Grand Central Terminal is without a doubt the most magnificent railway station in North America. Built in 1913 as the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad and trains such as the Twentieth Century Limited, it is an engineering marvel, a monument to the might of American industry, and has the greatest number of platforms of any station in the world. Since the merger of the Central Railroad with the Pennsylvania Railroad, all long-distance trains were redirected to Penn Station, and Grand Central has since been reduced to serving New York’s commuter belt. The people who use the station live in ‘Metroland’, and the dining options reflect the urgency of the modern commute. There is a Shake Shack, a whole dining hall of takeaway options and a Scandinavian bakery-cum-café. Even the historic Oyster Bar has express counters in place of tables. It is, for all intents and purposes, Euston in a party frock. So, you could imagine my surprise when I found a Michelin-starred Danish restaurant tucked away in the corridor leading to the subway platforms. It was just there, up a stairway to what I previously thought was an office. And as it just so happened to be lunchtime, I took my chances and walked in.
Agern (pronounced aye-gurn) is not just another run-of-the-mill New Nordic restaurant that serves foraged acidity on a plate. It is the brainchild of Claus Meyer, Noma co-founder and Copenhagen restaurateur. For his first foray into the New York City fine dining scene, he chose to tone down the obsessive minimalism the New Nordic movement is known for. The main dining room, for example, is not furnished exclusively with brushed aluminium and Birchwood like Stockholm Airport. Of course, it has to be slightly casual so there are no tablecloths. That is not to say the interior design is successful. Agern is set in quite possibly the blandest space in Grand Central, its Gilded Age opulence stopping right at the restaurant entrance. The lighting is mildly annoying, combining warm, ambient indirect light with harsh, in-your-face LEDs that would stop any deer in its tracks. The acoustics of the room seem to be set up for rallies and protests – they amplified every conversation except the one I was having. In that regard, Agern is just like any other New York bistro.
The compromise between sense and New Nordic sensibilities continues to be reflected in the food. While I expected an endless parade of small plates like they do at Copenhagen’s Relae or 108, lunch was a simple 3-course prix fixe affair. The first course was a beef tartare which is not New Nordic as much as it is Old Danish; one could find tartare on rye at pretty much any Smorrebrød restaurant in Denmark. The version served here was made with dry-aged tallow mayonnaise, which added an unctuous enveloping richness to what is usually an unremarkable starter. I groaned when they brought over a loaf of sourdough and freshly churned butter. And somehow, even this managed to be a pleasant surprise. The sourdough was not too sour, and the churned butter was rich. I hadn’t had such good sourdough since eating at Hedone in Chiswick.
Grand Central deserves something with more grandeur
The main course was advertised as white asparagus with a side of chicken, which sounded like the perfect dish for spring. On my first bite, it was. The acidity was contained in the herbs and worked in perfect balance with the rich cream sauce. Crispy chicken skin worked wonders by adding another dimension of texture. However, the astringent, bitter taste of slightly-undercooked and under-peeled white asparagus was unfortunate. To make matters worse, the chicken breast that accompanied the asparagus was dry and even stringier. Using the fried chicken from Popeye’s would have been an improvement. The meal ended with another seasonal item: rhubarb cake and yuzu sorbet, encased in a fine crunchy meringue, which restored my confidence in the kitchen.
I wanted to hate Agern the moment I stepped in. While New Nordic food is fine, the pickling and foraging and the birch-sap water should probably stay in Scandinavia. Agern is willing to lose some of that religious adherence to practice to instead focus on serving locally-sourced seasonally-dependent produce, and that saves it from being a gimmick. Take the wine list. There is a whole page dedicated to the stereotypically Viking drink mead, but all of it is sourced from breweries around the North-eastern United States. Among those that I tried, a barrel-aged blackcurrant mead from upstate New York stood out for being mellow and sweet without being syrupy – a wonderful end to a rather decent meal.
And yet, because of how decent Agern is, I cannot help but feel that there is some incongruity to its location in Grand Central. Meyer could open his restaurant anywhere in Midtown to great success, but he chose to do it here, in Vanderbilt’s old railway terminal. It feels like an unnecessary refuge; not homely enough to be comfortable, and not opulent enough to be inspiring. All the greatest classical railways stations have a great restaurant. London’s St Pancras is home to a Palate favourite, The Gilbert Scott, and Gare de Lyon in Paris has Le Train Bleu. Grand Central deserves something with more grandeur.
Grand Central Terminal
89 East 42nd Street
New York, New York 10017
by J Khou