Aska, which opened earlier this winter in Williamsburg, looks at first like a caricature of the new Brooklyn-style restaurant that my wife is so tired of hearing about. There are only seven tables in the spare, slightly gloomy main dining area, which occupies the same space as Kinfolk Studios on Wythe Avenue. The (mostly male) wait staff sport checked shirts and carefully trimmed lumberjack beards and have a voluminous knowledge of trending Brooklyn topics, like cheese-making, obscure pickling techniques, and handcrafted beers. There’s a noted cocktail master on the premises, and because Scandinavian food is of the moment in Brooklyn (and around the world), the chef is, of course, Scandinavian. The featured dining option, if you don’t sit in the barroom, is a seasonal tasting menu ($65 for six courses), and because we’re in the depths of winter, it contains ascetic ingredients like rose hips, curls of lichen, and knobs of root vegetables, which the chefs proudly cultivate in the kitchen in a little brass pot.
But like many restaurants popping up all around this food-mad borough, Aska is a more sophisticated, worldly operation than it seems. The cocktail guru (and also a part owner) is Eamon Rockey, who comes to Brooklyn from Manhattan, where he ran the beverage program at Atera and helped develop the drinks for Eleven Madison Park. The chef, Fredrik Berselius, did time in several grand New York City kitchens (Aquavit, Per Se) before opening a short-lived but well-reviewed restaurant in the same location as this one called Frej. He’s a peer of the Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, who conjures up strange delicacies from all sorts of primal ingredients (pig’s blood, cow’s bones, wet forest leaves, etc.), and his cooking is as close as you’re likely to get, in this cosmopolitan town, to the kind of unreconstructed locavore cuisine that Nilsson serves at Fäviken, his famous hunting lodge in the northern wilds of Sweden.
Or so I thought to myself as I pondered a pair of crimson-colored crackerlike objects, which, our lumberjack waiter gently informed us, were made mostly with dehydrated pig’s blood. They tasted a little like rust, the way fresh blood does, with a back taste of barnyard pork, and we washed them down as quickly as possible with an aquavit creation called Next of Kin, which tasted like a Scandinavian version of a mint julep, flavored with kombucha and caraway instead of mint. The other pre-dinner “tastes” included crisps of fried pike skin, and thin shortbread wafers flavored with molasses and dabbed with little pools of smoky housemade cheese. Freshly baked caraway rolls came out of the kitchen after that (served with a shmear of the excellent, house-churned butter), followed by the first course, which was a pair of warm Long Island oysters mingled Fäviken style at the bottom of a clay bowl with cucumbers, a sniff of dill, and a scoop of beef tallow.
Unlike Magnus Nilsson, the cooks at this little Brooklyn restaurant don’t gather your dinner from a sprawling, 20,000-acre estate. But they do an admirable job with what they have of making you feel connected, in a tenuous, mannered, priestly sort of way, to the edifying culinary variety that’s available in the great outdoors. The aforementioned Long Island oysters are “hand foraged” (as opposed to farmed), our server took pains to say, and were followed by a single herring, which the chefs deconstruct, cook separately, and rearrange on the plate in a kind of nose-to-tail sculpture, complete with new potatoes, sprigs of greenery, and the crunchy fried tail and head. The next course is a mulch-y concoction of root vegetables (salsify, lichen curls) served with the yolk of a single egg, which tasted bracing in a faintly medicinal way, despite looking, in the words of one of my city-slicker guests, like “something you’d find in the puddles of a tree stump after a rainstorm.”
Inevitably, a few of the ascetic concoctions at Aska aren’t quite so palatable.
I wasn’t crazy about the shreds of turnip and salty squid I was served one evening, or the tough, faintly rubbery hunk of monkfish the kitchen plates with a pasty, peanut-butter-colored cabbage purée. Berselius’s protein of choice this winter seems to be pork, and although he serves several appealing cuts (trotter, rib and cheek, belly), the admirably seasonal garnishes (shaving of rutabaga fermented in whey, sunchokes, the faint essence of toasted hay) tended to muffle the innate porky taste of the meat. The exceptions are a richly fatty, deboned trotter, which is sweetened with apples, and an excellent rendition of a classic Swedish potatis dumpling, which the chefs make with mashed potatoes and pork belly and serve à la carte only, with a pool of wet, smoky farmer’s cheese flavored with fennel fronds and lingonberries.
It’s possible to have an excellent meal at the bar at Aska, where the menu on the evenings I dropped by included helpings of braised beef cheeks, platters of local oysters on the half-shell (hand-foraged, of course), and two different kinds of Scandinavian-style hot dogs. You can complement this hearty winter grub with one of Rockey’s antic cocktails or a variety of carefully curated ciders, porters, and stouts (ask for a bottle of the coffee-thick Swedish porter called Dugges 1/2 Idjit! to go with your dumpling). For a mere $40, Rockey will pair wines and spirits with each course of your dinner; we enjoyed a nice Languedoc-Roussillon white with our oysters, and frosty shots of aquavit flavored with onions with the herring. Dessert was a single scoop of cardamom ice cream wreathed in a mousse made with crushed hazelnuts and brown butter, and it went down very well, I dimly recall, with a glass of Bodegas Dios Baco cream sherry.
90 Wythe Ave., at N. 11th St., Williamsburg; 718-388-2969
Hours: Dinner Monday through Friday and Sunday 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday to 4 a.m.
Prices: $65 for the six-course tasting menu; à la carte items, $6 to $12.
Ideal Meal: Oyster, herring, pork trotter with sunchokes and apples, potatis dumpling, cardamom ice cream.
Note: The tasting menu is available Sunday through Thursday in the main dining room; an à la carte menu is available there on Fridays and Saturdays, and at the bar at all times.
Scratchpad: One enthusiastic star for inventive Scandinavian cooking and another for the Brooklyn prices and the drinks.
Photograph by Victor Prado/New York Magazine
*This article originally appeared in the February 11, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.