A Baltic brunch to linger over
By Alex Baldinger
Friday, May 18, 2012
There's so much more to Nordic cuisine than the Swedish meatballs served, 15 to an order, in the cafeteria of a certain blue-and-yellow, do-it-yourself furniture store. But ask anyone with a Poang chair, and there's a good chance it's the first dish that comes to mind.
For more authentic fare from the region, Washington diners are lucky to have Domku, the neighborhood hangout that serves a sampling of delicacies from Eastern Europe and the Baltic region in a space that's about as far removed from the pre-fab, contemporary aesthetic of Ikea as Stockholm is from Domku's Petworth digs.
Chef-owner Kera Carpenter - who opened Domku in 2005, inspired by the years she spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland from 1991 to 1994 - calls the fare "Scandinavian-Slavic comfort food," with cured meats, hearty stews, dumplings and pickled fishes not found on many menus around town.
The proper way to enjoy a meal in Carpenter's dining room is slowly. Sip on a house-infused aquavit - a shot glass of vodka steeped with flavors as varied as the dining room's tables, chairs and couches that wouldn't look out of place in a parlor
or coffeehouse. A flight of three aquavits ($16) is the way to go if you're sharing, with the lingonberry, lemon/vanilla bean and caraway infusions offering a nice bridge from sweet to savory.
In 2007, the self-taught Carpenter took over as chef at Domku - which means "little house" or "cottage" in Polish - and she tinkers with the menu every six months or so. "In the winter, I do a lot more stew-y type of things, heavier foods, like the bigos, the goulash, the warming comfort foods. And I switch to more vegetables and fruits that are in season in spring and summer."
A more substantial recent change: small plates have replaced more substantial entrees on the dinner menu, so order with gusto; my party of three chose six items and had room for dessert. "I got feedback that people wanted to try more things, that the portions didn't really allow you to do that [before]," Carpenter said.
Start with the fried pickled herring ($8): two thin filets of fish that evince an almost-buttery richness while remaining flaky and light. The gravlax tartare ($8) is as attractive to look at as it is to taste, with flecks of fresh cured salmon formed into a loose patty around morsels of tomato and cucumber.
The pierogies ($8) come four to an order and are among the menu's most familiar offerings, stuffed with potato, bacon, onion and Polish curd cheese; the tender lamb skewers ($13) and coarsely ground kielbasa and sauerkraut ($10) burst with herbs; and don't skimp on the Brussels sprouts, tossed with garlic and pine nuts ($5).
Domku is open for lunch Friday through Sunday, when dubbelsmorgas, or sandwiches - spicy grilled cheese, shredded chicken and sauerkraut - make an appearance. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday, with familiar favorites given a Nordic twist: The salmon hash ($9) takes the venerable skillet scramble and adds carrots, onions, roe, dill and a hint of mustard-mayonnaise.
Sweet and savory pancakes ($12) are flecked with cinnamon apples and whipped cream or smoked gouda and kielbasa; the Swedish waffle ($7) batter is spiced with cardamom and then finished with lingonberry preserves.
There's a long way to go before the District's goulash-and-pierogi set eclipses the city's number of tapas bars, but the recent opening of Shaw's Bistro Bohem
suggests there could be more coming. "I'm surprised it's taken this long," said Carpenter, noting the popularity of New Nordic cuisine among foodies. (Noma, Danish chef Rene Redzepi's Copenhagen restaurant, has been named the world's best by Restaurant magazine each year since 2010.)
Back in Petworth, there's enough variety on Carpenter's menu to attract newcomers and regulars alike, whether it's to sit for a meal or have a rotating pint at the inviting, three-sided bar.
"There are days when I look out and I don't know anybody, and there are days when I look out and know everybody," Carpenter said. "I've been there long enough to see people start as singles, get married and have two kids."