The last time I felt like I made an important gastronomic discovery, I was two years old.
“Hambuhbuh… shoop shies… toke…” a tiny, curly-headed version of me would babble. I fancied myself a pioneer, a spokesman and tastemaker for gourmet toddlers worldwide. Once I learned of their collective existence, all I wanted was a hamburger, french fries and Coke — and I felt inclined to tell everyone willing to listen.
Now I’m a few more than two years old. Whether or not I still babble is debatable. But again, I feel like I’m on to something.
Or maybe I’m just on something. Coke is not involved but mushrooms keep popping up during dinner. Acid, too. At meal’s end, the effect of staring at a subtotal so unreasonably reasonable is mildly hallucinogenic.
And now I’ve picked up a bit of a habit. I go to Frej every week. Fredrik Berselius and Richard Kuo always seem to have the good stuff.
They start with small doses — snacks, let’s call them. Ah-muuuse if you’re feeling fancy. (I’m not.) These might be razor clams with pickled cabbage heart one night, or heart again on another. From a goat this time — thinly sliced, draped over nubs of celery root and hiding tiny pickled elderberries in its folds. The introductory nibbles change with each trip but always provoke and tease, using balanced little bursts of richness and acidity to make you anticipate the meal ahead without forcing you to plunge right into it.
As you might expect out of one guy born in Taipei but raised in Sydney and another hailing from Stockholm who have collectively spent nearly twenty years in New York, the chefs here cook “simple, modern Scandinavian” food using local ingredients, says the website. But don’t bother searching online for what exactly that means. Merely a month old, Frej is still nearly un-Google-able.
It’s also only open on Monday through Wednesday nights in a multi-use space in Williamsburg called Kinfolk Studios. With approximately the same square footage in my own kitchen I can barely throw together a decent grilled cheese sandwich. But these guys? They’re crafty, using the constraints of space and equipment as an impetus for creativity.
They start with smoked fish. Brook trout usually, mackerel once. They serve it with a warm egg yolk emulsion, little discs of cucumber, fried rye bread, and approximately 47 different preparations of dill (fresh, oil, powder, etc). It’s excellent.
Often that’s been followed by sunchoke, pear, elderflower and beef liver, a dish that immediately catapulted to one of my favorites at Frej. Alternating orbs of sunchoke puree and an irony beef liver sauce don crispy strips of sunchoke skin, pears pickled in elderflower vinegar, burnt hazelnuts and thyme. The combination is arresting, decidedly sweet but with rich, woodsy and bitter tinges.
Even now in the restaurant’s infancy, Fredrik and Richard’s cooking is thoughtful, confident, nuanced. Ingredients are not neglected. A plate ostensibly showcasing Maine shrimp and pickled cauliflower provides equal spotlight for fingerling potatoes, crispy on the outside and bursting with creaminess inside. Those same potatoes star in a sequel, with the sweet shrimp singing backup, while bitter flowering broccoli and a funky sprat-infused milk sauce round things out. Fine dishes, both of them.
Heartier dishes maintain that sense of balance. A soft-poached egg, oozy and satisfying, is surrounded by roasted mushrooms, pickled ramps, scallops and crispy bits of seaweed. Earl Grey tea-braised pork belly arrives with a smoked onion puree and peppery winter cress. Roasted rutabaga and apple cider lend sweetness to slices of flat-iron steak cooked in hay. Even lamb heart with smoked cheese and burnt celery root is a simultaneous display of power and finesse.
I’ve loved the desserts so far, but most of all I’ve loved their effect: to end a multi-hour, multi-course meal on a high note. It’s easy to woo the diner with sugar, to beat them into final submission with butter or chocolate. It’s considerably more exciting to be pricked with the tart sting of freeze-dried raspberries as you tuck into a cardamom parfait with hibiscus cake and walnuts. Better still to be surprised by savory seaweed shortbread crumbled around a tangy goat custard, sweet roasted pears and crispy pear skin.
The visual aesthetic of the food, for me, recalls Relæ and nods toward Noma. Maybe the ingredients have been deliberately placed there, or perhaps they’ve just fallen on the plate, amongst the same foraged garnishes that nature herself might provided. One can’t really be sure.
One thing I am sure of is that I’ve fallen for Frej. I don’t know how long the restaurant will last in this incarnation, a pop-up serving 5 or so courses to 20 or so people a night. I’d love for Fredrik and Richard to have the opportunity to share their food with people on whatever scale they see fit. They more than deserve that chance. But for right now, I’ll keep going every week until I wake up from this dream. For right now, I feel lucky to be a regular here.
Oh, and did I mention that the set menu costs just $45? Yep, basically the best dining deal in New York at the moment. You’re welcome.