger Lakes that’s dry enough to pass for sherry. It’s also a pleasure to have pastry chef Rebecca Eichenbaum back to her old sweet-savory tricks, like sneaking yellow mustard flowers into canola-oil sorbet. Her rhubarb dessert, meanwhile, looks like a mossy forest floor, with sorrel sherbet, rhubarb meringue, and herb stems compressed in vermouth syrup. It makes you want to comb Bryant Park for edible plants after you’ve paid the bill.
89 East 42nd Street, 646-568-4018
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 28, 2016