Lefse Hits The Big Time

Watch out, Minnesota: Our chefs are making pilgrimages to a restaurant known for tableside bone sawing.

Fäviken Magasinet sits on a 20,000-acre hunting reserve in rural northwestern Sweden. It seats 12. "To get there you drive for hundreds of miles—we had this good old diesel Ford we rented from the airport in Östersund," says Paul Berglund, chef at The Bachelor Farmer, the Minneapolis spot recently voted the No. 6 best new restaurant in the country by Bon Appétit magazine. "You drive and drive, through farmland, through forest."

A great way to rise and shine: the breakfast cart at The Bachelor Farmer.

Or you take a train to the end of the line. "I took the night train from Stockholm to Järpen, in the middle of nowhere, in the Arctic—and it's a $150 one-way cab fare from there," says Jim Christiansen, former chef of Il Gatto and soon-to-be-chef of the Union, the hotly anticipated restaurant by the Crave team that is slated to open in the old Shinders space in downtown Minneapolis before Christmas.

Chefs make this trek for one big reason: to sample the food of Magnus Nilsson, who uses Fäviken as an avant-garde crucible in which he forges a primitive, primal Nordic cuisine.

"The bone marrow, it will be one of the dishes of my life," says Berglund. "The veal marrow bone was roasted in the kitchen and then cut right at the table, with a pretty heavy-duty bone saw. Then the marrow was scooped out and mixed with the raw heart from the calf. It was a great course."

Eating at Fäviken "completely changed me," says Christiansen. "It energized me, sparked something in me—it's looking at food with open eyes, not with your training but with a clear, primal filter. I feel like I have a new understanding of what 'wild' is."

One thing wild is, of course, is deadly. That's why, about a hundred years ago, a million Swedes, 800,000 Norwegians, 300,000 Danes, 230,000 Finns, and 15,000 Icelanders packed up and left their famine-afflicted homelands and headed to America. They settled primarily in what was then called the northwest—everything from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean, including, of course, Minnesota. In the intervening years Nordic-Americans lost a lot of what was wild and native about their homelands—but kept a lot, too.

Quite a lot: Denny's 5th Avenue Bakery, just south of I-94 near Portland Avenue, makes Danish bread as black as night, as well as almond kringle so dewy, richly eggy, and crisp it's a feat of enormous willpower not to devour the pizza-sized delight at a sitting. In Northeast Minneapolis, Ready Meats and Kramarczuk do battle for local king of Swedish sausage bragging rights. In south Minneapolis, Ingebretsen's has been a specialty Scandinavian butcher since the 1920s and remains locally renowned for selling 10,000 pounds of Swedish meatball mix and Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish sausages every year in the days leading up to Christmas. Every day, Finns can get their salmon breakfasts at the Finnish Bistro in St. Anthony Park, Swedes can get their citron-scattered limpa rye at Grandma's Bakery in White Bear Lake, and anyone with a taste for anything Scandinavian can get fresh lefse, Swedish meatball lunches, and tiered kransekake cookie-ring cakes at the several Taste of Scandinavia locations around the metro.

And let's not forget our Nordic-inspired dairies. Wisconsin's Nordic Creamery has been making some of the country's best butter since 1917. Star Thrower Farm, a sheep dairy in the west metro founded in 2007, provides all the local co-ops with skyr, an Icelandic-style spread that's halfway between yogurt and cheese.

There are also the tens of thousands of pounds of pickled herring sold through local markets such as Lunds by the Olsen Fish Co., one of the nation's largest herring processors, located in Minneapolis since 1910. And it's growing. President Chris Dorff says the company is on track to sell 20 percent more herring this year, due to some combination of health benefits (herring is full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids), sustainability (herring are not endangered), and Nordic interest.

It was this thriving Scandinavian background that allowed Minneapolis chefs to do the last thing anyone saw coming: leapfrog ahead of the rest of the United States to join the world in its moment of celebrating New Nordic food.

If you hadn't noticed, New Nordic food is all the rage. For the past three years, Copenhagen's Noma restaurant has been recognized as the world's best restaurant on the esteemed San Pellegrino Acqua Panna list. Noma officially ended the reign of Spain, which had remade the dining world with restaurants such as El Bulli, which used new ideas about cooking to whip up something we now call molecular gastronomy, a way of cooking with pipettes, emulsions, dry ice, sous vide, and other whizz-bang tricks that meld dinner and a magic show.

But because there was that, there must be a next. And New Nordic is it. Fashion, in food, can be seen as the way that far-flung groups all tackle a common set of concerns, and culinary fashion tends to be written in sharp swings of the pendulum. In the early 1960s heavy French cream sauces ruled the land. This was followed by nouvelle cuisine and cuisine minceur, which substituted broths and lighter flavors for heavy, traditional foods. Next rose a wave of rustic, simpler, ingredient-driven cooking, typically either Italian or Italian-inspired and concerned with top-quality local ingredients; this was first called California cuisine and later grew into the locavore and nose-to-tail movement. Then came Spain and the extreme minimalist/maximalist boundary pushing of molecular gastronomy, in which foods were turned into spheres, gels, and smokes. That begat the rise of this next big thing: the primal New Nordic.

These restaurant trends can be tasted today in the Twin Cities. Meritage, in St. Paul, directly descended from the great French restaurants of New York; the chef there, Russell Klein, once worked at New York's epoch-defining La Caravelle. The California cuisine/locavore chefs are our founding mothers and father: Lucia Watson at Lucia's, Brenda Langton at Spoonriver, and Lenny Russo at Heartland. Molecular gastronomy is best seen in the one-upmanship—with actual flamethrowers—that goes on every week on the north side of town, between Travail in Robbinsdale and Victory 44 in north Minneapolis.

Eggy delight: spaetzle pyttipanna from The Bachelor Farmer.

