- Griffin Swartzell
- Smørbrød’s menu features familiar ingredients, paired well, arranged simply and served at a reasonable price.
Because really, the ingredients on Smørbrød’s menu are largely familiar to the American palate. A smørbrød, or smørrebrød, is an open-faced sandwich made to be eaten with fork and knife. Everything’s set atop a super-thin slice of Danish-style rye bread, rugbrød, made at Lincoln Center neighbors Nightingale Bread, smeared with unsalted Danish butter. That’s a nod to medieval eating, our server tells us, when food would arrive not on a plate but on a trencher, a flat slice of stale bread. Fats and sauces would soak into the bread, which diners would eat or offer to the poor as alms. Adding a layer of animal fat keeps the bread from getting soggy — great for a lunch to go — and from that comes Smørbrød. Each served here is petite enough that we’d call 1½ smørbrød a satisfying meal, but they range from $7 to $10 each, so the price isn’t too bad.
The space of mostly light wood features feels clean and inviting. There’s a big garage door-style window hosting counter-style seating that looks out onto patio dining space, achieving an overall breezy feel. Service tends to be quick and attentive, too.
We start with a more eclectic option: the Vänern, named for Sweden’s biggest lake, a smørbrød piled with pickled herring, red onion, lemon aioli, radish and dill. The fish’s texture is a compromise between the tooth of sushi and the tenderness of cooked fish, almost citric in its slight tartness, upped by the lemon. It’s not fishy, either. Rather, with refreshing onion and radish, this plate’s inviting and refreshing.
Location Details Smørbrød
Try also the house beet-cured salmon, which we enjoy on the Helsinki, where it’s served with crab salad (lump crab meat tossed with mayo, celery and spices), poached and chilled shrimp, cucumber and watercress, with tiny red caviar for extra sea-like saltiness. The fish picks up the beets’ earthiness, but not the sweetness, so it’s a nice counterpoint to a pleasant mix of chilled seafood. The Oslo does something similar, pairing the strong tastes of smoked salmon and pickled mustard seed with cool and refreshing chive crème fraîche, dill and cucumber. And for fans of tuna salad, the Rekjavik sees two scoops of crab salad and a scoop of avocado spread paired with lemon aioli and raw red onions. We’ve had it under-salted on previous visits, but this time, it’s just right.
Of course, the menu’s not all seafood. The Gothenburg’s piled with a mild smoked pork sausage, Jarlsberg cheese, more pickled mustard seed and finished with watercress, cumin and clove. It’s warm and friendly, with the creamy cheese adding a little brightness. Vegetarians can enjoy dishes like the Børsa, a simple but satisfying dish of cooked and chilled baby potatoes, horseradish spread, tomatoes and watercress with pickled grapes, a delicious seasonal addition, for acidic bite. Odd? Maybe, but it’s satisfying and, when there’s booze in order, a perfect combo (more on that below).
Getting away from bread, they offer a few other plates. Kjøttkaker, Norwegian-style pork-beef-veal meatballs, come richly spiced — the pop from nutmeg, ginger, allspice and clove stands out in particular — in a rich, creamy dill gravy with a little lingonberry jam for bright acidity. These balls are truly ballin’. And no less excellent, the seafood soup we praised at a preview dinner still delights, a simple curry-cream broth with crab meat, shrimp and chive crème fraîche garnish. It’s light enough for summer and rich enough for winter, one of the best damn soups we’ve had in a long time.
There’s no falling off at dessert, either — the kladdkaka, a Swedish gooey chocolate cake served with hazelnuts and whipped cream, is drier than we’ve had it here before but still richer than most brownies in execution. And if dinner wasn’t enough smørbrød, try the Copenhagen, spread with Danish blue and sweetened cream cheeses, then topped with hazelnuts and fresh fruit — Anjou pear, when we visit. It’s a decadent mix of sweet, pungent and refreshing. If you doubt it’s dessert, get it for dinner, but whatever you do, don’t miss it.
For booze, we’re most satisfied with wine and spirits rather than cocktails, a surprise. All but one wine on the menu’s from Germany and parts north, but it’s the South African Nederburg Chenin Blanc we pick, as we’re told it pairs with everything, which it does, beautifully. Skip the glass and get the bottle — $28, frequently halved on cheap bottle nights — as a little oxidation amps the acidity up from balanced lactic butteriness into unpleasant territory.
We try a lingonberry mojito, the talk of social media, and find it... fine? It’s a good mojito, but the lingonberry flavor sits at the bottom, and with no straw in a Mason jar mug, it’s wasted. There’s better glassware decisions on the BLT (bourbon, limoncello, tonic), served in a double-walled rocks glass to keep it extra cold. It’s very yellow for as bourbon-forward as it is, but it’s a fine summer sipper.
That said, for flavor and dollar value alike, it’s all about the house-infused aquavit/akvavit, $5 a pour. For those unfamiliar, akvavit’s a neutral spirit infused with herbs and spices — traditionally caraway or dill. The dill akvavit tastes clean and cold, some of the smoothest booze I’ve ever had with an herbed finish and a mouthfeel like a good martini. With a Vänern, it’s a perfect (and affordable) bite-and-bev I’ll be back for. Gin fans will also enjoy the simplicity of the juniper akvavit, similar in mouthfeel though a little less smooth.
There’s a trend in everything we eat and drink here: It’s all simple and straightforward. Smørbrød isn’t a place of painstaking, complex assemblies. It’s clean flavors, combined well and presented with minimal pretense. And speaking as someone otherwise wholly unfamiliar with Nordic cooking, the familiarity of these dishes makes far-off parts of the world feel that much closer. Even if we have trouble pronouncing the names, we can pronounce the restaurant well worth a visit.