A couple of months ago I found myself out late, hungry, and in a self-indulgent mood in Midtown East. Conditions were ripe to finally go to Aquavit, the two-Michelin-star Swedish restaurant on 55th Street that I had been wanting to try for years but had never gotten around to because the last neighborhood I’d choose for an occasion is Midtown East.
So I grabbed the chance to pop in without a reservation at 9:30pm on a Tuesday and sidled up to the bar to order the tasting menu.
I love Swedish food to such a degree that even Ikea’s meatballs taste gourmet to me. So, actual gourmet Swedish food was sort of mind blowing. But the best thing about the meal was the cultural fusion that took place when I realized the man behind the bar was from Manila and I told him about my trip to the Philippines last year.
Because Joey is the classic bartender/storyteller hybrid, this led to him sharing a crazy tale about crushing on his older brother’s friend’s girlfriend as teenagers hanging out in Marcos’ abandoned office in the presidential palace on the night of the revolution (since both of their fathers worked for the opposition leader). Joey moved to America as a young man and didn’t see the girl again until a serendipitous encounter many years later. He picked right up where he left off with his crush, and after a long-distance romance, she moved to New York and they got married.
This incredible story, with too many plot twists to count, unfolded over eight courses of the tasting menu, all of which were presented like works of art.
They were almost as amazing to look at as to eat. The chef took traditional Nordic dishes and spun them in totally inventive and delightful ways. It was a (very) expensive meal but well worth it, once in a lifetime, for the experience of being transported from the everyday to the extraordinary – by way of Sweden, the Philippines, and – most surprisingly of all – Midtown East. More and more lately I’ve been reminded that even in one’s decade-plus home, it’s always possible to see the world with a foreigner’s fresh eyes.