Aquavit in St James’s: Delightful Nordic dishes drawing on seasonal flavours
The casual passer-by could be forgiven for not having paid enough attention to Aquavit. Its tall glass doors rise up in a quiet alley of St James’s which is set between a shiny Smeg store and stylish Aspinal boutique on one side and the majestic entertainment venues of Haymarket on the other. The warm interior design – inspired by Gothenburg City Hall – features clean soft lines and wooden panels, creating a relaxed setting in which to enjoy lunch or dinner, suitable for both business meetings and friendly chats. Among the benefits of the location is the tranquil outdoor area, which is free from the usual inner-city chaos. While this space may lack some of the elegance found inside, shielded as it is by the surrounding buildings from strong bouts of bad weather and from the noise of the central London streets, it provides a leisurely backdrop for our visit.
Nordic cuisine is still not as common as many other options available in the capital, and as Aquavit adds to it a French brasserie tweak, it certainly piques our curiosity. The restaurant, though, leaves us more than pleased with its modern, creative and refreshing approach, as well as the exceptional presentation of every course.
There is only one set menu, and it’s available for lunch. For evening sittings, guests are invited to create their own tasting experience, picking their desired path in the preferred quantities. To begin with, there is an enviable number of options from the Smörgåsbord – a series of sharing plates, delicacies prepared as small bites to enjoy together and kick off the meal. The Pickled Herring Selection arrives in appetising nibble-sized portions. Chunks of the fish are marinated with mustard, apple sauce and sour cream. To accompany the little pots, there are boiled potatoes and a buttery tart. Our other pick, though, surprised us for its melt-in-the-mouth, showstopping effect: airy Asian dough meets tender crustaceans in the Langoustine Bao Bun – two supple bites, garnished with a teaspoon of coleslaw and pickles.
The drinks list provides an ample offering of cocktails, juices, tonic-based tipples and wine by the glass, mostly French but also comprising a couple of English sparkling varieties. The Italian bottle that graces our table couldn’t be a better match for our meal: Soave Calvarino, Pieropan (2017) is crisp and slightly steely, with delicate fruity hints that linger in the mouth for an extra second or two.
Though tempted by the two most popular meaty mains, the roasted duck breast and poussin, we proceed instead to continue with our fish-based dinner. The aesthetic of the Icelandic Cod fittingly anticipates an exquisite flavour, complemented by the green asparagus and peas. This is followed with the earthy tang of the Houghton Spring Trout, which lays on the plate complete with head and tail, but no bones in between (to our relief). The flesh is covered with dainty sandefjord sauce and sprinkled with trout roe.
It is difficult to contain our excitement at the arrival of the Arctic Bird’s Nest. A goat’s cheese parfait egg, nestled on top of honey tuille ribbons and chocolate twigs, dusted with yoghurt foam snowflakes and finished with berries: each and every component harmoniously contributes to this sweet triumph. The Rhubarb-Glazed Parfait that comes next is a celebration of summer colour, with strawberry two ways, both in ice cream form and in pieces.
We leave the table not only delighted by the combination of ingredients we have tasted tonight, but also intrigued by the dishes left unsampled and the bliss they could be reserving. Like the liquor it takes its name from, Aquavit restaurant delivers distilled seasonal flavours in dishes which are straight and yet still remarkably complex. This is truly a “water of life” to savour at any time.
Photos: Virginie Viche
To book a table at Aquavit, St James’s Market 1 Carlton Street London SW1Y 4QQ, call 020 7024 9848 or visit their website here.