In the hustle of Grand Central, the same Vanderbilt building housing the clock that tells commuters if they’re on time or they’re late, right down the sloped entrance leading towards the Oyster Bar, is a restaurant called Agern that opened its doors in April. It followed the heels of New York’s terse but refreshing spring that carried the promise of bloom with its lovely name.
Agern means “acorn” in Danish. It also dovetailed nicely with the whole Vanderbilt theme, whose family symbol was the acorn (if you have an astute eye, you’ll spot these horticultural symbols all over the terminal).
Owner Claus Meyer, generally credited as the founder of New Nordic Cuisine philosophy, knows a thing or two about operating a restaurant. He co-founded Noma, and brought his Scandinavian prowess in this new space filled with warm woods and a true feeling of the Danish “hygge” or coziness: when I had dinner there recently with a Scottish friend of mine, I felt the conviviality with tables that were set close together, in full view of the island in the middle which separates the booths at the back from the more intimate space in the front (there is also a bar area on the left side of the restaurant for solo diners or those who simply want a view away from the crowds).
The “Field & Forest” menu, priced at $140, is a true journey with unusual pairings that always taste hand-culled. Portions are slender: some are meant to be eaten without any utensils at all, creating a sensory and truly tactile experience, as though chef Gunnar Gíslason wanted you to have an intimate relationship with food.
The bitter salad that served as a starter came with a smidge of preserved blackberry, almonds and havgus, a semi-hard cheese that is reminiscent of cheddar, and the marriage was a gamut of tastes, ranging from the pleasantly tart, beautifully balanced to the sharp.
Here too, I had a sonorous relationship with a salt and ash baked beetroot that was hearty: this is what the Earth would taste like if it were edible in its entirety. Also too, the first time I had sampled a cauliflower dish with black trumpet mushrooms and hay, as though Gíslason went foraging through the best stables and fields of Denmark and married sporadic ingredients. But that is the essence of Agern, defying conventionality, treating dishes like Pandora’s Box.
And then there is the ocean broth and “hand-poured” coffee experience, the latter painstakingly dripped ounce by ounce and weighed on a small scale: the result is an unadulterated cup of coffee, which is strong on its own, without milk. The restaurant spares no details: it even appointed a Head Coffee Roaster, Omar Maagaard.
Agern also has a “Land & Sea” tasting menu for $165 that gives you striped bass, beef heart and items like Arctic Char that come paired with caraway seeds, dill and huckleberries. The sommelier, Chad Walsh, who previously with Aureole and The Dutch, has put together a menu with a global wine list from the Finger Lakes to Denmark, as well as a “shrub-filled” cocktail list with letherbee fernet, mead and even pumpkin seed oil.
Like the Vikings who loved their oceanic journeys, patrons who come to Agern have a keen sense of adventure.
Who else would commit at least three hours to a tasting menu filled with items like hay and ocean broth?
For more information, visit agernrestaurant.com. All prices are inclusive of gratuity.