Despite a raging global fascination with Nordic cuisine, Kansas Citians have had few dining options beyond the saucy meatballs at Ikea’s cafeteria.
Chef Rene Redzepi, who opened Noma in Copenhagen in 2004, has turned a spotlight on unconventional ingredients that may seem downright absurd to those Swedish meatball lovers, like spruce shoots or Finnish reindeer moss. Top chefs around the world have been influenced by the clean flavors, preservation techniques and clever presentations.
Krokstrom Klubb & Market — which chef Katee McLean and her partner and general manager Josh Rogers opened in a former tavern at 3601 Broadway in late spring — focuses on Swedish ingredients that might have been in McLean’s great-great-great grandfather Anders Krokstrom’s larder. The result is one of the most intriguing local restaurants to open in 2016.
Pickled herring, gravlax, whole-grain mustards and a multitude of pickled vegetable garnishes shoot the slightly edgy note of vinegar throughout the menu. Even the fruits — pickled grapes garnishing a charcuterie board, schmears of imported cloudberry and housemade lingonberry jams and the pickled dried blueberries that dot a dessert cordial — offer a refreshing zing.
Aquavit — a bracing, Viking-strength vodka-like spirit made from potatoes or grain and infused with botanicals such as caraway, cardamom and dill — is used in both the bar and the kitchen, further accentuating the cuisine’s natural astringency.
Diners can test the cooler waters with a menu based solely on small plates. There are no entrees, but nothing on the menu is over $20, making it easy to taste until full. The charcuterie — served on paddle-shaped birch boards with the imprint of a Dala horse, Sweden’s spirit animal — is an especially intriguing place to start exploring.
McLean’s Scandinavian meat and cheese boards revolve around a tantalizing assortment of cured meat, similar to classic Italian and Spanish versions, but with the addition of fish and seafood, such as smoked mussels. Instead of olives and capers, think pickled red onions and curiously geometric romanesco broccoli. Instead of bread, the platform of choice is knackebrod, a rye cracker bread with caraway seeds that is custom-made by Farm to Market.
I highly recommend the gravlax board, a swath of silken, house-cured orange salmon tinged an astonishing magenta from beets, which also serve as an earthy grace note on the palate. The presentation includes the typical accompaniments and nearly transparent ribbons of cucumber.
The juniper- and onion-pickled herring board with potatoes and creme fraiche hits salty and tart notes. There are also combinations of fish, cheese or cured meat, which recently included Westphalian ham and shaved slices of smoked calves’ tongue. The smorgasbord offering ensures you’ve covered the best of land and sea.
McLean is a 2009 graduate of the Johnson County Community College Hospitality & Culinary program and a member of the decorated team that traveled to compete in Hong Kong and Singapore. When I mentioned to her JCCC team coach that I was impressed with my visits to Krokstrom, he smiled as if he expected as much — then worried aloud that the name might be too much of a mouthful.
Not to worry: Even if the Krokstrom name doesn’t roll off the tongue, McLean and Rogers provide a memorable dining experience that starts with the hand-lettered and laminated tags labeling a flight of aquavit and continues with the attentive, well-trained and Nordic-passionate servers who take the time to fully engage with their guests.
On a recent Friday night, the dining room was lively with diners ordering and sharing and talking. A shiny red vinyl banquette along one wall seems a vestige of a former life but adds a welcome pop of color to the dark wood floors. The light-colored walls are either stenciled with Kurbits, traditional folk art designs applied by McLean’s aunt, or decorated with sepia-toned photographs from McLean’s family tree.
Every person who accompanied me during two dinners and a lunch knew zilch about Scandinavian food going in and walked away a fan. My teenage daughter and a friend fought over the last bit of the lavender beet salad with goat cheese, orange and petit greens — until they got a taste of the light and ethereal potato dumplings.
Served in a mini cast-iron skillet, the dumplings were bathed in juniper and orange jus studded with peas and shreds of chicken confit. We ordered seconds so everyone could get their fair share, and not even a teaspoonful of broth was left, although my husband had volunteered to tip the skillet to his lips. Alas, the dumplings, which McLean says take three days to make, soon will be replaced by pierogis.
The fall/winter menu rolls out in early October, although McLean says there are a few dishes that already have become impossible to remove, including the smoked trout potato cakes. The plump, flaky cakes, with a subtle hint of smoke, were complemented by julienne strips of acidic Granny apple and smooth goat cheese.
