When the American Swedish Institute decided to embark upon a major expansion, it made two insightful hires: architect Tim Carl of HGA and chef Michael Fitzgerald.

Since this is the food section, let's get to Fitzgerald first. His 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 Twin Citians view the institute: not as a mandatory school field trip or an annual Christmas-decoration destination, but as a frequent component of their everyday lives.

Naturally, Fitzgerald's cooking touches on familiar Swedish culinary refrains. Cured salmon, beets, dill, mustard, cardamom and meatballs all make an appearance for accuracy's sake, but his modern sensibility prevents them from becoming trite.

Fitzgerald understands that the open-face sandwich is nothing without first-rate bread, and he has a doozy. It's a great story, too: One of the kitchen's staffers, Ben Anderson, has a Danish neighbor, a bread baker. Her recipe -- as well as her rye sourdough starter -- form the basis of Fika's phenomenal rye bread.

It's dense and crumbly, with a foundation of cracked rye berries -- milled to order at Whole Grain Milling Co. in Welcome, Minn. -- supplemented by flax and sesame seeds, rolled oats and a combination of 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 -- each one a burst of fuchsia encircled by a mint green halo -- placed over a swipe of smoky chèvre and under a dainty shallot-chervil salad.

The one sandwich that opts out on the rye bread -- 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 just begging to be eaten. The food media, ever eager to slap a label on the latest trend, call this style of cooking New Nordic; the rest of the world can think of it as delicious.

Fitzgerald oversees a take-no-shortcuts kitchen, rare for what could have been an institutional scoop-and-serve setup. 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 ultra-creamy mashed potatoes), 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 that is to Sweden what Cheddar is to Wisconsin. Roasted beets are treated two ways: fennel for the golden ones, orange for the red ones. 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.

Fitzgerald, a Texas native, started in restaurants 11 years ago when he first arrived in Minneapolis, washing dishes in the former Auriga before moving up the ladder in chef Doug Flicker's kitchen, a 41/2-year tenure that doubled as a valuable on-the-job education.

"I didn't go to school," Fitzgerald said. "I got lucky, I worked for Doug Flicker instead." Subsequent stints at a half-dozen other top Twin Cities restaurants led to Fika, an opportunity that came along at just the right moment; the restaurant's manageable daytime schedule allows Fitzgerald to spend evenings with his year-old son.

Time for sweets

Pastry chef Jennifer Schad devotes the bulk of her efforts to the kinds of 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, their indents pooled with tangy blueberry, lingonberry or gooseberry preserves, are a nostalgic touch, and Schad has a knack for fruit-punched scones.

But her most admirable efforts go into barely sweet rolls, their tight spirals releasing easygoing cinnamon and cardamom flavor notes, their tops studded with pearl sugar imported from Sweden in 50-pound increments. Schad wisely uses them as the backbone for a warm bread pudding, sweetened with raisins and caramel sauce, and the results are superb. Sugar hounds can also drop into the adjacent gift shop and snack on a small selection of Swedish candy bars.

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. The menu doesn't change, but at dinner the value becomes even more apparent.

All in the structure

Back to architect Tim Carl. The informal surroundings that he and his HGA colleagues created for Fika -- and its home, the $13.5 million Nelson Cultural Center -- deftly capture rather than caricature contemporary Scandinavian design, no easy feat.

White walls and pale ripsawn 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 thrillingly frames the institute's most prized possession, the Turnblad mansion, a Park Avenue limestone pile that is by turns whimsical castle and stern fortress. While admiring the view on a particularly radiant afternoon, I bumped into institute president Bruce Karstadt.

"I can't wait to sit here during a blizzard," he said. Same here, although let's not rush that winter thing, because we'll all want more time to take advantage of the grassy patio on the other side of that glass; it just might be the Twin Cities' most urbane outdoor dining venue.

Theirs are not household names today, but the Turnblad chateau's architects, Christopher Adam Boehme and Victor Cordella, continue to have an impact on the city's visual psyche, a 100-plus-year legacy bolstered by such downtown edifices as Gluek's and two south Minneapolis landmarks: the charming James Hosmer Library and the Hennepin-and-Franklin building that was the longtime home of Burch Pharmacy.

Yes, it's the enduring power of our built environment. A century from now, Minneapolitans will no doubt feel that same affection and gratitude toward the gifted Carl. When immersed within Fika's sweetness and light, I know I already do.

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