And while it isn't true to say that Minneapolis's new Nordic spots are New Nordic, The Bachelor Farmer, Fika, and the forthcoming Union are thinking about New Nordic. The lodestars that kitchens orient themselves toward are significant because there is so much food in the world—Korean barbecue, Chicago pizza, cuisine minceur, Liberian home cooking, and on and on—and all of it is made with what is at hand. (Italian American cooking, for instance, is quite literally Italian history plus the post-World War II supermarket.)

The other most important thing to know about any restaurant is, of course, how the food tastes. At The Bachelor Farmer, the food is better than it has ever been as the restaurant comes into its own. The Sunday no-reservations brunches are particularly thrilling. The spare Swedish-blue dining room comes alive with the open light of the nearby Mississippi, and the frenzied social energy that often dominates the hard-to-get-into restaurant at night is replaced by a mellower vibe of pastry and coffee. That pastry comes right to the table, wheeled on a well-stacked cart, brioche here, buns there, brownies, the estimable work of pastry chef Krista Steinbach, one of the founders of Sweets Bakeshop, now working in a forthright, tender Nordic vein.

Brunch dishes such as rye spaetzle pyttipanna, a variation on breakfast hash, are splendid comforts, with smoked pork shoulder and a poached egg giving the nicely salty and toasty hash plush warmth. The smørrebrød open sandwiches are delicate assemblies on good bread, housemade gravlax prettily decorated with casually chopped eggs and capers, beets with paper-thin orange slices on a fluffy bed of fresh cheese combined into an earthy little song about spring.

The Sunday suppers are casual affairs, prix-fixe three-course meals for about $30. They can be very humble—roast broccoli for a starter and grilled sausage with brown beans for an entrée—leaving you the sense you're eating in a real Swedish farmhouse for dinner.

At Fika, the new restaurant in the greatly expanded American Swedish Institute, chef Michael Fitzgerald (a disciple of Doug Flicker from Piccolo and Steven Brown at Tilia) is cooking food that's very easy to fall in love with. Charred white asparagus heaped with smoked almonds, adorned with silky waves of housemade gravlax, the whole thing united with pine syrup. Each bite is dusky and fresh and alive, in the lightest, most charming possible way. Rough-hewn Swedish meatballs are pan-fried, served on buttery snowhills of potatoes, and decorated with parsley oil, a discreet swoosh of lingonberries, quick cucumber pickles, a delicate mustard sauce, and fresh chives.

Taking on Swedish meatballs in Minneapolis is like debuting pastrami in New York City: Who has the audacity? Even if you did, could you possibly be rewarded when everyone has a horse in the game, and that horse is often his or her very own dear grandmamma?

Fitzgerald has risen to the challenge beautifully, not perverting the simplicity of the dish, but doing it in such a way that every bite is new, and fresh, with subtle, well-made sauces, and yet still comforting and variously delicious. Fitzgerald, too, has a light way with open-face smørrebrød. A watermelon radish sandwich with smoked chevre, chervil, shallots, and an apple cider vinaigrette was a victorious crescendo in the power of the crisp and herbal tastes of late summer. A sandwich topped with a perfectly seared fillet of salmon arranged with a whole-grain mustard cream, roast beets, and leaves of arugula was the sort of simple, true food I could eat every day, forever, and be happy.

Even simple toss-off dishes, such as roast fingerling potatoes, were stunningly good. They were roasted till crisp on every edge, decorated with snowflake-sized crystals of fleur de sel, garlanded with hot-pink pickled onions, and set to rest amid a green sea of fresh dill sauce beside a red-rose corsage of smoked salmon roe: These are side potatoes for the king. (No word on whether King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden actually got any when they visited the Swedish Institute this fall for the dedication of the new Nelson Cultural Center.)

Desserts, like the best blueberry cobbler in memory and a rich bread pudding, make this as good a museum cafeteria as you can imagine—which is really the only quibble I have with the place. Food this good feels diminished by the institutional setting—a bright, white, clean, and light space that doesn't much invite lingering. But the times I got a table out on the plaza overlooking the old Turnblad Mansion part of the Swedish Institute were some of the happiest meals of my year.

Union, when it opens, should invite lingering: It will have a 115-seat rooftop with a giant retractable roof for year-round rooftop dining, cocktails by La Belle Vie cocktail guru Johnny Michaels, and food by chef Jim Christiansen, who took that taxi ride to Fäviken to see the bone sawing and also apprenticed at the current best restaurant in the world: Noma. While Union is going to be New American, and not New Nordic, Christiansen says that his time exploring the cutting edge in Scandinavia will certainly inform his cooking. "I'd never try Noma-esque food," he says. "But I hope that the Union has the energy and soul, the philosophy and attention to detail that Noma has, the openness to new ingredients and techniques." But what about the flavors served up at Noma and Fäviken? Will there be bone saws, marrow, and calf heart at Union? No, says Christiansen. "But there were flavors there I loved that you'll see at Union: celeriac, lemon verbena, sorrel, horseradish. I love those light flavors, and they work together to create an even larger lightness."

But if you are holding out for a restaurant to go to that primal, wild northern place that all the chefs are interested in, don't give up hope. Fundraising is underway right now to build Norway House, which will offer a large space for public events, galleries showcasing exhibits, and a restaurant, all of it adjacent to Mindekirken, the Lutheran church on East 21st Street near Chicago Avenue where they have been holding Norwegian-language services since 1922. As one wag in the community explained to me: "Well, now that the Swedes have theirs, the Norwegians have to build their own."

Once the Norwegians have theirs, will the Danes, Finns, and Icelanders build their own museums and restaurants here in Minneapolis? It could happen. If it does, we may become the destination for future chefs who decide to take their own Nordic food pilgrimages.


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