In my wildest dreams, I never imagined that we’d need to add Icelandic to the list of cuisines we search for when dining out in New York. In fact, I wrote a book on the world’s foods and never conceived that Nordic cooking would be relevant, certainly not relevant enough to include in my book, Try This, nevermind Icelandic. But head down to Chinatown, on the edge of the Lower East Side, and you’ll find a buzzy little spot called Skal, serving up Pan-Seared Pike with Pickled Plums & Kohlrabi in an herbaceous Verbena Sauce, and tangly Icelandic Yogurt with Grated Beetroot and Sorrel Granita.
It’s an odd neighborhood for an eatery with antique china decorating on the walls, Easter blue tables, and fried, pickled smelt for nibbles. But anything goes these days, so expect the unexpected. Want bar food, the kind you pick up with your fingers? Skal’s got a finger licking version of wings, except these are Duck Wings, not chicken, and the dipping sauce, which accompanies them is made not with blue cheese, but with a Mussels & Squid Ink Emulsion. (Lest I forget the pickled Red Seaweed that tops it all off.) The wings are confit to terrifically tender, and oddly addictive, especially when you drag them through the black, briny sauce beneath them — an ingenious bar snack that I’d take over dive bar (or even great) Chicken Wings any day. I’m not sure how Icelandic Boudin Blanc Sausage is (it’s not), but Skal makes their juicy rendition of this French frank in-house, lacing it with plenty of Armagnac & Cream, and serving it with Tokyo Turnips & a Mustard Green Puree, which lends the dish an earthy, spicy kick.
Roasted Squash Salad
Truthfully, this is interpretative Icelandic with “New Nordic” techniques and ingredients, but you won’t find truly traditional dishes, like sheep’s head or sun-dried Shark, and you’ll probably be thankful for that. What you will find at Skal are Icelandic touches, like Carrots paved with Sunflower Seeds, drizzled with Burnt Honey, Lemon-Thyme and Chamomile, and a side of Icelandic yogurt. You’ll find Lamb Saddle baked in Hay, a signature Nordic move, as well as a quintessentially autumnal (and tasty) salad of Brown Butter-Roasted Squash with a Dried & Fermented Apple Puree, crowned with a toasted crumble of almonds and Goat Cheese. There’s a small, but well edited selection of wines by the glass and some creative cocktails, like the Ginger Boy, a zippy, vodka-based drink with ginger, lemon juice and St. Germain.
There’s a lot to like about this cozy newcomer, which is what makes the failures so frustrating. I wasn’t a fan of watery Cape Cod Oysters, anointed with pickled & fermented Cucumber Juice and a sprig of dill, and I downright hated an oily Pan-Seared Pike, poorly paired with Pickled Plums, Kohlrabi and a medicinal-tasting Verbena Sauce — an odd combination that didn’t meld, not to mention how flavorless the pike itself was.
But I’d return for the desserts alone, which I almost skipped. I mean, Beetroot with Yogurt doesn’t exactly sound appealing, especially when you discover it in the sweet section of the menu. But it’s one of the most memorable desserts I’ve had this fall. The Beetroot is grated and candied, mingled with a Concord Grape, Meringue Chips for crunch, & a Sorrel Granita that brings this curious ensemble all together. The same goes for a warm, comforting Apple & Oat Crumble (made with dried & fresh Winesap Apples), sheathed in a Buttermilk Foam.
Beetroot with Icelandic Yogurt
The chef, Ben Spiegel, trained at Copenhagen’s trend-setting Noma before making his New York debut at this Icelandic newcomer. He’s only 26 years old and he’s already pulling double duty in both the savory & pastry department, which makes it easier to forgive a few missteps, like the Pike and those Cucumber-Soaked Oysters, and focus on the successes. Especially those divine Duck Wings. I’ll be thinking about those all winter.
Cuisine: Icelandic (New Nordic)
Vibe: Cozy Hipster
Don’t Miss Dishes: Duck Wings, Roasted Butternut Squash Salad, Boudin Blanc
Don’t Bother Dishes: Pike, Oysters
Finish With: Beetroot with Icelandic Yogurt
Drink: Something from the Cocktail list