Lefse Hits The Big Time

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

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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