Brunch Review: Aquavit, St James’s Market in London
When most people think of brunch, images of eggs benedict, Bloody Marys, and pancakes with maple syrup may come to mind. After doing an interview with Henrik Ritzen, Executive Chef of Michelin-starred Nordic restaurant Aquavit, I was curious to see what his take on everyone’s favourite weekend pastime would be like.
My fiancé is Norwegian and I was admittedly hesitant about bringing him to Aquavit as I knew how critical he would be of higher-end versions of his favourite childhood dishes. However, after stepping into the swish establishment within the new St. James development, we were in awe at how the beautiful holiday décor and the rose gold-accented dining room was both beautiful and welcoming.
The design of the dining room was inspired by Gunnar Asplund’s architectural design of the Gothenburg City Hall and was overseen by Swedish-born Martin Burdnizki’s studio. Other Scandinavian design influences can be seen in the silverware from Danish silversmith Georg Jensen, textiles by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, furnishings from Swedish interior design store Svenskt Tenn, and staff uniforms by Swedish designer Ida Sjöstedt.
“Our ethos is to be a light-hearted, unstuffy restaurant serving top quality Nordic-influenced food using as many locally-sourced ingredients as possible,” Ritzen tells me. He grew up on the northwest coast of Sweden before he moved to London 20 years ago and worked in acclaimed kitchens such as The Anglesea Arms W6, The Dover Street Arts Club, and The Square.
Whilst items from the full menu can be ordered as well, I chose to stick to the dedicated brunch menu whilst my fiancé opted to go off-piste. Ritzen says, “The Aquavit brunch is all about sharing and enjoying some delicious Nordic-inspired food with your friends and family in a beautiful room with a relaxed atmosphere.”
Aquavit takes their name from the distilled spirit produced mainly in Scandinavia. Made from grain and potatoes and flavoured with herbs and spices, it’s known for its high ABV and delicate taste. Ritzen’s St. James outpost has one of the largest aquavit selections in the UK with options that can be taken as aperitifs, as an accompaniment to your meal, or as a house cocktail. The menu also has pairing suggestions to help bring out the flavours of both the drink and your chosen dish.
For my two smörgåsbord choices, I decided to try the liver paté and the traditional gravlax with mustard and dill sauce. Whilst both were rather safe choices, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were punchy and quite unique. The liver paté, different from the richer French version, is sealed with a clear pickled cucumber jelly. Ritzen told me that this was reminiscent of the liver paté sandwiches with pickled cucumber that all Swedes are brought up on. The gravlax had a real kick from the strong mustard accompaniment and the fish was as fresh as could be. We also had several helpings of the freshly-baked bread and tasty smoked cod’s roe butter.
My fiancé is always quick to point out that for a long time, Scandinavians considered food a mere source of sustenance. It’s the reason why the region still does not have as big of a dining out culture compared to the rest of the world. However, with the rise of talented chefs and restaurants like Noma putting the cuisine on the map, diners have high expectations when it comes to both look and flavour when at a Nordic-inspired restaurant. When our mains arrived and looked like works of art, we were both excited and worried that they would be purely that.
I decided on the cod with pickled cucumber, trout roe, and a Sandefjord sauce. As Sandefjord, a city in the Vestfold County of Norway, is only a few hours from my fiancé’s hometown, he was pleased to see it make an appearance on the menu and was delighted that it tasted just as good as back home. The fish was perfectly cooked and the roe provided the hints of salt that really elevated the dish.
My fiancé opted for the duck with the smoked leg, fermented turnip, and quince. The skin was exceptionally crisp, the duck was pink in the centre, and the jus brought the entire dish together. For dessert, we shared the Norwegian omelette with sea buckthorn and vanilla. Our server was quick to point out that we should let go of any ideas we had of what an omelette was when ordering this dish. Despite this disclaimer, we were surprised to see a meringue-covered dish with an ice cream centre. It was soft, sweet, and the perfect way to end our meal.
I chose the Apple Gimlet from the “grog” section to accompany my meal, which had OP Anderson Klar aquavit, 30/40 Eau de Vie de Cidre, and apple. It was clean, refreshing, and not at all overpowering. The particular aquavit used was one that my fiancé was familiar with and the server even brought over the bottle for us to take a closer look at upon our request. This was just one example of the outstanding and welcoming service we experienced throughout our visit.
For those who are looking for a non-traditional brunch option in London, Aquavit will undoubtedly give you a refreshing, delicious experience that will leave you yearning for more. Skål!
Address: St James’s Market, 1 Carlton St, St. James’s, London SW1Y 4QQ
Phone: 020 7024 9848
Feature image credit – Pete Navey