A postcard from a Scandinavian childhood
Claim to fame: New York’s trailblazer of New Nordic cuisine.
Reason to go: One of the ten best “Swedish restaurants” in the world.
To look out for: Cured lamb heart burnt in bedstraw with pickled sunchoke.
A meal at Aska is an almost synesthetic pleasure, you can actually taste Fredrik Berselius’ childhood memories. But there is no cloying nostalgia here, just a passionate wish to share the flavors of his native Sweden, brought to life with local ingredients. Berselius is the embodiment of Scandinavian humility, his restaurant sits on a gritty Brooklyn side street, just under the Williamsburg bridge, behind an anonymous black door, with a barely visible sign. No need for grand gestures here. The dining room is a handsome, sparse black box, an undressed stage of sorts where the open kitchen is the main attraction and the view of the verdant garden out back gives the otherwise bare space a softness.
Aska’s progressive tasting menu is an ode to the country Berselius left 15 years ago. Nestled in a bouquet of burnt chamomile lay delicately cooked Maine shrimp whose heads, in a waste-not-want-not move, went into the dish’s intense sauce. It’s a picture of Berselius’ boyhood romps on Sweden’s reed-dotted, brackish coast. The triumphant briny, crisp-fried bladderwrack seaweed dusted with dried blue mussel is another one. “My mom used to tell me not to play with that stuff in the water”, he notes. Also in the old family album: a nod to that ultimate Swedish kids fare, blood pudding with a tall glass of milk, here rendered elegantly grown up as a blood pancake with cherry, rose and rosehip, served with a thimble of raw milk. Aska’s food is equally a labor-intensive love poem to the seasons. By conserving many of his ingredients, Berselius creates little tidings from that time last year when the plums were extra sweet and the blackberries were bountiful. Both accompany a supercharged 90-day dry aged rib eye punched up with cured beef fat; the plum is salted, the berries preserved. Berselius cooks with great confidence and doesn’t shy away from unusual, funky flavors, giving his diners the distinct pleasure of exploring such creations as grilled and dried cucumber with salad burnet, a vaguely arrogant herb with a very special aroma that he claims is addictive. His 20 course meal is best enjoyed with the surprising wine pairing where a dollop of Finnish caviar with grilled onion, cultured cream and lemon verbena is offered with a multi-facetted gin- and aquavit based cocktail.