Does the New Nordic Kitchen Live Up to the Hype?

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If you belong to the coveted “photographs one’s meals without shame” marketing demographic, as I do, you will likely have heard the buzz about the modern Nordic kitchen.

For two years in a row, Copenhagen’s Noma has taken top honors in San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World survey, supplanting fabled former winners like Ferran Adrià’s el bulli and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. Breathless praise for Noma chef René Redzepi, an imaginative 32-year old with an unparalleled commitment to local sourcing, has echoed across the culinary landscape.

But the echo was about as close as most Americans could get to fine Nordic cuisine until last week, when Nordic Food Days descended on Washington, D.C.  Sponsored by the embassies of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden under the banner of Nordic Innovation, the weeklong tour brought leading chefs Mads Refslund (DEN), Petteri Luoto (FIN), Siggi Hall (ICL), Geir Skeie (NOR), and Tommy Myllymaki (SWE) together for events highlighting the vision, ingredients and techniques that make up this unique cuisine.

Refslund was on the founding team at Noma before moving on to open his own restaurant and start a farm. Luoto was a gold medalist at the 2005 Bocuse d’Or, the Olympics of the culinary world. Hall was named an Ambassador for New Nordic Food by the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2006. Skeie led the Norwegian team to a Bocuse d’Or gold medal at the age of 28. Myllymaki is also a Bocuse veteran who was Sweden’s chef of the year in 2007. The resumes speak for themselves. I did not taste one disappointing ounce of food during four Nordic eating experiences over the course of the week.

Nordic Food Days kicked off with a splashy opening party at the Swedish Embassy, an architectural and aesthetic marvel on the Potomac River that serves as one of DC’s best private party spots. The capital’s food cognoscenti (David Hagedorn, Nycci Nellis, Lauren DeSantis), culture patrons (Philippa Hughes, Drew Mitchell, Bill Fischer), and open-mouthed freeloaders (me) joined Nordic diplomats for a tasting of small plates that included Luoto’s deeply flavorful smoked salmon tartar and rye cracker, Nordic oysters with delicate microherbs, and Myllymaki’s light and delicious raw cod with quail egg yolk and brown butter zabayon. Oh, and Refslund’s beer porridge, which I’ll come back to. I’d be crazy if I didn’t. 

The chefs were also given a chance to talk about the inspiration behind Nordic cooking, and they did justice to LA food writer Jonathan Gold’s recent characterization of Nordic cuisine sitting at the “nexus” of the three major current food movements: the “ecologically grounded localism of the foragers; the Rabelaisian excesses of the nose-to-tail crowd; and the exotic technologies of the Modernists, for whom the kitchen and the laboratory are one.” One after another, they pushed freshness of ingredients, local sourcing, and Nordic fish in a heavily accented game of telephone. But what struck me most was the discomfort that some of them telegraphed about being lumped into this “modern” category. These are chefs who, in most cases, make beautifully simple food that speaks more to their ancestors’ pickling, salting, and foraging customs, as well as the bounty of Nordic nature, than the gastrobotic excesses of Nathan Myrhvold’s Modernist Cuisine.

These themes shone through as each chef spent the rest of the week doing a residency at a local D.C. restaurant (see the rundown here). I was lucky enough to enjoy two residency tasting menus, the first by Finland’s Luoto at Marcel’s, Robert Wiedmayer’s D.C. fine-dining institution. My company for the meal included Finnish Cultural Counselor Anneli Halonen, Philippa Hughes of the Pink Line Project, and Jackie Ionita of Hamiltonian Gallery (full disclosure: Jackie is the saintly fiancée I’ve mentioned in so many articles about cured meats hanging from the ceiling of our house and pig carcasses being butchered in our little kitchen).

Over drinks, Halonen talked to us about the food customs of Finland, a country the size of Minnesota with five million people and nearly 200,000 lakes. Over and over again, she returned to the term “clean nature” to describe the pristine fish, berries, and produce found in Finland and other Nordic countries. She described a culture in which appreciation of food is taught from home kitchens to school lunchrooms, and like the visiting chefs, she did not shy away from talking about traditional dishes like the much-ridiculed pickled herring. She also spoke at length about an ethos of giving back through food at the Finnish Embassy in Washington, which has a long-term partnership with D.C. homeless outreach program Miriam’s Kitchen. But we all fell into a polite silence as the waiter crept towards our table with the first of five dishes.

 

Amuse bouche of smoked cauliflower foam, watercress oil, shrimp, and whitefish roe.

 

Scampi and sweetbread, parsley purée, smoked quail egg, marinated tomato concasse, rye bread sticks.

 

Roasted halibut, barley risotto, wild asparagus, black mushroom purée, sorrel, salvia.

 

Filet of veal, potato purée seasoned with lemon zest, brown butter and horseradish, and glazed beetroot, mushroom fricassée, rosemary, and lingonberry sauce.