Take note of the specials: One night I got a preview of leipajuusto, or Finnish “bread cheese.” Initially served as an appetizer, it has become so popular, and is just sweet enough, that it will become part of the fall dessert offerings. I almost passed on this one until our server practically insisted. Good that I heeded the recommendation.
The squeaky cow’s milk cheese is traditionally made of reindeer or goat milk and has a high smoke point, making it similar to halloumi. The warm, brown-mottled block of cheese was served with imported cloudberry (a type of bitter wild raspberry), shredded radish and shaved fennel.
The bread cheese would make a fine pairing with a smorrebrod, the Swedish word for a traditional open-faced sandwich. If you’re a bacon fan, don’t miss the orange- and juniper-braised pork belly (yup, same jus) on dark bread with fresh greens and orange marmalade, a recipe that has been in McLean’s repertoire since her JCCC days.
Finally, if you simply can’t resist, go ahead and order the Swedish meatballs. Rest assured, Krokstrom’s are more memorable than any cafeteria version, but they are the least-inspired offering on this eclectic menu.
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor, lead restaurant critic and blog curator. Reach her at email@example.com or @kcstarfood or @chowtownkc
Krokstrom Klubb & Market
Food: ☆☆☆ 1/2 Chef Katee McLean keeps an array of enticing cured meats, pickled fruits and vegetables, cheeses and other memorable small bites coming from the kitchen while her partner Josh Rogers manages a selection of aquavit, mead, glogg, ice wines and other creative cocktails.
Service: ☆☆☆ 1/2 passionate and well-trained servers guide diners unfamiliar with the staples of Nordic cuisine through a menu that encourages culinary exploration.
Atmosphere: ☆☆ 1/2 The space is clean, inviting and comfortable. The acoustics facilitate energetic conversation.
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. for lunch and 4-11 p.m. for dinner Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. for brunch and 4-9 p.m. for dinner on Sunday.
Entree average (including nightly specials): Small plates; the most expensive item is $20.
Vegetarian options: The only vegetarian dish is the mushroom strudel, but many dishes can morph to suit vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free diets. Make special requests when making a reservation.
Handicapped accessible: A ramp is available for entry through the front door; handicapped parking behind the building.
Parking: Private parking spaces available behind the building.
Kids: Chef Katee McLean loves adventurous kids, but no separate menu. She typically recommends the meat board because “it feels like they’re having a Lunchable.” She substitutes sausage or rillettes for the pate.
Noise level: Great place to chat with friends.
Reservations: A lot of explanation goes along with introducing diners to an unfamiliar concept, so reservations are preferred for proper pacing. Weekends can be especially busy, although walk-ins are always welcome.
Star code: ☆ Fair, ☆☆ Good, ☆☆☆ Excellent, ☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.
What to drink
If you’ve watched “Game of Thrones,” then you may already have an image of Scandinavian drinking culture. It generally starts with mead, a fermentation of honey, water and yeast, one of the oldest alcoholic beverages. The mead selections at Krokstrom Klubb & Market include selections from Leaky Roof Meadery out of Buffalo, Mo.
But if your aim is to drink like a Viking, you’ll want to try the aquavit. The Scandinavians enjoy their 90-proof aquavit neat. The distilled neutral spirit is typically infused with caraway or dill.
But general manager and co-owner Josh Rogers, who has developed a passion for aquavit, has been experimenting with house blends that include cardamom, anise, fennel, elderberry and juniper berry, to name a few. A flight of three is $15, or you can try all six for $27. Rogers paired two house versions with a cumin-forward North Shore Private Reserve aquavit made in Lake Bluff, Ill., on my visit.
The spirit is typically served as an aperitif, but if a couple of slugs of aquavit is too strong to contemplate, try it in a cocktail such as the Primrose, Scandinavian Evening, the Trident Negroni, the Gimlet #2 or From Iceland With Love, an icy-glass take on the vesper martini.
Not everything Scandinavian has an alcoholic note. Try the Swedish egg coffee, a staple of church potlucks throughout the upper Midwest. Egg coffee is made by mixing coffee grounds with a raw egg. Boiling water is added and the grounds are allowed to steep for about 5 minutes at the table. The diner strains the coffee through a French press and the result is a coffee with no bitterness or acidity.
Beet-cured gravlax board, $12
Pork belly smorrebrod, $10
Smoked trout potato cakes, $9
Mushroom strudel, $9
Bread cheese, $8
Figgy green bean salad, $7