Nordic Dining in NYC

Julie Besonen

Watch out: Vikings are conquering our boroughs—but be hungry, not afraid. Welcome to the New Nordic food invasion. The cuisine rose to worldwide attention in 2010 when Denmark's Noma grabbed the number one crown from Spain's El Bulli in ratings by Britain's Restaurant magazine, and it quickly gained traction in NYC. Noma's cofounder, Mads Refslund, is executive chef at NoHo's stellar Acme, where the crowd seems to dress as though it's Fashion Week year-round. Back in 1987, the noble Aquavit laid the groundwork and still feels as modern as ever today thanks to its young Swedish chef, Marcus Jernmark. Further putting Scandinavia on the map, Fredrik Berselius's Aska is the only New York City eatery to make Bon Appétit's 2013 list of the top 10 new restaurants in America. And now, the City's first ever Nordic Food Festival is coming, taking place October 2–7. To become more versed in this hyperlocal, hyperseasonal movement, read on.

Pork belly. Photo: Signe Birck

13 Laight St., 212-925-1313, TriBeCa, Manhattan
Aamanns-Copenhagen gives you a good sense of the contemporary mind-set of the Danes: the all-white, high-ceilinged design is clean and functional; and the food is scrupulously sourced and prepared with a nimble eye for color and flavor. Chef Adam Aamann is a noted Danish cookbook author and a maestro of smørrebrød, malty, dark rye bread topped with various options including meat, cured white fish, herbaceous chicken salad or baby boiled potatoes with smoked mayonnaise, radish and chives. A seasonal Nordic dinner here might include butter-fried hake with parsley and preserved lemon, slow-cooked pork belly with summer vegetables and pickled ramps and otherworldly carrot emulsion with crystallized white chocolate, sea buckthorn, house-made yogurt and fresh chervil. While the TriBeCa restaurant demonstrates a rigorous respect for Danish tradition, the adventurous food, cocktails, boutique wines and microbrews are thoroughly forward-thinking.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

182 Allen St., 646-350-3973, Lower East Side, Manhattan
186 Fifth Ave., 347-384-2028, and 240 Seventh Ave., 347-335-0767, Park Slope, Brooklyn
167 N. 7th St., 347-529-4803, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Some cultures bond over beer or cricket, but the Swedes seem to value coffee breaks over all else, preferably paired with a sweet pastry, cookie or chocolate ball. Branches of Konditori, specializing in medium-roast, Swedish-style coffee and confections, have quickly proliferated from Brooklyn to Manhattan's Lower East Side. The latter, shoebox-size locale is patronized by locals bearing laptops (free WiFi) and Thompson LES Hotel guests popping in to remedy their jet lag. Be advised that the sublime baked goods are freshest and most available from 6:30 to 9:30am or so. After that, their fluffy, moist, browned and crusty zucchini-carrot muffins are sold out. Blueberry-banana and cranberry-Sunkist are good consolation prizes.

Fika (FEE-ka), its name a rough translation of "coffee break," is another Swedish chainlet with several locations throughout Manhattan. While coffee is available for on-the-go drinking, the Swedish way is to put your life on pause, take a seat and enjoy the clean richness and caffeine kick over conversation. The branch at 41 W. 58th St. is a favorite. The streamlined espresso bar, convenient to Central Park, sells chewy, caramel-like mini brownies and sugar cookies with almonds that go perfectly with a bracing, frothy macchiato.

Roasted carrots and beets at Luksus. Photo: Signe Birck

615 Manhattan Ave., 718-389-6034, Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Tørst came first, a lovingly crafted beer emporium whose intricate woodwork is so artful that any embellishment would mar it. Behind the white marble bar is a lineup of 21 taps dispensing microbrews from around the world; there's also a lengthy list of cans and bottles ranging from $5 (Denmark's Evil Twin Bikini Beer) to $40 (Michigan's Whaleback White; 25.4 oz). Some might argue it's the premier craft beer bar in the world. It also serves an abbreviated menu: charcuterie, cheese, olives, pickles, rye bread. Earlier this summer, the back room opened to reveal Luksus (Danish for "luxury"), a 26-seat, wildly ambitious New Nordic restaurant. Now the vision is complete for partners Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, the brewer behind Evil Twin, and Daniel Burns, a pastry chef alumnus of Noma and former head of Momofuku's test kitchen. Burns' oft-changing tasting menu is $75, plus another $45 for beer pairings. Examples include radish with razor clamand cucumber, and lamb with sunchokes, burnt hay and tongue.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Nordic Preserves, Fish & Wildlife at Essex Street Market
120 Essex St., 646-450-4544, Lower East Side, Manhattan
A stuffed caribou head keeps watch over a cornucopia of Scandinavian specialties at this incredibly organized, compact stall next to Heritage Meat Shop in the Essex Street Market. It cropped up at the tail end of 2012, just in time to supply holiday parties with pristine gravlax, Swedish meatballs, duck liver mousse and cloudberry cake. Daily snacking options include bagels with smoked salmon that rival Russ & Daughters’, flaky pastry filled with salmon pastrami, and lingonberry fudge. Those with more esoteric tastes will be delighted to find smoked eel, potted game, falukorv (traditional Swedish sausage) and sardine quiche. Co-owner Annika Sundvik has longtime Lower East Side roots from previous ventures White Slab Palace and Good World Bar & Grill.

Boudin blanc. Photo: Alexander Thompson

37 Canal St., 212-777-7518, Lower East Side, Manhattan
The former Les Enfants Terribles is now Skál, pronounced "scowl," which means "cheers" in Icelandic. The restaurant has an active bar scene and an indoor/outdoor design that makes it feel like a Nordic country cottage. Bespoke cocktails have names like Ugla, Hofi and Luftgitar, the last of these fragrant with spicy Rittenhouse Rye and cardamom nectar. The foreign intrigue of the place has made it an instant hit with a young crowd, some of whom are sleeved in tattoos, others still buttoned into their Wall Street gear at midnight. Duck wings are mandatory: the meaty drumsticks are as smoky as barbecue, the flesh yielding easily from the bone. The five wings are paired with a briny, complex, plush purée of red seaweed and mussels as black as squid ink. Everything on the menu has a captivating twist, from hake with verbena to lamb saddle with currants and bottarga. The wine list is replete with natural and biodynamic choices.

Gravlax. Courtesy, Smörgås Chef

Smörgås Chef
283 W. 12th St., 212-243-7073, West Village, Manhattan
53 Stone St., 212-422-3500, Financial District, Manhattan
58 Park Ave., 212-847-9745, Murray Hill, Manhattan

A few years ago Norwegian Morten Sohlberg and his wife, Min Ye, bought a Catskills farm, Blenheim Hill, to supply heritage meats, free-range chicken, heirloom tomatoes and a bonanza of seasonal produce to their trio of Scandinavian restaurants in Manhattan. Both the cozy Wall Street and West Village locations of the farm-to-table operation are on pretty, cobblestoned blocks; the third is at the base of Scandinavia House, the country's leading center for Nordic arts and culture. The menus at all three are similar and cover the classics: Swedish meatballs sweetened with lingonberries, herring in cream sauce, cured gravlax, and a wonderful smorgasbord that gathers two of everything, just like Noah's Ark, and also includes a hot little skillet of irresistible matchstick potatoes capped with cheese.