Every so often one stumbles upon a culinary gem in the most unexpected place, as happened to me recently on a visit to the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.
Even without the restaurant, a visit to the institute would be worth a side trip if you’re in the Twin Cities area. The institute encompasses the 1908 Turnblad mansion with its marvelous carved wood, carved stone, ornate plaster moldings, stained glass and eleven porcelain tile stoves, and a connecting building housing the Nelson Cultural Center (a modern museum with rotating exhibits), a gift shop and a cafeteria-style restaurant called FIKA.
The word fika (pronounced fee´ka) means “coffee break” in Swedish, a time not only for coffee and a snack, but a time to visit with friends and family.
The cafe serves traditional dishes presented in a modern, refined style that belies the cafeteria atmosphere. I had the salmon with beet purée and watercress and a tarragon and sweet mustard sauce. Others in our party had the Pork Belly with smoked tomato aioli & rye crisp; Salt Cod and potato fritter with bacon, tomato and preserved lemon; Smoked Brisket with lingonberry and red cabbage; and juniper-spiced Swedish Meatballs with potato purée and cucumber, on a lingonberry & mustard coulis. The menu includes the chef’s suggested wine or beer pairing, which in my case was a Fritz Allendorf Pinot Noir that worked just perfectly.
The Le Cordon Bleu trained Executive Chef, John Krattenmaker, was a line-cook at FIKA when it first opened in June 2012. He left to work at the Guthrie Theater’s award-winning restaurant, Sea Change, under Jamie Malone, and returned to FIKA as Executive Chef in August, 2014.
Like any self-respecting chef these days, Krattenmaker uses as many fresh local ingredients as are seasonally available, so the menu varies during the year, while remaining faithful to the dishes traditionally served during fika, which can include pastry, smorgasbord and other savories. It’s not unlike the English custom of an afternoon tea break.
FIKA was originally projected to serve just 35 lunches a day in a third of the space it currently occupies, but its popularity has necessitated an expansion to accommodate 300 covers a day.
Krattenmaker is refreshingly humble about his vocation. “I enjoyed working in kitchens more than I ever had goals of becoming a chef. It wasn’t until I had quit restaurants and was working for a bank and lost my job that I really decided that cooking would be what I wanted to pursue. Out of all the jobs I have had in my life cooking is definitely the only one I enjoy.
“I learned most of what I know about Swedish cuisine by talking to the people around me at ASI. Reading Swedish cookbooks has also showed me things that influence Nordic cuisine. My interpretation of Swedish cooking comes from trying to use the ingredients and techniques that are traditional and put my spin on it.”
It’s a spin that will draw me back on my next visit to Minneapolis.
Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday: 8:30am – 5pm
Wednesday: 8:30am – 8pm
Sunday: 11am – 5pm
2600 Park Avenue | Minneapolis, MN 55407 | (612) 871-4907
Photos courtesy of FIKA at the American Swedish Institute, except where noted.