1800 Broadway, New York NY 10019 (b/n 58th St. and Central Park South; map); 212-462-0005; aqkafe.com
Service: Prompt at the bakery counter, a little slow but well-meaning at the tables
Setting: Cheerful, airy minimalist Scandinavian Modern-derived storefront
Compare It To: Le Pain Quotidien, Bouchon Bakery, Mangia
Must-Haves: Pretzels, potato salad, Cheese bread, bittersweet chocolate tart
Cost: $15 plus tip and tax for a sandwich, sweet, and coffee
It's hard to believe but true: The area around West 57th Street doesn't have all that many places to get a cup of coffee and a danish at breakfast; soup, salad, or sandwich for lunch; or a much-more-than-edible one-plate supper. There's Le Pain Quotidien, Greek coffee shops, and—if you want to go upscale and super-high quality—there's the sometimes expensive but mostly delicious Bouchon Bakery. Entering this fray is the AQ Kafé, the latest project of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson (of Aquavit) and his partners.
Did we need a bakery/cafe with a Scandinavian bent? What does that mean exactly? The Serious Eats team went to find out.
At breakfast there's an array of breads and breakfast pastries and sandwiches. The cardamom-infused cinnamon roll ($1.50) is a little dry, but the house-made pretzels ($1.50) were terrific—slightly chewy and crunchy on the outside, and soft and tender on the inside.
A premade egg salad sandwich on seeded wheat bread ($7.50) was enlivened by not enough bacon strips. I also bought a cheese loaf made with priest cheese ($6.95) that was tang, yeasty, and delicious. It's the kind of bread you rip hunks off of all day and before you know it's all gone. An excellent cranberry-hazelnut danish ($2.95) was plenty buttery without being decadent.
Lunch regularly features three soups: a tomato and cheese soup ($4.95/$6.95) that would raise Campbell's game a lot; an inspired Hungarian beef goulash soup ($4.95/$6.95) that unfortunately could have been served at any Greek coffee shop in New York; and a chicken noodle soup ($4.95/$6.95) that was strangely dishwatery bland, which was downright bizarre considering all the fresh herbs floating in it.
I was really looking forward to the Swedish meatball sandwich ($9.95) because Samuelsson had once cooked the best Swedish meatballs I've ever tasted on the old New York Eats television show I co-hosted with Jeffrey Steingarten. Alas, these heavy, dry, meatballs bore no resemblance to those.
Better lunch sandwich options are the aforementioned egg salad sandwich, a straightforward ham, red cabbage, apple, and sauerkraut sandwich ($8.95) and a fine shrimp salad on dill quark bread sandwich ($10.95) featuring tiny succulent shrimp.
The lunch and dinner plates are decidedly a mixed bag. A split roast chicken breast stuffed with sautéed mushrooms ($11.95) had that icky airline reheated-chicken taste.
The bauernwurst ($10.95), rounds of fine emulsified sausage on a bed of sauerkraut served with a mountain of wonderful dill-laced potato salad ($2.25), was much better (just about every sandwich or entreé comes with the potato salad).
Vegetarian meatballs ($10.95) are failures as meatballs (AQ Kafé should change the name of this dish), but moderately successful as balled up vegetarian stuffing.
The smorgasbord plate ($12.95) had all these inappropriately tiny portions of decent herring, shrimp salad, a solitary meatball, and a ping pong ball-sized new potato and a tiny wedge of cheese that both looked lonely and lost on the plate. Come on, Marcus and company—bring on the potatoes!
The one must-have dessert is the bittersweet chocolate tart ($4.95). The dark chocolate crust, some gooey salted caramel, and a fine chocolate ganache join forces to make the ultimate adult candy bar served as a wedge on a plate.
Seasonal-food junkies should happily avail themselves of the moist, not-too-sweet pumpkin gingerbread cake with smooth, light maple mascarpone frosting ($4.95).
If you're looking for a truly Scandinavian dessert you might think about ordering the princess cake ($4.95). That would be a mistake, unless lime green marzipan, dry sponge cake, some nondescript pastry cream, and some raspberry is your idea of a heavenly combo. Authentic, maybe. Delicious? No way, no how.
If you order carefully you can fare reasonably well at AQ Kafé. But proceed with caution, because the menu is loaded with food mine fields. You'll probably fare better at Le Pain Quotidien (which is not particularly great, either) or Bouchon Bakery, which is a far better option in terms of deliciousness percentages.