When he was preparing to open Mikko, the Nordic restaurant in Dupont Circle that bears his name, Finnish chef Mikko Kosonen figured that the herring would be a tough sell. Americans aren’t typically enthused about the strong-scented, oily little fish, and the traditional preparation, pickling, makes them even more of a hurdle to overcome. Washington is worldly. But is it ready for pickled fish on dense rye?
The answer, he’s pleased to report, is a resounding yes: Before the restaurant opened, “We got people walking past saying, ‘You are going to have a herring, right?’ ”
He has made some converts, too. “It’s just getting people to taste it,” he said. When they try his artfully arranged, open-faced herring sandwiches — topped with hard-boiled egg, tomato and fresh dill — they’re surprised by how much they like them.
Kosonen grew up east of Helsinki, but once he turned 12, he spent his summers in Stockholm working at his aunt and uncle’s restaurant, Cassi — still thriving and open for 64 years, he notes with pride. He also learned to bake from his grandmother, who taught him how to make cardamom buns and the rye bread that is eaten with most meals in Finland. After culinary school and a few other jobs abroad, he found his way to the Finnish Embassy in Washington, where he worked as a chef for 15 years. He left that job three years ago to focus on his catering business, which expanded, and he outgrew the incubator Union Kitchen. Mikko was born out of Kosonen’s desire to find a commercial catering space, and when he happened to find one in the heart of Dupont Circle, he realized a restaurant would do well there, too.
There is little competition. Nordic food has “been so hot in the last five years, and I always wondered, why is there nothing here?” he said. Domku, a Polish-Scandinavian restaurant in Petworth, closed two years ago. Beyond that, if locals wanted a taste of Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce, their best bet was the Ikea cafeteria. So, Kosonen’s menu represents the best of all the Nordic nations. He pickles his own herring, smokes his own salmon and bakes his own bread. Inside Mikko, you’ll find a glass case full of takeaway sandwiches and pastries, surrounded by packages of imported Scandi sweets as well as cookies and crisps made in the restaurant.
It’s that case that makes Mikko feel like more of a lunch or snack place, but Kosonen is trying to change that. The restaurant now serves small plates at night: A petite blini with roe and crème fraîche, a trio of smoked prawns in a creamy chive sauce, and a hearty fish soup with cod, salmon, potatoes, fresh dill and whole peppercorns are among the highlights. When he gets his liquor license, you’ll be able to throw back shots of aquavit and vodka, or the “fish soup,” a cucumber-and-juniper cocktail so named because it’s dill-forward, just like the entree.
But Mikko works just as well as a quick stop for morning or afternoon refreshment: Coffee and one of the aforementioned cardamom buns, fluffy with a touch of salt. Or a lingonberry juice with a gooey caramel tart, or a buttery Alexander cake, with icing in a shade of pink that will make you smile.
“I’m going to come back here every day,” a woman with a French bulldog announced as she approached the register on one of my visits.
You can’t miss the building: Kosonen painted it red, white and blue, not for his adopted homeland but for the colors of Nordic countries’ flags.
“We kind of lacked the yellow for the Swedish flag,” he said. “We got our outdoor furniture to make up for that.” There are 20 seats on the patio and 11 indoors, including along a chef’s counter. True to the Nordic ethos of spending as much time in the fresh air as possible, the cafe’s large front windows are frequently open — though, he acknowledges that the District’s summers are “so hot for Nordic people.” The interior of the restaurant nails the Nordic aesthetic popular on design blogs right now: pops of color, light wood and objects of interest, such as the whimsically printed trays.
Kosonen hopes to expand the cafe’s footprint over the next year, and also its menu. He’s looking forward to the fall and winter — fish soup weather — when he’ll be able to showcase more Nordic fare, including one particular Finnish delicacy that, like herring, he wonders how Americans will react to: reindeer stew.
“I’m calling all of my sources to see if I can get reindeer,” he said. “I haven’t had any luck.”
1636 R St. NW. 202-413-6419. chefmikko.com. Dishes, $9.50 to $13.25.