Acme Morphs From Down-Home to Upscale With $32 Lobster

Pearl Barley and Clams
Pearl barley and clams at Acme in New York. The dish has scallops, artichokes and roasted sunflower broth. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

We arrived on time for our 10 p.m. reservation at Acme. We were seated 67 minutes later.

No apologies were made. No complimentary drinks were offered. The host did insist that we settle our bar tab before being seated.

Our food began arriving shortly before 11:30, precisely when I had hoped to be leaving. I should have known better.

An absence of niceties is par for the course at Manhattan’s Cajun-turned-Scandinavian hotspot. Don’t expect the bouncer who grilled you on the way in to hold the door on your way out.

Acme is the Noho home of chef Mads Refslund, co-founder of Noma in Copenhagen, which San Pellegrino called the World’s Best Restaurant. He favors local, seasonal ingredients, modern, sometimes avant-garde techniques and unadulterated, earthy flavors.

This is why porridge is starting to supplant risotto on New York menus. Pearl barley with clams ($15) is Refslund’s superb marine version, a suave showcase for tangy clams, sweet scallops and nutty sunflower seeds.

And if there’s any doubt that vegetables are the new meat, try black carrots with pine, blood orange and lardo ($12). The hefty, hearty roots are cooked just past al dente, while the pork fat plays brilliant, salty second fiddle.

Sherbet Glass

Then you wait 15 minutes for a server to clear your plates. They’re removed not as a courtesy but because a runner is standing by with your next course.

Staffers forgot dishes I ordered on two visits. Sadly, Acme is less an ambassador for Denmark’s vibrant food scene as it is an examplar of how willingly Manhattan diners allow themselves to be treated like widgets.

When you order a glass of Stephane Coquillette (at $19, a bargain for this regal first-growth Champagne) it’s served in a passe coupe. The wide bowl, fine for sherbet, lets the bubbles dissipate too quickly.

Whites, like the Weinhof Scheu Riesling ($12) are properly chilled. But reds, like the Ribera del Duero ($12) might arrive at sweaty room temperature. And wines by the glass are served in cheap stems with thick-lips and small bowls.

Bowery Balthazar

All right, so Acme isn’t about personality. It’s about looks -- simple and sexy, a Great Jones Street version of Balthazar: dark woods, dim lighting, some cramped seating. Waiters banged my chair as I sampled a plate of tender salt-baked beets ($12).

Ravioli ($14) with Brussels sprouts, spinach and brown butter contained so little filling that the pasta might have been a study in negative space. Farmer’s eggs ($10), small bits of cauliflower and foam served in eggshells, contained no discernible egg or custard.

Refslund occasionally miscalculates his gastronomic multiplication tables. He’s fine with foam, less skilled with NaCl. How else explain mealy lobster ($32) infused with so much sodium as to be nearly inedible? Rib eye ($32) was also a salt lick, perhaps overcompensating for the lack of any other flavor, including beef.

Vegan celery root soup with chestnuts and cacao ($10) tasted liked strained baby food. Raw bison and sweet shrimp with white walnuts ($13) was slimy. Undercooked sunchokes (as appealing as raw potatoes) were advertised as containing black truffles; what I got was a mouthful of ash from the vegetable’s violent hay roasting ($12).

Sing Out

So order those lovely carrots or the pearl barley. Save enough to take with you, if only for the chance to sing, “Won’t you come home, pearl barley?”

Follow with butter-poached chicken and eggs ($22), served in a clay pot that imparts a pleasant mustiness. Black bass ($24) was everything it should have been: crispy skin and moist flesh, complemented by sharp green tomato.

Although it’s well past midnight, we stay for dessert. Bread porridge mixes the concentrated flavor of rye and the sour tang of beer. It’s a fine finale. Rating: *

The Bloomberg Questions

Price: Most dishes under $30; many under $20.

Sound Level: Loud, 80-85 decibels, but tolerable.

Date Place: Sixty-minute waits are not sexy.

Inside Tip: Great wheatgrass granita dessert.

Special Feature: Stellar mashed potatoes with bacon ($8).

Back on My Own Dime: Not just yet. I’ll get my Nordic-inspired fare at Isa or Frej in Williamsburg.

Acme is at 9 Great Jones St., Noho. Information: +1-212-203-2121;

What the Stars Mean:

****         Incomparable food, service, ambience.
***          First-class of its kind.
**           Good, reliable.
*            Fair.
(No stars)   Poor

Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.

(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE