When the American Swedish Institute decided to embark upon a major expansion, it made an insightful hire: chef Michael Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's easy-to-love work at the restaurant Fika (pronounced FEE-ka) underscores the galvanizing power of food, because this engaging and surprisingly affordable restaurant is going to transform the way we view the institute.
Naturally, Fitzgerald's cooking touches on familiar Swedish culinary refrains. Cured salmon, beets, dill, mustard, cardamom and meatballs all make an appearance, but his modern sensibility prevents them from becoming bromides.
Fitzgerald understands that the open-face sandwich is nothing without first-rate bread, and Fika's phenomenal rye is dense and crumbly, with a foundation of cracked rye berries supplemented by flax and sesame seeds, rolled oats and rye and whole-wheat flours. Square slices become foundations for beautifully composed lunches: pan-seared salmon dressed with a quenelle of minced red beets and a slightly sweet sauce of both Dijon and whole-grain mustards. Or grilled steak marinated in fennel and paired with colorful tomatoes and pungent blue cheese. Or a stunner of neatly arranged, thin-sliced radishes laced over a swipe of smoky chèvre and under a dainty shallot-chervil salad.
The one sandwich that opts out on the rye -- in favor of toasted brioche -- is a fantastic poached shrimp salad, dressed with a dill oil-infused mayonnaise, tangy red onions and a hard-cooked egg, its creamy yolk begging to be eaten. The food media call this style of cooking New Nordic; the rest of us can think of it as delicious.
Fitzgerald oversees a take-no-shortcuts kitchen. Witness the crispy, pan-seared cube of deeply flavorful pork belly: After being brined for 18 hours and then smoked, it gets the overnight confit treatment before being seared to order. It shares the plate with a runny poached egg, crunchy smoked almonds and woody mushrooms, a remarkable repast for just $7. The same can be said for two other small-scale entrees: pork-veal-beef meatballs with a slight juniper cast, and silky gravlax done up with thin-sliced fingerling potatoes, tangy pickled onions and more of that fantastic mustard sauce.
Salads are another highlight. Wrinkled, crispy butter lettuce seems born anew under a harmonious blend of hazelnuts, smoky roasted onions, a low-key apple vinaigrette and thin shavings of Västerbotten cheese, an aged, pale yellow cow's milk cheese. Lemon, dill and spicy watercress add complementary flavor layers to spelt, a tinier, crunchier puffed-up wheat. Soups are treated with tender loving care, and the a.m. quiches are models of creativity and craft.
Pastry chef Jennifer Schad devotes the bulk of her efforts to the dunkable items that are staples of the ritual that is the Swedish coffee break, or fika. Thick, chewy, crackle-topped molasses cookies pack a zesty ginger wallop. Pale and plump thumbprint cookies, pooled with tangy blueberry, lingonberry or gooseberry preserves, are a nostalgic touch. But her most admirable efforts go into barely sweet rolls, their tight spirals releasing easygoing cinnamon and cardamom flavor notes. Schad uses them as the backbone for a warm bread pudding, sweetened with raisins and caramel sauce. Superb.
Criticisms? Sure. The brief menu may wear thin on frequent diners. The counter service staff can be polished one day, haphazard the next. And it's a shame that the institute is only open one evening a week, because Fika is a terrific nighttime destination.
Fika's informal surroundings deftly capture rather than caricature contemporary Scandinavian design, no easy feat. White walls and pale rip-sawn white oak paneling form the kind of backdrop that make the occasional well-placed gesture of color really pop, particularly the tidy rows of tomato-red lights. A soaring wall of windows floods the room with sunlight and frames the institute's most prized possession, the Turnblad mansion, a limestone pile that is by turns whimsical castle and stern fortress.
★★★ Location: 2600 Park Av. S., Mpls., 612-871-4907, www.asimn.org. Hours: 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue., Thu., Fri.; 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Wed., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun. Prices: Nothing over $7.50. Recommended: Open-face sandwiches, pork belly, meatballs, butter lettuce salad, cardamom rolls, bread pudding, molasses-ginger cookie. Wine list: Brief but agreeable and moderately priced beer and wine options.