Welcome to Menu Reveal, where Eater takes an in-depth look at the dishes that are defining hot new restaurants around town.
On May 8, a few days after foreign dignitaries like the President of Iceland and Princess of Denmark helped the Nordic Museum — formerly the Nordic Heritage Museum — open its monumental new Ballard home, a looming black building at 2655 NW Market St., the museum’s Freya cafe began introducing visitors to traditional Nordic cuisine. That means lots of pickles, dill, smoked fish, dark breads, and even a handful of creative cocktails, despite the cafe’s mostly daytime and evening hours.
The Nordic Museum is the largest museum in the United States to honor immigrants from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. But despite Ballard’s strong Nordic heritage, the neighborhood — and, indeed, Seattle as a whole — is curiously short on restaurants that reflect this character. There are only a few examples, including the Swedish meatballs and public pancake breakfasts at the Swedish Club in Westlake, Old Ballard Liquor Co., an aquavit-focused distillery whose limited food selection is all charcuterie and fish stew, and Ballard Ave.’s upcoming Skal Beer Hall, in partnership with Old Ballard Liquor Co.
Luckily, Freya is a thoughtful addition to the landscape, introducing diners to old-school dishes done well. It’s run by City Catering Company, which has supplied meals for the likes of Facebook’s cafes. The company makes pastries and most ingredients for Freya at a South Lake Union headquarters, then has a chef pull dishes together in a tiny kitchen at the cafe itself.
Executive chef Brendan Arntz, formerly of 50 North and Palisade Restaurant, is particularly influenced by the New Nordic cuisine of chefs like Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken in Sweden and Rene Redzepi of Noma in Denmark. He said in working with the Nordic Museum board to develop Freya’s menu, though, he had to learn more about the old Nordic cuisine, with fewer foraged ingredients and slightly stricter rules about what garnish goes where, for example.
The design of Freya, named for a Norse goddess of love, lets high ceilings, tall windows, and copious natural light do the heavy lifting, in line with the museum’s spare character. The counter-service space is open to the public, so diners don’t need to pay an entrance fee to grab a bite and sit at a low table or a long counter looking out on Market St.
Here are the top dishes and drinks to try at Freya right now to get a quick education on Nordic cuisine:
The word “mormor” translates to “grandmother” in various Nordic languages, so this smorgasbord features an assortment of the items commonly found in grandma’s cellar: juniper-smoked king salmon, pork and rosemary rillettes, krukost, beet-pickled egg, pickled vegetables, apple-celery compote, and pretzel rye toast. Almost everything is made by the catering team at their headquarters, including the curious krukost, which Arntz describes as a Swedish potato and cheese casserole.
Grain bowls are popular and filling, so Arntz wanted to feature a “Nordic Quinoa Salad,” with plenty of smoky, tangy flavors the region is known for. But the Nordic Museum board wanted the menu to be as authentically Nordic as possible, which also meant it wouldn’t claim other regions’ ingredients as its own — and quinoa is clearly not of Nordic origin. So as a compromise, the board asked Arntz to simply remove “Nordic” from the name of the salad. Sure enough, it’s filling, tasty, and Nordic-esque with smoked tarragon chicken, herbed goat cheese, pickled red onion, dried cranberries, mixed greens, and quinoa.
Smoked Salmon Smørrebrød
One of the biggest sections of Freya’s menu is dedicated to smørrebrød, a Danish open-faced sandwich with dense, dark-brown rye bread as a base. There are several options, but the one that feels the most “Pacific Northwest meets Nordic cuisine” is the Smoked Salmon Smørrebrød. The topping involves juniper-smoked king salmon, turmeric- and vanilla-pickled fennel, tart Washington apple slices, horseradish, and a lemon twist. Speaking again to authenticity, Arntz says he’s not used to adding garnishes simply for the look, but the museum board insisted that because Nordic cooks traditionally top smørrebrød with a twist of lemon, Freya should too.
Freya’s signature Danish Dog, inspired by those of New York’s Great Northern Food Hall, features warmly spiced medisterpølse sausage and curry ketchup, both made by Uli’s Famous Sausage, along with remoulade, white onions, and pickled and fried shallots served on a fresh pretzel roll.
Dill’s not a common cocktail ingredient in the U.S., but it could become a favorite if the refreshing Dill Dall is any indication. The name comes from a Scandinavian cocktail book, and the drink combines dill-infused Ketel One vodka, fresh lime juice, club soda, simple syrup, and a dill garnish to great effect. The Midnight Bloom, meanwhile, gets its vibrancy from deep-red hibiscus tea floating atop sage-infused gin, lemon juice, lavender honey, and créme de violette. Other drinks on the opening menu include Arctic Solstice, with brennivin (Iceland’s signature schnapps), Chambord, and lime juice; the Icelandic Mule, with Reyka vodka, lime juice, ginger syrup, club soda, and ginger ale; and Anker and Berg, with Maker’s Mark bourbon, Dubonnet, Grand Marnier, and birch bitters.
Freya is open during museum hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.