Fika blends tradition with finesse
Having spent my formative years in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul, I grew up knowing more Berits and Trygves than I did Britneys and Taylors. Most of my neighborhood friends came from families who were deeply, proudly Scandinavian, which made having dinner at their houses a vaguely familiar but mostly foreign experience. They served fish baked with lemon and dill sauce, taut-skinned boiled potatoes glazed with fresh butter, or finely textured, cardamom-scented sausages rolled up, burrito-style, in puffy lefse with a dollop of lingonberry jam or a smear of whole-grain mustard. Sleepovers with my Scandi pals introduced me to the very appealing concept of having rice pudding for breakfast and, on one occasion, the very unpleasant Nordic ritual of taking a morning dose of cod liver oil, which tastes exactly as awful as it sounds. Their birthday parties presented me with many opportunities to face my extreme distaste for marzipan, and later in life their Christmas parties taught me valuable lessons about the joys (and woes) of aquavit.
Thanks to my status as a native Minnesotan, my entree into the world of Scandinavian cuisine came early, but Michael Fitzgerald, executive chef at Fika, the casual cafe in the new Nelson Cultural Center at the American Swedish Institute, admits he wasn't exactly weaned on pepparkakor.
"I grew up in Texas," he says, surveying the lunch crowd at the modern, brightly lit restaurant he now runs. "So I ate a lot of barbecue and Mexican food. Definitely nothing like this."
Based on the precisely executed, beautifully presented dishes Fitzgerald is serving at Fika, you'd never know it. Seated at tables with markers bearing images of the Finnish flag, a sketch of Norway's coastline, and the faces of notable Swedes, the diners at Fika's lunch service are eagerly awaiting plates of Fitzgerald's silky house-cured salmon with fingerling potato salad; sweet and earthy beets with horseradish creme fraiche and hearty caraway croutons; and open-faced, smorgasbord-style sandwiches. Once the food arrives, the murmurs from the crowd are filled with "yum" noises and plenty of compliments. "I can never get him to try anything new," one mother says of her young son, "but he's really going to town on these meatballs."
So how did the Southern-raised Fitzgerald learn to cook this way? "I spent five years in [Doug] Flicker's kitchen," he says. "Anyone who has had that training and that experience with a chef like him should be able to figure it out." With stints at some of the Twin Cities' most celebrated restaurants, including Solera, Tilia, Sea Change, Barrio, and the sorely missed Auriga, where he worked under Flicker, Fitzgerald's pedigree is indeed impressive. But it doesn't hurt to have a museum full of employees of Nordic descent to consult with either, something he talked about when he was interviewed for a recent article in the New York Times about the Twin Cities' New Nordic food movement. When he was developing the menu for Fika, Fitzgerald said one of the things he couldn't seem to get right was the dense, multigrain rye bread he wanted to use as a base for a marinated skirt steak sandwich with Danish blue cheese. He told the Times that he eventually got the right product when another member of the kitchen staff brought in a bread starter made by a Finnish-American neighbor.
So eating at Fika is a truly community-fueled experience, which is fitting because fika (pronounced fee-kuh, an inversion of the Swedish word for coffee and used both as a noun and a verb) is still a strongly held, community-honored tradition in Scandinavia. I asked some of my seasoned traveler friends how one should describe the concept of fika to someone who has never experienced it. "The closest thing I can even think of would be siesta," one friend explained. "In Spain and other South American and Latin American countries, people take that midday break very seriously. So do the Swedes, but they make sure to always have coffee and a snack too."
Though a frosted roll is common at fika, snacks need not always be sweet, and Fitzgerald's menu reflects that. The gleaming deli cases that create a see-through barrier to the open kitchen contain slices of quiche, pastries, cardamom rolls, and lingonberry thumbprint cookies, but Fika's main menu showcases classic Scandinavian flavors, heightened by Fitzgerald's technique and finesse.
Though he tells me he originally intended to do about 20 dishes, that ended up being an overly ambitious plan for the size of the staff and the peak-and-valley influx of customers. "I'd like to do some terrines and a whitefish rillette that could both go in the deli case," he says. "But I'm still figuring out when to add new items." For now, he's working with about a dozen moderately sized, exquisitely dressed plates that can either be combined to create a full-blown, three-course meal (which is what we ended up doing when we went for dinner), or ordered individually as a pit-stop accompaniment to a cup of coffee or glass of wine before leaving the museum.
In true smorgas style, Fika offers a handful of knife-and-fork, open-faced sandwiches. There's a crisp and refreshing version decorated with thinly sliced, brilliant-hued watermelon radishes layered over smoked goat cheese and finished with a bright cider vinaigrette; a sumptuous (and very popular) chilled shrimp salad sandwich on pullman toast; and the seared salmon sandwich, in which all things Nordic come together on a piece of rye bread with the salmon, roasted beets, tarragon, and mustard.
If you're in the market for a fabulous light lunch, Fika serves wonderful examples of the viscous pureed soups that are so popular in Sweden. The options change daily, but our favorite was the luxurious cold beet soup with dill, cucumber, and creme fraiche that was absolute divinity. Rounding out the menu are a few salads, and some small plates that can be ordered as sides to your sandwich or mixed and matched to make your own tabletop buffet. If it's not already sold out for the day, be sure to order the side of smoked pork belly. The ingenious mingling of texture and flavor in this dish makes it a real standout. As you drag your fork through the middle of the plate, you get a small bit of creaminess from the poached egg yolk, a hit of bitterness from the wilted spinach, crunch from the smoked almonds and bits of crushed rye croutons, and decadent richness from the crispy pork belly.
There were two dramatic gasps that arose from our table as we enjoyed this lovely, complex dish. One, from my dining companion, who gasped excitedly when she spotted "an actual guy wearing an actual ABBA T-shirt," and one gasp from me as I exclaimed, "These croutons are just so ... buttery!" That's also a strongly held Scandinavian tradition: butter. Well, butter and cream, and nowhere is that more evident than on the juniper-spiced meatball plate, which comes with tart lingonberries, quick-pickled cucumbers, a creamy mustard sauce, and the dreamiest potato puree. "Michael's mashed potatoes are the hardest thing about working here," one server confesses. "If I let myself go on those, I'd get so, so fat. They're amazingly good."
As we're talking to her, there's a lull in the action and Fitzgerald comes out on the floor to bus tables. He's youthful, boyish even, but there's no mistaking the maturity of his talent. Seeing him ditch his usual post at the head of the kitchen to clear soup bowls and dirty silverware makes me think of the old theater adage, "There are no small parts, only small actors." In the restaurant business, too, there really are no small parts. But there are small potatoes, and the itty-bitty fingerlings Fitzgerald prepares with smoked salmon roe are very, very necessary.
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