Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Scandanavia House

2/20/10, Saturday (continued)

MUSEUM: Scandanavian House  (
TIME: 0.5 hr 
COST: Free + Lunch for 2 at Smörgås Chef ($34) 

Museum food has come a long way.  I’ve vivid memories from my childhood of great museum visits followed by time in the horrible cafeterias that lurked in museum basements like leviathans, ensnaring weary travelers who just wanted a place to rest from a long day on their feet.  I remember the broken plastic chairs and the tangerine/avocado color scheme at the Smithsonian.  McDonald’s was classier, and had better food.  And who could forget the rotten milk smell of the damp cement echo chamber that passed for the café at the art museum in Portland, OR.  Yet as bad as the décor was, the food was worse: stale hamburgers, rubber hotdogs, soggy fries and sandwiches with questionable expiration dates, all sold at shockingly high prices.  The thinking of the museum staff at the time could only be something like that of airports today: if people have no other choices, you can charge high prices for awful food in ugly environments. 

Yet at some point something changed.  Somewhere, somehow, a wise curator or docent with epicurean leanings finally made a suggestion that was listened to, and it caught on.  Paul and I eat at many of the museums we visit, and we’ve had no bad experiences: no dirty dungeons, no dated décor and not one soggy French fry.  Dishes have been imaginative, flavorful and strongly supportive of the Museums’ theme, managing to be both educational and tasty.  For example, El Café at the Museo del Bario had great Latin American food, with dishes like spicy black bean conch stew, hand rolled tamales, and tacos with the tortillas grilled in front of your eyes.  Sure the décor was simple, but the food was cheap, and if you wanted entertainment you could watch the Cuban children’s folk tales being read aloud at one end of the café.  It felt laid back and homey, like you could be in a popular café somewhere south of the border.

And speaking of transporting experiences, the best museum cafe for capturing a “Zeitgeist” was the glamorous Café Sebarsky in the Neue Gallerie.  The elegant black and white art deco décor and German language menus plop you down in turn of the century Austria.  The Austrian pastries are rich and delicious, and the coffee, rumored to be the best in New York, is pulled from antique copper espresso machines in a thick, strong European style, with froth thick enough to hold the intricate flower patterns the baristas create in your cup.  The cafe even has live cabaret performances in the evenings, in German of course.

The latest star in our series of excellent museum meals was at Smorgas Chef, the restaurant on the ground floor of the Scandinavia House.  The museum itself wasn’t much to speak of.  It’s a small gallery space on the 5th floor of the Scandinavia House, the headquarters of the American-Scandinavian Foundation, an American non-profit organization that “works to build cultural and educational ties between the United States and Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.”  While we were there, the gallery had an exhibit on Snohetta, a Norway-based group of architects known for innovative modern designs.  There were models, photographs and films of the group’s major works including Egypt’s Alexandria Library (the modern one), the Norwegian Opera House in Oslo, and the controversial plans for the 911 Memorial in NYC.  All of these were impressive thought provoking pieces of architecture, but honestly the thing that made the biggest impression on both of us was an interactive desk with a massive touch screen for selecting, moving and viewing files.  It felt like we were in a science fiction movie, and we were both wondering when we could get one for the office.....

By this point, we’ve seen a few museums for cultural exchange (like the Onassis Cultural Center and the Austrian Cultural Forum) but what made this one stand out was that it wasn’t just a museum.  It seemed to be more of a community center for Scandinavians in New York, importing Scandinavian TV series for weekly viewings, organizing classes in Scandinavian crafts like weaving and furniture making, and hosting a legitimate Scandinavian restaurant, serving what appears to be comfort food for homesick Scandinavians.  Apparently Smorgas Chef is legendary for its Swedish meatballs, and we certainly saw quite a few meatballs eaten by actual Swedes, but both Paul and I wanted to be adventurous and opted for the house-cured gravlaks, cold water shrimp salad, the pickled herring platter with cucumber salad, and aquavits flavored with cloudberry.  We didn’t know what most of this was when we ordered it, but it was all fantastic.  Gravlaks sounds like a type of space alien, but is actually tasty raw salmon cured in salt, sugar, dill and vodka.  The pickled herring was amazing, much better than pickled herring has any right to taste, and the cloudberry aquavit turned out to be vodka with actual cloudberries, and had a sort of a sweet and tart raspberry taste.  
If you happen to find yourself in this area of midtown, stop by and see what’s showing in the gallery space (it's free), but for a real Scandinavian experience, we recommend you try the food!

Ta for now.  I'll fill you in on the International Center for Photography next time, and Paul has promised a post about our visit to the New York Historical Society, which was much more interesting than it sounds.

Images in this post, from the top: King Abdulaziz Center for Knowledge and Culture, designed by Snohetta; exterior of the Scandinavia House; Tuballoon, a pavillion for the Konigsberg International Jazz Festival, designed by Snohetta; Ras Al-Khaimah Gateway Project, designed by Snohetta.

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