Is America ready for the sea buckthorn? You know: the tiny, tart, yellow-orange berry that’s one of the trendy ingredients of the cutting-edge New Nordic cuisine. Never heard of it? At the new Great Northern Food Hall in New York’s Grand Central Terminal, they put sea buckthorns in tarts, muffins, smoothies and cocktails. Do yourself a favor and try sea buckthorn.
“What’s a sea buckthorn?” asks the woman ahead of me in line at the hall’s bakery pavilion, pointing to a sea buckthorn tart behind the glass, a tad impatiently. She has two small children in tow.
“Well,” says the young man behind the counter, “they grow wild near the sea in Scandinavia, and so that’s obviously where they get their name from. And they taste exotic, like a pineapple or a litchi. But they’re tart.”
“What’s a litchi?” the woman asks. Then she quickly orders a cinnamon bun — which at the Great Northern Food Hall is called, in Danish, a kanelsnurre.
Okay, so maybe America is more ready for smorrebrod. Never heard of it? It’s the classic Danish open-faced sandwich, with beautiful, fresh ingredients artfully layered on buttered rye bread. In the Great Northern Food Hall’s smorrebrod pavilion, they have translated the name to “open rye.” These smorrebrod are a bit fancier than the traditional lunch of a Danish worker: Alongside the classic pickled herring with dill cream and radish, there are options such as pork belly, seaweed, beetroot, pork cracklings, chicken liver mousse, and rhubarb compote with chervil.
Behind me in line, a middle-aged man looks at the smorrebrod case and says in a heavy Brooklyn accent to the teenager with him: “Six dollars, and they only give you half a sandwich? Where’s the other half?”
A dozen years ago, the New Nordic movement took the culinary world by storm. From its base in Copenhagen, the movement’s manifesto was signed by 12 avant-garde Scandinavian chefs and called for “purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics.” One of its big ideas was to force creativity by setting limitations. A true New Nordic chef would use only seasonal ingredients from the frigid north: no small task when you consider that this means no olive oil, no lemons, no tomatoes, no pasta. Traditional Scandinavian techniques such as pickling, smoking, curing and fermenting were prized, as were ingredients such as root vegetables and under-ripe fruit, and a focus on veggies and fish over meat. And then there’s the whole foraging thing, where chefs go out in the country to gather wild herbs and greens (previously known as “weeds”) and put them on the menu.
At New Nordic restaurants such as the groundbreaking Noma (named “best restaurant in the world” numerous times), you would be served courses such as fried moss, pickled quail eggs served over hay, carrots that had been left in the ground to age and were then slow-roasted like meat, caramelized cauliflower served with evergreen branches, or a live, wriggling shrimp. Noma’s legendary chef, René Redzepi, has said he will close and retool Noma at the end of this year. But over the past decade, Noma and the New Nordic philosophy have influenced gastronomy around the world in a way that is still rather astounding.
That influence, outside Scandinavia, has mostly been in high-end restaurants. Enter Claus Meyer, the man who wrote the manifesto and was co-founder of Noma, who now brings the New Nordic philosophy to the United States. In April, Meyer opened a formal 100-seat restaurant, Agern, in Grand Central Terminal, with Icelander Gunnar Gislason as executive chef. Even more ambitious, on June 25 he officially opened the 5,000-square-foot Great Northern Food Hall right next door, under the grand gold-plated chandeliers in the refurbished Vanderbilt Hall.
With a focus on fast-casual, food-court-style eating for a bustling commuter clientele, the hall is a decidedly different proposition from Meyer’s other higher-end ventures. It’s spread over five pavilions, each with its own focus: coffee and pastries; salads and smoothies, “Nordic flatbreads” and hot sandwiches; beer and porridge; and the smorrebrod, as well as a bar and an adjacent shop and counter selling Danish-style hot dogs (think crispy shallots and pickled turnips as garnish).
It’s also a big bet by Meyer, who consolidated and sold off a number of his business interests in Denmark to sign a 10-year, multimillion-dollar lease. Couple that with opening a coffee roaster and bakery, launching a nonprofit culinary school and publishing a new cookbook, “The Nordic Kitchen,” in English, and it’s pretty clear Meyer is all in on his quest to spread the New Nordic to an American audience.
“I want to become part of the fabric of the city,” Meyer said. “I don’t want people to come in and say, ‘What is this strange Scandinavian place?’ I want it to be accessible. We don’t want to run around with Danish flags or Viking helmets.”
I met with Meyer at the bar at Agern few weeks before the food hall opened and posed the obvious question: Why?
“I thought, ‘How would the New Nordic cuisine translate to another country? How would it look in New York?’ ” he told me. “Besides, I’ve been working for 30 years to improve the Danish food culture. I created the best restaurant. What else could I do in Denmark?”
Meyer remembers well his home country’s “very unhealthy food scene” that existed before its embrace of the New Nordic. “Denmark was a food desert, well into the 1990s. But we had a vision that we would take a food desert and make it one of the great cuisines of the world,” he said. “Our vision was that maybe one day the Nordic cuisines could be as great as the French.”
One could make the argument that that has happened. You’ll certainly find chefs all over New York and Washington and in other American cities who have been influenced by New Nordic (and plenty of them have even apprenticed at Noma). One of the greatest signifiers of the movement has been the radical change in the way chefs and diners perceive and use vegetables. It’s not that New Nordic is a meat-free cuisine, but the meat is often a complementary component, not the main player. Vegetables take center stage. “We didn’t believe in the emphasis on meat. If a dish is 90 percent meat, it’s not a very interesting conversation,” Meyer said. “At the same time, vegetarianism wasn’t associated with fine dining, or joy.”
New Nordic chefs changed that discussion by experimenting wildly with vegetable preparation: slow-roasting, braising, dehydrating, powdering, aging, pickling and more. “People had done so much research into how to cook a burger or a steak or a lobster. But no one had really researched how to cook a cabbage,” Meyer said.
The centrality of vegetables is on full display at the Great Northern Food Hall: rye flatbreads topped with cauliflower, aged Havgus cheese and dandelion pesto, or layered with three types of onions, goat cheese and chives; smorrebrod with green potatoes, pickled onions and dill; smoothies with beet, horseradish and apple.
Frankly, for me, most of the food was pretty outstanding, though that might be because I enjoy the familiar, subtle flavors and remember my own Scandinavian travels. Many of the people passing through Grand Central probably know little or nothing about Nordic cooking or culture. (I heard, in fact, at least three customers refer to the place as “Dutch.”)
In the end, the great challenge for the Great Northern Food Hall might be that the food will have to stand on its own as fast-casual fare, largely unhinged from high-minded manifestos and the gastronomic intellectualism of Noma and the New Nordic philosophy. It’s a chance to see whether the hallowed New Nordic principles work outside the realm of expensive restaurants. Can Meyer’s food hall compete with, say, the always-thronged Shake Shake on Grand Central’s lower concourse?
I watch a young hipster couple wander around the pavilions for a few minutes, before stopping at the Open Rye counter. As they stare at the smorrebrod, the woman asks her companion, “Sooo, what are these supposed to be?”
He pauses for a moment and says slowly, “It’s not entirely clear. . . .”
“Maybe we should just get something at the bakery,” she suggests, and they order a pastry.
In Denmark, these are called “Wienerbrod” or “Vienna bread.” But this couple, like most Americans, know them as something familiar: Danish.
The Great Northern Food Hall in New York’s Grand Central Terminal is open Mondays through Fridays 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. greatnorthernfood.com. Wilson is author of the new Kindle Single “Spaghetti on the Wall.” He will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.