The only really surprising thing about Restaurant Magnus' recent conversion from a pan-Latin to Scandinavian menu is the surprised local reaction, and the fact that someone hasn't hauled out the pickled herring sooner.
New Scandinavian cuisine has been resurgent for more than a decade now. Its emphasis on local sourcing, seasonal foraging, clear distilled flavors and an elegant kind of purism is really the definition of contemporary cooking. And the Nordic countries, as a result, have turned into Northern Europe's most seriously regarded dining destinations.
One of the best meals I've had this year, in fact, was a resolutely Scandinavian showpiece at Mathias Dahlgren's eponymous Stockholm restaurant, where a dish of smoked salmon, organic goose liver, pickled vegetables, horseradish and ginger was seamless. And while not enough American-based chefs have followed the lead of Marcus Samuelsson (whose sorely missed Minneapolis outpost of Aquavit was supernal, and whose Chicago restaurant C-House isn't), Wisconsin doesn't have any excuses. Given our deep Scandinavian roots, the lack of even a decent Nordic bakery in Madison (where are the marzipan cream cakes?) seems odd.
So the Berge brothers and Laura Jones, the co-owners of Magnus, deserve a lot of credit (in a modest, understated Norwegian way), along with chef Nicholas Johnson. By taking a chance on gravlax and lingonberries and lots of smoking, they've staged a little culinary coup.
You wouldn't know it at first, though, because the setting doesn't betray any signs of change. The dining room, still a hothouse whirl of golds and reds, instead of cool Gustavian grays, feels like one big leftover. But it doesn't really matter. The let-the-pickling-begin menu speaks for itself, and the appetizers are the dishes that speak most eloquently. And they are the plates I'd come back for.
Where to start with the starters? Maybe with the smoked salmon and potato-bacon crepes. What makes this dish so good is the way each ingredient resolutely holds its own while still playing well together. The crepes are light, almost airy, the salmon is subtly smoked, and the bacon bits (really small blocks) are sweet. A trail of crème frache adds a creamy flourish and the crown of pickled asparagus a tart bite. That makes for a lot on one plate, but it's all coherent.
Just as good is a sampler plate of pickled herring, sushi-grade salmon, chopped eggs and sour cream circling a pile of toasted, crunchy-as-crouton brown bread rounds. Though the herring is restrained by Scandinavian standards (where the herring plates and buffets feature everything from sweet mustard to curry sauces, and every kind of marinade), this is a clean, beautifully composed, brightly flavored dish. So is the silky gravlax on sweet brioche toast, set off by cucumber, red onion, caper dressing and smoked bacon; and a smoked corn soup with nutmeg sour cream and pickled fennel. If that's one round of pickling too many, the twin wild game burgers are satisfying too, in the way sliders always are. Though here they come topped with a Nordic trio of Jarlsberg cheese, fruit mustard and, oh yeah, pickled cabbage.
While the entrees can seem a little anticlimactic - and pricey - after that big beginning, entrees usually do. The entree that needs serious tweaking is the busy dish of smoked seared (and undercooked) scallops, pickled shrimp, asparagus, cucumber, beets and mustard vinaigrette. This time nothing coheres, and the result is a muddled tumble of smoked, pickled, sweet and oddly acrid high and low notes. A smoked sea-salt-roasted cod is more successful, but just misses, because the random puddles of maple syrup are too sweet, the smoking slightly too aggressive, and the leek compote a little limp.
But there is nothing to fault, except for maybe a lack of adventure, in a fennel-dill-cured seared salmon with fingerling potatoes, or the cardamom grilled beef tenderloin that gets a big lift from a coat of blackberry mustard.
And the desserts offer something of a big unpickled finish. While the Scandinavian cookie plate is too delicately puny, and dull, to justify its hefty $9 price, and the blueberry cheesecake is seriously heavy, the Swedish pancakes are perfect. Forget big leathery Paul Bunyan flapjacks. These are dainty, light, crepe-like pancakes. And the addition of lingonberry mousse, vanilla crème anglaise and lingonberries should make any Berges still happily left behind in Norway very proud.
Some of Raphael Kadushin's other essays on the foods of Scandinavia include "A Copenhagen Christmas," first printed in Bon Appetit and reprinted in Best Food Writing 2001 (De Capo Press); 48 Hours in Helsinki", the Copenhagen Destination Guide at Concierge.com, as well as Is Stockholm the World's Most Underrated Food City? and A Slice of the Good Life Among the Cloudberries and Fjords.