Tasting North Country Heaven

Taste of Scandinavia

2232 Carter Ave., St. Paul; 645-9181

There's nothing like an iced cake to wipe the bitterness off of a dried, life-beaten face. Taste of Scandinavia, which I recently stumbled upon, stockpiles such niceties as if waiting for the end of the world--the Olde World, that is. Their homemade treats are so lovely to gaze upon that one more suspicious than myself might well ask, "Is this stuff safe to eat?" Innocent looking sweets are, at least in storybooks, usually laced with poison and spells, and are sometimes made out of little children. Fortunately, these delectable desserts are meatless, and the only misfortune that will befall you from spending too much time here is a thickening of the gut.

Taste of Scandinavia, dare I say it, is my new favorite place. Off the beaten path, unless you're a regular at the grounds around Como Park, TOS is an extremely good buy for the dollar, intimate without being cloying, and there are no formal servers involved (I've felt a little awkward with all those waiter/waited-upon formalities). The menu changes daily, with a few specials chalked up on the board, as well as the daily offerings of salads, sandwiches, and a vast array of bakery items. My friend and I climbed into line, watching as the lady behind the counter nervously gauged the queue. Within seconds, she sprang out front with a basket of bread--fresh, plush slices of wild rice and onion cheddar. "I'm sorry about the wait, that's just terrible! Please pass this basket along the line so you don't get hungry while you wait." Everyone waiting seemed amused by this, probably because one could tell that she was genuinely concerned. How strange. What did we do to deserve this?

All the time waiting in line hadn't been quite enough to decide on what we wanted, but this is a place where you will never have enough time to decide; you will always regret not getting something, and there will always be something left to try on your next visit. We had a giant bowl of vegetarian split pea soup ($3.95), a delicious blend spiked with fresh parsley, carrots, celery, and red pepper, served with a roll. It would have been a fine snack for two with our spiced cranberry cider ($1.25), but our eyes were dilated to mammoth proportions and we went back in line for a stab at the artichoke pie ($5.95) and vegetarian lasagna ($5.95).

If you get embarrassed by having imposing plates of food in front of you, be careful of what you order here. Artichoke pie sounds like a meal for the dainty, but here is interpreted as a many-layered construction so big that it falls off the plate. It's filled with halves of artichoke hearts, wads of fresh spinach, and roasted red pepper crammed between herbed foccaccia and baked with lots and lots of cheese. Indeed, I'd never seen so much cheese on one plate before the arrival of that lasagna we ordered. Rich as can be, studded with yellow zucchini, plum tomatoes, and black olives, it was almost too rich. Both dishes ended up supplying us (and well) with another meal at home. If you are in the mood for something lighter, the salads here looked wonderful in the case, fresh and sparkling with egg and sometimes tightly wound pieces of salami and turkey, garnished with fresh lemon and parsley.

Best of all are those damn cakes and sugared bits. A frosted petite four (a cheating one because they make them so big) is an almond bit of heaven, glazed with dark chocolate and trimmed with a white iced heart ($1.95). And then there are the raspberry sandwiches, two butter cookies dressed with raspberry jam and iced in pink, a cheap way to feel like French royalty for a moment ($.95).

If you want to take something home, there's a freezer full of frozen soup to go, including a hearty rabbit-bean soup (maybe not appropriate for Easter with the kids, but wonderful nonetheless, $5.95), the feathery peanut butter cookies ($.95 each), the fresh baked breads, the Norwegian milk buns, the imported jams from Finland and Norway. The choices are almost maddening. My only gripe with Taste of Scandinavia is that they close at 6 p.m. every day save Sunday, when they aren't open at all. A person working 9 to 5 doesn't get much of a crack at it. Then again, one could always quit working...

TABLEHOPPING

REV YOUR REVELRY: Even if you couldn't coax your checking account to buy you tickets to New Orleans or Nice, there's no need to completely forsake the spirit of carnival. Jax's Annual Mardi Gras Brunch, to be held Sunday, February 9, should provide ample opportunity for the wild-eyed reveler. For proper atmosphere, the place will be ballooning with, well, balloons in the Royal Mardi Gras Colors of purple (to symbolize justice), green (for faith), and gold (for power). Amidst these balloons will be the occasional shower of beads, trinkets, and doubloons, the kind usually thrown from Mardi Gras floats. And of course there will be ample victuals. Chef Jeff Garlie will be making sure that the tables are laden with peel-and-eat shrimp, oysters on the half shell, blackened redfish with New Orleans salsa, crawfish-and-pepper-stuffed pork loin served with harrisa sauce, and white chocolate banana bread pudding with Jack Daniels sauce, along with plenty of other things. There will be live music by the Minnesota Dixie Trio, with the first seating at 10 a.m. and the last at 2 p.m. $20.95 for adults, $8.95 for children 10 and under; reservations for this event are strongly recommended. Find Jax at 1928 University Ave. NE., Mpls.; 789-7297.

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