On a typical day, 750,000 people pass through Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan. That number—twice the population of Iceland—includes hurrying commuters and shutter-happy tourists. But a new fixture in Grand Central now brings a different kind of foot traffic to this hulking transit hub: foodies hungry for the fare dished up at Agern, a culinary venture spearheaded by Icelandic chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason and Claus Meyer, co-founder of Copenhagen’s storied Noma restaurant.
Off a busy corridor connecting the terminal to 42nd Street, Agern is inconspicuous, tucked away atop a half flight of stairs in what once was a men’s smoking lounge. As with Gunnar’s restaurants Dill and the nameless pizzeria at Hverfisgata 12, which occupy an unassuming house in 101 Reykjavík, the anonymity of Agern’s exterior makes entering feel serendipitous, accidental. Inside, wood panelling snakes around the modern interior, and a dull, calm hum—at odds with Grand Central’s hubbub—suffuses the room.
Gunnar walks me through the back doors into Vanderbilt Hall, an echoing atrium populated with food stalls offering Nordic-inspired casual fare: smørrebrød, salads, porridges, pastries. These counters comprise the Great Northern Food Hall, integral to Agern’s larger vision. By expanding the operation, Gunnar aims to minimize waste, using ingredients to their fullest extent: coffee grounds become compost, leftover bread becomes beer, which is baked back into bread. Concomitant with this low-waste policy is the equally ambitious goal of maximizing in-house food production. The franchise has opened project spaces—a dairy, butchery, roastery, and fish-smoking and fermentation facilities—allowing Gunnar to work with raw ingredients as much as possible. These aims, along with a commitment to sourcing ingredients within a 500-mile range, are hallmarks of New Nordic cuisine. However, Gunnar tells me, Agern is not fundamentally a Nordic restaurant: although founded upon New Nordic principles, Agern uses flavors alien to the frigid north.
A persistent smile betrays Gunnar’s sheer glee in the endeavor. He left Iceland in January, entrusting management of his Reykjavík locations—Dill, Hverfisgata 12, and Sæmundur í Sparifötunum (Kex Gastropub)—to a team eager to take the reins. Initially he planned to stay for two years, but, bolstered by a stream of complimentary reviews, it’s looking more like five. Recently, New York Times food critic Pete Wells gave Agern a three-star rating, putting it in a class with only a handful of restaurants. “After my four children,” Gunnar says, “Those three stars may be my proudest achievements.”
Gunnar sets me up with the Land + Sea tasting menu, a seemingly endless series of whimsically plated dishes, almost too pretty to eat. Beginning with bite-size snacks (sweetbreads, a single oyster, fried potato bread), the meal crescendos as heartier courses arrive: shredded beef heart tossed with shallots and shaved broccoli spears; grilled tilefish with leek, celery, and romaine; pork neck on a bed of beans and pea shoots. As a recently lapsed vegetarian, however, I’m surprised to find the pescatarian dishes stand out the most: a melon and cucumber salad with cracked millet and trout roe, bursting with savory sap; and a beet, roasted in a vegetable ash shell, served over beet tartare. Dessert is anything but an afterthought: frozen skyr with pureed cucumber and cantaloupe, dehydrated eggplant with chocolate and purple basil granita, and a buckwheat tart.
After ending my feast with a meticulously brewed light roast, I’m handed a cloth satchel. Back in the terminal, now quiet after the evening commute, I peek into my goodie bag: small containers of coffee and handmade candies—mementoes drawing an already memorable meal into the morning.