Past the western shore, Nordic chefs set new goals in New York

NEW YORK – It’s rush hour at Grand Central Terminal. Tens of thousands of commuters are frantically rushing to their trains so they can get home and relax.

In the southeast corner of the building, just off the main concourse, a tattooed couple sits at a high blond wooden table picking at a smorrebrod, or open-face sandwich, piled with celeriac, apple, lemon, daikon and dehydrated herb powder. A mother unfurls a kanelsnurrer (something like a braided cinnamon bun) and tears it into small pieces for her child. Two men in suits eat porridge.

All this takes place against the 105-year-old station’s celebrated architecture – majestic marble walls rimmed with ornate filigree. The smell of fresh bread baking in a hulking oven in the basement is discernible. The sound of the traffic blaring outside on East 42nd Street is not. A calm that’s unfamiliar to me as a New Yorker takes hold.

Great Northern Food Hall is a food-court-style space with shiny tiled surfaces and warm wood accents in its various “pavilions”. It was opened in 2016 by Claus Meyer, the Danish chef, entrepreneur, and activist who is best known for pioneering the New Nordic Food movement with chef René Redzepi, who trailblazed the ethos at Noma, the renowned Denmark restaurant they co-founded.

The food hall, which is attached to a high-end Scandinavian dining sanctuary, the Michelin-starred Agern, features a bakery, a “grain bar” and a Danish hot-dog stall and more. It’s easily the most high-profile outpost for food inspired by the Nordic nations.

Many Scandinavian and Scandinavian-inspired chefs take their cues from the Manifesto for a New Nordic Cuisine, the defining text that Meyer penned with 11 other Nordic chefs. It lays out more philosophy than instruction. It’s thinking that’s rooted in landscape, be it local plants, wildlife, seasons or relationships with farmers and producers. It puts a premium on foraging, sustainability and mindful sourcing. And it has stirred much interest on these shores.

That doesn’t mean just restaurants, either. More and more brands of skyr, a high-protein, traditional Icelandic food similar to yogurt, have been appearing in supermarket. Skyr maker Icelandic Provisions launched here in 2016 and distinguishes itself by using actual cultures from Iceland. It’s proven so popular that sales grew 160 per cent in a year, according to Nielsen.

My interest piqued by the Sizzle Sesh, which gets its zip from Szechuan peppers, I hopped on the 7 train at Grand Central – which runs east to Flushing – to check it out. Thirty minutes later, I walked across Citi Field’s vast parking lot into a Scandinavian retreat.

Restaurant Norman, a restaurant-cafe hybrid that opened in Brooklyn last year, serves Scandinavian-inspired food and drinks

The space is sprawling and has all the hallmarks of classic Scandinavian design: blond wood tables with crisp edges, pops of colour against monochrome backgrounds, jaunty logos. Some are collaborations with other independent brewers. Most are limited editions.

The new Scandinavian outposts join some older ones: Aquavit, a handsome shrine to Swedish cooking that opened in 1987 and moved to a more refined location in Midtown Manhattan in 2005, remains a Michelin-starred destination. A once little-known chef named Marcus Samuelsson, who grew up in Sweden, manned the kitchen before going on to build his own culinary empire.

Under his watch, preparations were more austere than the current playful approach that is the signature of Emma Bengtsson, a Swede who became executive chef in 2014. The former pastry chef brings sweet accents to traditional dishes (see: Swedish meatballs with lingonberries and cream sauce), blending New Nordic ideas and vintage Viking brawn. The eponymous aquavit, a traditional Scandinavian schnapps largely flavoured with caraway and other bold, savoury flavours, is made in-house.

“I wanted to put Scandinavian food on the map. Americans were so fascinated by other cuisines,” Swedish owner Hakan Swahn told me, recounting how, 30 years ago, New Yorkers flocked to the new restaurant. Among habitués were “celebrities galore”, Swahn said, including former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and broadcaster Walter Cronkite.

What feels new for Scandinavian food, however, is its ubiquity, which keeps expanding. The first Ole & Steen in the United States, in Manhattan’s bustling Union Square, will open in early 2019. The Copenhagen-based bakery, which famously uses a 150-year-old starter in its sourdough, has 86 stores in Denmark and 10 in Britain.

On a recent chilly Tuesday evening, I made my way to Norman in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The airy bakery-cafe-restaurant is all white surfaces and natural light. I opted for a seat by the open kitchen. Dozens of hipsters hammered away on their MacBooks at communal tables on the other side of the room. I dug into a crusty, personal-size sourdough loaf served with clarified butter, a fine precursor to the delicately flavoured cured fluke with turnips and sorrel.

But those flavours were merely a primer for the next night’s visit to Aska, a Michelin-starred destination in Brooklyn under the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s owned and run by Fredrik Berselius, who grew up foraging and fishing in Sweden. The dining room, anchored by an open kitchen, is dark and theatrical. Many dishes are served on rustic wood bowls or boards. The food is refined yet user-friendly. And exquisite. Among the dishes I sampled was a stunning arrangement of vendace roe (a salmon relative) served with two types of roasted cabbage, a jam made with dulse, rhubarb root oil, and a sauce of fermented white asparagus juice and whey. – Text and Photo by The Washington Post