Word of Mouth

Here comes the rise of the Scandinavian restaurant

If this was a world in which the dining scene was scrutinized like professional sports, with gamblers placing bets on the what pastry will be the next cupcake, what technique will become the new foam or which chef is most likely to win a James Beard award, we'd head down to Vegas and put our own hard-earned cash on one sure thing: the indubitable rise of the Scandinavian restaurant.

Why are we so certain that we'll soon see menus inspired by lingonberries and ludefisk?

In part, there's something to be said for the pendulum effect. 2007-2009 brought us the golden age of swine, eaters displaying an insatiable appetite for smoked and cured pork, bacon gracing everything from pasta to chocolate to other cuts of pig. And during the recession, restaurateurs battened down the hatches with throwbacks to comfort food of yesteryear, pimping the hamburger and hearty stews and anything they could batter and fry, helping us all eat our remorseful feelings about the state of the economy--while charging us less to get us in the door by using cheaper ingredients. Now that we're all a few pounds heavier and saturated with fat, though, the time is ripe for something lighter.

That restaurants are responding to those shifting tastes is evident. Even meat freak Mario Batali has jumped on board with offering veggie entrees, joining a growing number of chefs on the Meatless Monday campaign, and a vaster population of restaurateurs sending out produce instead of protein. But whereas the meaty movement was helped along by the explosive popularity of restaurant genres like gastro fare and contemporary comfort food, it still remains to be seen what cuisine will solidify and influence the newer lighter wave. Farm-to-table is a fairly saturated market, and diners are looking for something new.

Given the recent upheaval staged by Copenhagen's Noma, which quietly ousted El Bulli from the number one spot on San Pellegrino's list of the top 50 restaurants in the world, widely considered to be the authority on great eateries, there's a good chance that influential cuisine will be Scandinavian.

"Times change, there's a shift in everything...there's a shift now into something more natural," Noma's chef, René Redzepi said of his ascent to the top in a recent interview with Charlie Rose. And just as restaurants everywhere drew inspiration from El Bulli's Ferran Adrià, so will they, too, from Redzepi.

In this country, despite the vast population of Northern Europeans hanging out in the upper Midwest, Scandinavian restaurants are limited in number, even in big cities. One might make the argument, then, that smoked fish and boiled potatoes hardly make for haute menu offerings. But there are a few chefs using the Baltic region to make a name for themselves, like Marcus Samuelsson of New York City's Aquavit, who just used his Swedish roots to win this season's Top Chef Masters. Incidentally, Samuelsson will be guest-cheffing at Frasca on Monday, bringing a taste of his restaurant to the Front Range.

It's only a matter of time before a band of restaurant owners decides it's time to fill this gaping hole. So consider this an open call, especially in the city of Denver, where no one has attempted to open a Scandinavian joint since the Tivoli Deer closed back in 2005. To be fair, before now, the timing hasn't been right. But with all of the restaurants slated to open this year, here's hoping that someone's thinking it might be the moment to try again.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk