Put the names of all the restaurants near Grand Central into a hat, and there’s a decent chance the one you pick will fit the following description: it’s a big space filled with people continuing conversations they started in nearby offices, who don’t mind that they’re about to spend a lot of money on dinner because it’s going on the corporate card anyway. On the surface, Agern falls into this category as well. But what makes this Nordic spot different from the others is pretty simple - it just serves better food.
In order to eat that food, you’ll need to head inside Grand Central itself. Push past the tourists who think entranceways are good places to consult their Fodor’s Guides, veer off from the crowds who are about to decide between a middle seat and standing in the aisle on Metro-North, and you’ll find Agern behind a set of doors a few steps from the Main Concourse. The big, windowless dining room definitely feels like it’s in a train station, but more so one in Copenhagen than Midtown. This makes sense because the owner was a founder at Noma, the famous Copenhagen restaurant - and the food here is similarly “New Nordic,” which basically means they use local, sustainable ingredients (like edible flowers and fermented berries) to create flavors you’d typically find in places where it’s dark for 20 hours a day in the winter.
You can do a tasting menu here, but the better option is to order a la carte. Dishes range from sunchokes with rye porridge and sprouts to dry-aged duck with cabbage and hay, and even though many sound like the outcome of a Mad Lib about foraging, they mostly just taste like really well-prepared versions of their main ingredients. So the beef tartare, made with oysters and caramelized onions, just tastes like a buttery, slightly peppery, and very good plate of raw meat. The bone marrow isn’t noticeable on the plate with the monkfish, but it doesn’t matter because the thinly sliced medallions of fish have a ton of their own flavor, and the rich, nutty brown butter foam on the side makes the whole thing taste almost like a dessert. No matter what else you order, make sure to load up on the fresh-baked sourdough bread, which comes with salted butter as soft as frozen yogurt.
The tasting menu is a much longer, stuffier, and more expensive experience. You get seven courses for $155, and while dishes like poached lobster in custard and scallops with butter sauce are enjoyable, there are plenty of other places in this price range with better food (Benno), a better atmosphere (Gramercy Tavern), or both (The Grill). Dinner also lasts around three hours, with long periods in between courses, and it’s presented so seriously that you’ll feel like you’re sitting through a lecture about ingredients and cooking techniques. There’s not much in terms of music or people-watching to distract you from the waits between courses, but you could entertain yourself by exploring the long, almost completely American wine list - use dinner here as an opportunity to try things you don’t see every day, like a nebbiolo from Santa Barbara, or a wine from Long Island made using a rare varietal usually grown in northern Italy.
Even if you do Agern the right way by loading up on bread, ordering a la carte, and trying to find value in an overlooked part of the wine list, you’re going to spend quite a bit of money here. But you’re also going to eat some excellent food that’s a whole lot better than the Cobb salads and $65 filets at other places in the area. It’s an obvious choice when you need to plan a business meal in Midtown, or anytime you’re looking to eat something memorable before getting stuck in the middle seat on your commute home from Grand Central.
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The housemade sourdough barley bread arrives on your table fresh out of the oven, and while it has enough flavor to be eaten plain, you should make full use of the whipped butter that comes with it. This is some of our favorite restaurant bread in the city, and the fact that you don’t have to pay extra for it is a plus.
There’s chopped-up oyster and caramelized onion in this, but neither adds much to the flavor, and it mostly just tastes like a very solid, slightly creamy tartare. What makes this dish special is the fried beef tendon on the side. It has the look and texture of a chicharron, and you should use it like a chip to scoop up the tartare.
This is a very small portion of fish for $34, but if you’re not turned off by the price, then it’s worth traveling for. Each bite tastes like a mouthful of lobster meat, and the brown butter foam is fantastic. There’s also some creamed kale that tastes as rich as creamed spinach, and a really good house potato chip on the side.
The first course on the tasting menu is three amuse-bouches, all of which are very good. There’s a beet meringue that dissolves like cotton candy, crispy fish skin that’s the size of a cracker but actually has a lot of fish flavor, and a brioche ball filled with funky mushroom cream.
Cheese isn’t the first or second or twentieth thing we think of serving with lobster, but it actually works well here. A few bites of poached lobster are served in a bowl of custard and cheese, which adds texture, but is mild enough that the lobster is still the dominant flavor.
The tilefish doesn’t have a lot of flavor, nor does the bright green pistachio foam on the side. Considering this is one of only four savory courses on the tasting menu, it’s a big miss.
Make what you will of the second most substantial dish on a $155 tasting menu consisting of two scallops, but the scallops themselves are excellent. They’re so sweet that the buttery foam is needed to balance them out, and they come with what’s basically the best potato chip in existence. It’s thin, crunchy, and tastes like a concentrated blast of fried potato without too much salt.
Maneuvering around this plate made us feel a little like Shrek trying to eat a buffalo wing. The quail is tender, but the tiny portion only yields a couple bites. It’s also topped with brussels sprout leaves, which don’t add much. We like the koji and Asian pear, but you mostly eat them with the flavorless brussels sprout leaves once the quail disappears.
Our least favorite dish on the tasting menu, by far. It’s a really tart apple sorbet topped with a ton of goat cheese, and it tastes kind of like a green apple Jolly Rancher covered in salt.
Whether you order a la carte or from the tasting menu, this is how you should finish a meal here. The mousse is light and almost airy, but still intensely flavored, and it comes inside a thin, chilled chocolate shell.