Aquavit review: with smorgasbords galore, Scandi chic never tasted so good
Put on your best roll-neck jumper and sidle on down to St James’s Market
To my shame, the extent of my Scandinavian food experience has been limited to Ikea’s famous meatballs. So when an invitation to review Aquavit – a Nordic restaurant in St James’s Market near Piccadilly Circus – landed in my inbox, I was intrigued.
The vast but warm space, inspired by the interior of Gothenburg City Hall, features airy floor-to-ceiling wood panelling and varnished wooden tables. This emphasis on light wood, along with the slick marble floor and enormous windows, made me think of a fancy ski chalet. This association was enhanced by a large Christmas tree in one corner and a window display of wrapped presents (I visited in late November).
Without wanting to sound 100 years old, I was impressed by the acoustics of the room. Despite being a cavernous space with high ceilings, my friend and I could hear each other perfectly – which can be rare in a London restaurant (“Great for bringing parents,” she remarked). This audio ability was definitely aided by the generous amount of space provided between tables – although that could well have been a social distancing measure.
Music was played (very softly) and my friend and I could faintly make out a couple of Abba tracks. Perhaps Scandi restaurants must feature Abba in their playlists by law?
Aquavit recently appointed a new head chef, the Swedish-born Jonas Karlsson, previously of 100 Wardour Street. Karlsson has spruced up the menu, placing more of an emphasis on Swedish-inspired dishes than Norwegian or Danish ones (“We used to have a lot more venison,” our friendly waiter explained).
Karlsson’s approach is to provide a twist on traditional dishes, a prime example being the Swedish meatballs, which can be served with half a lobster poached in butter.
Starters can be picked from a “smorgasbord” of options. My friend went for two tasty bao buns containing soft langoustine, crunchy pickles and a sharp cabbage slaw, while I opted for the pickled herring (when in Aquavit…). This was served three ways: with a vodka sauce, mustard, and pink peppercorn and lingonberries. The three delicate pots of herring came with another dish of soft, buttery boiled potatoes and two small cheese tarts, which offset the sharp, sweet tang of the herring.
For our mains, we tried two signature dishes: the Swedish meatballs and the stone bass fillet, which was melt-in-the-mouth and came with celeriac, a fantastic celeriac croquette, avruga (a herring-based caviar substitute) and a rich liquorice gravy.
Both were delicious, but it was our side dish that truly stole the show. Memories of the “Jansson’s temptation”, a traditional Swedish Christmas dish that’s similar to potato gratin and made with anchovies and breadcrumbs, will last me long into 2022.
Aquavit prides itself on its desserts and although we barely had any space left, we shared the “Arctic bird’s nest” – a speciality, according to our waiter. This stunning dish actually resembles a bird’s nest, with a honey tuile nest, chocolate twigs, brownie dirt and an egg made from goat’s cheese parfait with a white chocolate shell.
Various house cocktails are available. I enjoyed the “Frigg”, a picture-perfect pink drink comprised of a Swedish aquavit spirit called O.P. Anderson Petronella, cranberry, egg white, lemon and a fruity liqueur made from cloudberries (not a Harry Potter ingredient but an actual raspberry-like berry that grows in the northern hemisphere).
Classic cocktails are available too, as well as a decent selection of aquavit and tonic – as the restaurant’s name would suggest. Beers, coolers and fresh juices are also on offer; if I’d have visited in summer, rather than winter, I would have been keen to try the “Scandi Blossom” (bubbly lemonade with elderflower cordial and lingonberries).
Scandinavia has a reputation for being expensive. And with starters averaging around £15 and mains at more like £30, Aquavit certainly isn’t cheap. But it delivers on quality.
I was impressed by Karlsson’s vision and would definitely recommend this restaurant to anyone wanting to experience expertly cooked Scandi food and delicious cocktails using traditional methods and authentic ingredients.
Ikea’s meatballs are renowned for a reason. But Aquavit deliciously demonstrates that the flatpack furniture giant shouldn’t hog Sweden’s gastronomic limelight.
Aquavit London, St James’s Market, 1 Carlton Street, London SW1Y 4QQ, aquavitrestaurants.com