I don’t think that anybody could possibly mistake me for a real food critic, so hopefully you’ll forgive me for writing a completely useless and unfair commentary about a restaurant.
My law student girlfriend (who, incidentally, is nothing more than a rumor these days—if your friend or lover tries to go to law school, do everything you can to talk them out of it) studies with another law student who happens to be married to a Swede. So we decided to go out for Swedish food. I’ve never had Swedish food, and I was thrilled that we had a real Swede with us who could act as our food tour guide.
We went to the West Village location of Smorgas Chef, which is part of a small but growing chain of NYC Scandinavian restaurants. It’s a cute little place, with an intimate feel and some quirky design choices, including dividing walls made from glass bottles. Our young Swedish server was absolutely adorable, and I highly encourage single straight women and single gay men to stop by to take a look. He was also a very competent server who took great care of us throughout the meal, but the really important part is that he provided great eye candy.
With some guidance from our wonderful Swedish friend (the one who happens to be married to another law student—sorry ladies and gentlemen, he’s taken… but he does have lots of time on his hands, and his wife would probably never notice if he… nevermind), we ordered the most typically Swedish items on the menu. I drank lingonberry juice, partly because I thought it might help me digest the Quilmes and chivito and Guinness I’d consumed throughout the afternoon, and partly because lingonberries are extremely Swedish. We ate Swedish meatballs ($16) and Swedish gravlaks (cured salmon, $18) for our entrees. And Amber and I even shared an appetizer of pickled herring ($13).
The herring scared the living crap out of me, because I had actually had pickled herring once before. When I was a kid, I spent New Year’s Eve with a Norwegian-American family who always ate pickled herring as part of their holiday tradition. I then spent much of New Year’s Day blowing herring-flavored chunks.
It would have been supremely wussy of me to resist the herring at Smorgas Chef, so I fought back the bad memories (i.e. gag reflex) and ate the stuff, anyway. It was delicious, to my surprise and relief. Actually, everything was delicious in that upscale-restaurant sort of way. The Swedish meatballs were unnaturally round and dainty. The side dishes (dill potatoes, cucumber salad) were extremely well-manicured, just as one would expect from a classy restaurant. And the gravlaks tasted like fish, which is apparently how it’s supposed to be.
Here’s the thing: I don’t get it. I just don’t really understand classy restaurants, even though I spent a few years of my life working in them. I love street food and peasant food and any other sort of cheap grungy food that normal, broke-ass people eat. I’m just not an upscale restaurant guy, I guess. Veggies picked off a vine and sliced with a dirt-smeared pocketknife are infinitely tastier to me than the elegant little pieces of art found at a place like Smorgas Chef.
I’m sure that the sexy Swedish waiter has a Swedish grandmother who makes Swedish meatballs, but I have a feeling that they’re rougher, bigger, meatier, greasier Swedish meatballs than the ones served at Smorgas–and they probably cost less than $16 a plate. I’ll also bet that Swedish Grandma knows a thing or two about pickled herring, but I doubt that she serves her herring in a four different fancy sauces on a fancy custom-made four-chambered plate that looked lovely in candlelight. And I doubt that the cucumber salads at Swedish Grandma’s house are quite so dainty.
I’m not knocking Smorgas Chef as a restaurant. It’s a well-oiled machine, owned by an Italian-trained Norwegian chef and a former investment banker with Asian roots. I’m not knocking Swedish food, either—we learned a ton about Swedish food from our friends, and had one hell of a good time.
Trouble is, I just don’t think that Smorgas Chef is all that “Swedish,” and nice restaurants really aren’t my thing. So if you know of any cheapass Swedish places or if your Swedish grandma wants to make my kitchen smell like herring and lingonberries, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Smorgas Chef, West Village
283 W 12th St., Manhattan
Subway: 8th Ave.-14th St. (A, C, E, L trains)