New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells reviewed Aska, a Scandinavian restaurant in Brooklyn, in the newspaper's Dining section this week. It's a positive review -- two stars -- but it's actually less important as a signpost toward one good restaurant than as a herald of changes in the way American diners think of Scandinavian food.
Until recently, in-the-know diners were dimly aware of a renaissance in the upscale dining scenes in Scandinavian cities, including Stockholm and Copenhagen. They had probably heard of Noma restaurant in Denmark and its famous chef Rene Redzepi, at least if they had a subscription to The New York Times or The New Yorker. Some especially devout gastronauts were perhaps also aware that Scandinavian techniques and methods had started to influence the way American cooks of other cuisines approached their own food. Of course, Americans didn't think of Scandinavian food at all five or 10 years ago, so even this was remarkable.
But many people in this last category had never tasted the new Scandinavian cuisine for themselves, at least if they didn't travel to the Baltic region, because there just weren't many Scandinavian restaurants around. And those that did open weren't necessarily successful. Vandaag in the East Village, for example, served Scandinavian-inflected Dutch food to glowing reviews, but small crowds, for less than two years before it closed in May.
But today, an increasing number of diners take Scandinavian cooking seriously as an option for Friday night dinner in their own backyards. There are now at least three successful Scandinavian restaurants in New York in addition to Aska: Aquavit in Midtown, Atera in Tribeca and Acme in NoHo. (I'm going to go ahead and chalk up to coincidence the fact that the names of all four start with the letter "A.") Meanwhile, San Francisco's Plaj has gotten plenty of press, and Minneapolis, which has a large Scandinavian American population, has apparently developed a thriving community of Nordic cuisine.
Still, Scandinavian cuisine is likely to remain a hard sell to many American diners. It's not rich like French, Italian or Southern food, and it's not spicy like Chinese, Thai or Indian. And many of its ingredients, especially fresh fish, are on the pricey side. Then again, the same could be said of Japanese food, which hasn't been considered exotic in parts of the U.S. since at least 1985.