Two things I thought I knew when I first moved to New York two years ago: New Yorkers are mean, and picked herring is gross.
Clearly, I’m not terribly smart, or at least not quite open-minded enough.
Based pretty much on internet rumors, I decided to check out the Norwegian Seaman’s Church in Midtown East, which is rumored to have an occasional buffet lunch on random Wednesdays. Most of their website is in Norwegian, but I thought I understood the term “Norsk BuffetLunsj,” and that made me feel sort of smart-ish.
When I dropped by the church to make sure that “Norsk BuffetLunsj” really meant “Norwegian buffet lunch,” I was greeted by the two most genuinely warm people I’ve met in my time in Manhattan. One was a lovely young brunette named Laura, who grinned broadly, welcomed me, shook my hand, and introduced herself as soon as I inquired about the Norwegian lunch. The other was a smiley gentleman with Asian features, who looked like he was completely incapable of wiping the relaxed, happy grin off of his face. It’s odd: you couldn’t help but be happy around the two friendly Norwegians. That’s pretty cool, especially on the
mean indifferent streets of Midtown.
Lunch at the Norwegian Seaman’s Church put a smile on my face, too. For $25, you can eat as much as you want, including all-you-can-eat pickled herring, canned mackerel, and fish-and-pea jello. And all three of those items are far more enticing than they sound.
All four of my loyal readers probably remember the story about my first battle with picked herring as a kid: I yakked, rather unpleasantly. I was pretty much terrified of the stuff after that, and didn’t touch it again until I went to a faux-Scandinavian restaurant in NYC, where I felt obligated to try it again. I didn’t yak that time, but I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic, either. Then I ate it again at the Swedish Midsummer Festival last year, and I didn’t yak that time either… but I was still lukewarm on the whole concept of pickled fish.
And now, I think I love it. Two different flavors of pickled herring were on the buffet table: one in a sugary mustard sauce, another in a thick, sweet, vinegary brine, with a few chunks of peppercorns floating in it. I actually ate a second helping of the vinegary version… which means that oh holy crap, I’ve been converted.
The rest of the buffet was every bit as tasty and fun as the pickled herring. They offered a fantastic array of well-behaved salads (a standard green salad, an outstanding cucumber salad loaded with dill, a gently mayonnaise-y chicken salad, a salad made from raisins and shredded carrots), several cheeses, a varied stack of crackers and fresh bread (including a delicious, nutty whole wheat loaf), some beautifully arrayed slices of cured ham and roast beef, some roasted potatoes and carrots, and some fresh figs.
Fresh figs are fantastic, but the real fun was fishy: a flat can of mackerel cured in oil, two absolutely delicious varieties of gravlaks (smoked salmon—the tastier of the two varieties was crusted with dill and black pepper), and baked wild Atlantic salmon (which lacks the pinkish hue of the Pacific salmon that we usually eat in the U.S.). Even the thoroughly artful deviled eggs were topped with a chunk of anchovy and a cute little sprig of dill.
But for pure novelty value, my favorite dish was the gelatinous cake of peas, beans, fish, shrimp, and boiled eggs, which had apparently been shaped in a bundt cake pan. It looked phenomenally unattractive to my non-Norwegian eyes (my initial thought was something like “oh s#!t, there’s shrimp and fish and canned peas and green beans and eggs in the jello!”), but I had to try it… and it was surprisingly good. The “jello” wasn’t quite as gelatinous as it looked, and mostly behaved like a thick, mildly salty salad dressing. Imagine a gooey version of a French nicoise salad, and you’ll be close… although the French arguably do a better job of making their fish-and-bean salad look attractive to an international audience.
Dessert was outstanding, too: fresh fruit, waffles with jam, and blot kaker, a wonderfully non-sugary blend of sponge cake, fresh raspberries, and fresh whipped cream. Coffee and apple juice were included with the meal, and so were friendly conversations with the priest and several parishioners who were involved in preparing and serving the food.
It’s a funny thing about life in a kitchenless apartment in Midtown Manhattan: we get used to speedy meals, warmed in the microwave or purchased from unfriendly people at the corner store or pizza shop. That just seems normal to me now. So it’s pretty rad whenever I get to eat some home-cooked (or church-cooked) treats offered by ridiculously friendly people. Thank you, Norwegians: you made cold, lame Midtown seem like a much warmer and fishier place.
Norwegian Seaman’s Church
317 East 52nd Street, Manhattan
Subway: 51st Street (6 train) or 53rd-Lexington (E, M trains)