 

Rhubarb cannelloni, white mascarpone cream with lavender and orange flower water, oak cookies, strawberry jus.

The meal was a delight from start to finish, particularly the halibut dish with its amazing, earthy black mushroom puree, and the veal, which the anti-veal zealot, Jackie, tasted and called “amazing.” Luoto was justifiably proud of his work when we spoke to him near the end of service. Still, after putting a rich and decadent meal on the white table cloths in front of us, he told us all he wanted out of DC was a good cheeseburger (we pointed him to Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Va.) and said his favorite comfort meal in Finland is “Jansson’s Temptation,” a casserole of potatoes, onions, sweet anchovies, and cream. The American equivalent? I’d guess chili cheese fries at Ben’s Chili Bowl in D.C. At three in the morning. After many whiskies.

If this was haute Nordic cuisine, the kind of thing you might actually find on a Finnish Bocuse d’Or presentation plate, then my next Nordic Food Days meal was a different thing entirely. After exercising my capacity for polite coercion, I wound up with an invite to Birch and Barley, where Danish chef Mads Refslund, perhaps the most anticipated of the Nordic visitors because of his ties to Noma, was serving a tasting menu with chef Kyle Bailey, who just this week won the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s “Rising Culinary Star” award.

Birch and Barley, a Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG) outpost that has made waves almost since the day it opened in 2009, may have been the perfect venue for Refslund, who seemed at ease watching over a horde of staff bent over methodically plated dishes in the restaurant’s open kitchen. He and his DC counterpart sat together for an interview, playing off each other like old acquaintances. Bailey was clearly somewhat in awe of Refslund after a week of working together. After our discussion and my meal, I was too.  

Refslund had a simple answer when I asked him to explain the modern Nordic kitchen: “It’s a new language we are speaking. It is about being proud of who you are and using the things that are around you. We go out and smell and taste ourselves. We are not afraid of doing these things.”

Listen to the full interview.

He spoke of that mix of old and new, and his answers didn’t need much elaboration. Before long, I was sitting for the first course.

 

There is something enchanting about watching a tasting menu being made in front of your very eyes, particularly when the placement of every single element is meaningful and methodical. The first course featured small cylinders of grilled watermelon topped with luscious pieces of raw mackerel, the empty space on the rest of the plate filled with tart heirloom tomatoes, pistachios, and grilled lemon drizzle. Delicate fennel fronds and capers rounded out the dish. The mackerel was outstanding, and the overall balance of sweet and sour flavors made for a lively first course.

 

The next dish, however, was just insanely good. In the middle of a plate, a layer of raw langoustine was topped with thin curls of raw foie gras, chickweed, wild sorrel, and white walnuts. Lemon and flaky sea salt were served as accompaniments. The textural contrasts alone would’ve made the dish a keeper, but the clean sea flavor of the langoustine, the caramel richness of the foie gras, the light touch of foraged herbs, the crunchy walnuts, the salt, the lemon all played off of each other beautifully.

It was hard to be impressed by the rest of the menu after that singular accomplishment, but the remaining dishes were well executed and wonderful, for the most part. Large pieces of Maine lobster and burnt cippolini onions flecked with pungent garlic scapes and Parmesan foam. Yellow beets, burnt purposefully black on the outside after a five-hour roast and topped with salted lardo and rosemary.  Succulent sautéed rockfish with spinach purée and salty brown butter. Funky raw cow’s milk cheese shaped into flowers and served with pickled blueberries and honeyed walnuts. And the beer porridge. Old rye bread softened with beer and then submerged under white chocolate foam and salted milk ice cream. This must be the breakfast that fuels grizzled fishermen as they hunker down against wild North Sea winds. It was out of this world and completely unique to my palate.

 

I’ll remember that meal for a long time, but a story Refslund told beforehand made it all the more amazing. The chef had been stopped in customs on the way from Denmark and his entire stash of native ingredients — those touches that would seem to make modern Nordic cuisine what it is — were confiscated. Unbowed, Refslund and Baileys set out to execute the Danish chef's menu with local ingredients. They visited Arcadia Farm and Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, a NRG-funded program, where Refslund and his chefs went off the beaten path to find edible greens and herbs like wild sorrel that Bailey admitted he'd only stomped on before. They found top quality East Coast fish.

U.S customs, of all things, forced the Danish chef to follow his own rules. Using local ingredients and his own rooted-in-tradition vision and techniques, Refslund created something memorable. Perhaps “be proud of who you are” wasn’t enough to describe it. There was an element of “don’t be afraid of where you are” as well.

Birch and Barley broke its own record for tasting menus served the night I visited, at one point sending GM Eric Bergman on a wild chase for more fresh mackerel, which he found at Black Salt Fish Market. Watching Refslund filet those wonderful fish as I prepared to leave was just another reminder of how lucky I was to have experienced the modern Nordic kitchen.

To read more installments of Sam's Good Meats, search the author on the site or visit www.hypervocal.com/samsgoodmeats.