37 Canal Street, New York, NY 10002 (at Ludlow; map); 212-777-7518; skalnyc.com
Cost: Appetizers $9 to $15, mains $17 to $27, with a $52 dish for two.
Setting: Warm and welcoming Ikea-nautical room with a long bar.
Service: Inexperienced and bumbling at tables; much more pleasant at the bar.
Must-Haves: Beef tartare, roast carrots.
Compare To: Aska, Acme, Luksus
Recommendation: Something's good here. Unpleasant service and technically flawed food are disappointing, but simple, solid cocktails at the bar with one or two of the better dishes has some appeal.
It's a cold and lonely walk to Canal and Ludlow, the streets empty and dark and windy. The Lower East Side may be hopping, but not here.
So when you show up at Skàl, it'd be nice if a waiter didn't greet you with a look that seemed to ask, "What are you doing here?" Trust me, guys, I didn't just stumble in by accident.
It'd also be nice if a friend waiting for me one night was offered a seat at the bar rather than be left alone in the tiny vestibule. It'd be nice if I got a glass of water sooner than 10 minutes after I sat down—and then only because I asked. And not to get too semiotic, but the question "Do you know what you want?" after I've looked at the menu for all of a couple minutes just isn't very nice at all.
I'm not too demanding of my service, but at a restaurant where you're paying $30 to $50 a head for dinner before drinks, some pleasantries wouldn't hurt. The treatment improves once you sit down, but in a conscripted sort of way, and just as bumbling.
So why are we talking about Skàl? Because it's not every day that a hip Nordic restaurant and bar opens in a part of town best known for streets that reek of fish and private buses that burst into flame on the highway. If you're near East Broadway in search of something spiffier than hand-pulled noodles or skunky dive bar taps, Skàl looks like a compelling option with the added bonus that it's open until 3 or 4 a.m. And the simple but agreeable cocktails are all too easy to drink.
But inexperienced, bumbling service isn't the only problem. The tragic thing about Skàl is the food that lets you down. Chef Ben Spiegel's menu of humble tubers, fish, and herbs reads more nourishing than high-concept—you won't eat any crackers made from pig's blood like at Aska, or put up with the reservations for a tasting menu at Luksus, or need to dress up like you would at Aquavit or even Acme. A serious but casual Nordic restaurant that makes food you want to devour as well as appreciate from afar would be a beautiful thing. But Skàl isn't it, at least not today.
There are some diamonds in the rough. I was floored by the beefiest Beef Tartare ($15) to ever cross my lips (with toasted Balthazar bread brushed with beef fat!) and roasted until just-burnt Carrots ($13) as sweet as carrot cake. The taproots are crusted with sunflower and pumpkin seeds, currants, chamomile, and lemon thyme, a textural joy to eat, and made even more carrot-y by a drizzle of caramelized honey. A side of yogurt encourages you to take your time and appreciate the black magic happening on the plate.
If you pop into Skàl for a drink at the long bar, where the bartenders are actually quite friendly, consider ordering those dishes as a snack. After that it goes downhill.
Time after time proteins called out for seasoning, from an otherwise attractive Grass-Fed Hanger Steak ($27) to Pike ($25) that was all but flavorless. Leaves of roasted cabbage had more soul than the filet of Monkfish ($23) they garnished, and a foamy house-made Boudin sausage takes, at $17, the title for Most Expensive Dirty Water Dog in New York. Accents like kohlrabi and cauliflower and a herring- and anchovy-spiked mayo weren't enough to revive dishes that were dead on arrival.
There are some conceptual leaps that are hard to follow, like Delicata Squash ($15) that's cooked but off-puttingly crisp, something between a vegetable dish and a salad and satisfying the needs of neither. And Confit Duck Wings ($14)—ostensibly finger food—came mired in a puddle of terrifyingly black puréed mussels and underneath a mop of pickled seaweed, like some grim diorama of the Exxon Valdez.
Oysters ($15 for six) were small but sweet and meaty; if only they weren't overpowered by a pulpy cucumber juice spooned on top. Meanwhile, oily crowns of roast Broccoli were surprisingly reductive—touches of green garlic, bread crumbs, and mayo didn't justify a meager portion or princely $11 price tag.
If Skàl sorts out its problems—front and back of house—it'd be a nice place to have in your back pocket when visiting the neighborhood. With a few more knockouts like the tartare and carrots, snacking at the bar would be tempting, especially with a not-too-sweet drink of Maker's with blackberry and lemon ($13) at your side.
In the meantime I'll keep to Lam Zhou Noodle House, a five minute walk away, for my late nights in Chinatown. The service is even poorer there but the $2 dumplings don't judge.
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