A-fucking-men. Peter Luger's was by far the worst experience I've ever had at a steakhouse. The only thing that was good was the thick bacon slices. However:
In any case, they had a 'soft open' on Monday, and I went to check it out. Here's what I found.
AQ Kafe is at 1800 Broadway, between 58th and 59th street. It's practically on Columbus Circle, just across from the newly-opened Museum of Art and Design.
The restaurant itself is pleasantly neutral in its decor. There is a takeout counter at the entryway which sells their full menu as well as breads, pastries and drinks and prepackaged salads etc. The dining room extends back to the right of the counter/kitchen area.
The menu is 'northern european' but isn't limited to that. They have sandwiches, soups, entrees, and platters. I selected a Swedish meatball entree, a gravlax sandwich, and a Black Forest Ham and Jarlsberg pressed hot sandwich to sample. I tasted another diner's Hungarian Beef Goulash (like I said, it's not limited to northern Europe) and had a Lingonberry soda to drink.
The gravlax sandwich was billed as a 'gravlax club.' It was a great sandwich. I should warn New Yorkers, though, that it certainly isn't a 'club' - in addition to containing zero bacon or cheese, it's only a single-layer sandwich. It comes with a dill, avocado and pickle dressing that's fresh tasting and crisp, complementing the pickled fish. The sides consisted of a dill potato salad and a few bits of pickle - nicely sharp tastes, both. The only shortcoming of the gravlax club at the end of the experience was that it was a bit smaller than a hefty bugger like me would like to see - I don't think it would make a complete lunch for me.
Swedish meatballs. Ahh. The entree came with seven meatballs of a good size, with mashed potatoes for the starch. Along with a cream sauce and a pickle garnish, the meatballs came with a lingonberry jam for dipping. This was the most filling of the three dishes I tried, and I came away quite satisfied.
Deciding I might as well try one more item, i ordered the ham and cheese. It arrived toasted and pressed on the house bread (I think an Onion Rye), with a good sized stack of ham topped with Jarlsberg. There were some very thin-sliced pickles (cucumber pickles) with a bright taste - not too sour - in the sandwich as well. It too comes with the dill potato salad. I'd say this would be a more satisfying sandwich for me (and is cheaper, too) than the gravlax - but of course it's also a more 'standard' sandwich.
At this point, I should mention that I also grazed on the meals of some of my compatriots. The smorgasbord platter contained the gravlax, some smoked salmon, and a few types of pickled herring. I'm not a herring person, but they were quite attractive and tasted good enough that I was appreciative. They make a roasted beet salad which wasn't my thing at all (I hate beets) but others gave it thumbs up. I got to sniff and quickly taste an herbed chicken entree - served with the mashed potato. It has a nicely caramelized skin (it's a boneless slice of breast) and some good browned bits.
For dessert, they have a wide variety of pastries. I sampled the cookie platter (nice, but not hot/fresh) and the incredibly dangerous bittersweet chocolate torte with salted caramel and ganache. Um, yeah. Danger. Do not try this at home.
Drinks...they have the usual selection of yuppie sodas (Lizzie's, etc.). For sparkling water, they use their own water which is carbonated in the back. $4 gets you a two-pint glass bottle which felt like it was kept in the freezer full of sparkling water. The bottle is reused by the restaurant system. Tap water is, of course, available.
Close of the meal I had an espresso and a coffee. I like my coffee, but I'm not an expert; I thought the espresso had a good crema and tasted strong while still smelling properly of coffee rather than burn. The plain coffee was quite nice; I'm not sure which coffee they use, but it was a distinctive blend and had no burn taste (I'm looking at you, Charbucks).
Let's see, general impressions. I would say that a lunch here (it's really a lunch spot) is a slightly expensive proposition, but well within the New York area range. A sandwich, pastry and coffee would probably run around $20. Entrees (meatballs, chicken) tend to be between $12 and $15. For the best blend of the two, have the Meatball Sandwich!
They've identified their competition as, for example, Le Pain Quotidien which is a block or so away. I'd give AQ Kafe a bit of an edge because the cuisine is more interesting; where baguette sandwiches are a dime a dozen these days, finding a place that will serve you a gravlax version and swedish meatballs for the same price is entertaining. The food was good enough on its own that I don't think the 'novelty' would wear off. If you don't like herbs or pickles, this might not be your best bet as there's a lot of both in the food.
I could see this becoming a popular local lunch spot for the Columbus Circle area. I believe they'd like to open more of them, so if it works out, you might see one near you.
Experiments prove it. Urp.