GRAVLAX: a Scandinavian dish of dry-cured salmon marinated in herbs. The word gravlax comes from the term gravadlax or “buried salmon,” which was the traditional way of fermenting the fish.
October gave me a few opportunities to speak with other food lovers about the history and popularity of Nordic cuisine, and how the Twin Cities became our nation’s New Nordic epicenter. I credit Minnesota’s history of Scandinavian immigration, an abundance of smart chefs and restaurateurs who embrace a farm-to-table and sustainability philosophy, and the short but dynamic presence of Aquavit Minneapolis and Chef Marcus Samuelsson.
Aquavit is where I experienced my first taste of cured salmon and in the sixteen years since Aquavit’s great rise to accolades (and then it’s sad crumbling demise), I’ve witnessed an emergence of gravlax on menus across the Twin Cities. Maybe gravlax was always around and it took a torrid affair with Aquavit’s menu for me to notice the presence of Scandinavian ingredients on tables from downtown St. Paul to Dinkytown. I prefer to think of our gravlax renaissance as a permanent gift from a restaurant that was ahead of its time.
Now, many of my dining adventures are all about finding places that serve gravlax, and I judge a restaurant by the quality of its cured salmon. Sure, I make gravlax at home. It isn’t a difficult task. But I am inspired by the flavors and accouterments that local chefs put on the salmon plate.
Therefore, in an effort and as an excuse to eat our weight in good cured salmon, my enthusiastic assistant (and husband) T and I are engaged in what I like to call The Gravlax Project. Obligatory disclosure: I am not a restaurant critic. I am, however, a self-taught gravlax aficionado. We intend to eat all of the gravlax we can locate throughout Minneapolis, St. Paul, and their suburbs. I will document our gravlax grazing and report back to you on what we find. We will leave no salmon uneaten.
When I encounter a platter of gravlax there are a few must-haves.
- The fish itself must be silky and fresh, with a firm bite and a lush mouthfeel. I prefer dark salmon flesh that isn’t layered with light pink fat. I find that the lighter colored and fattier salmons tend to carry a distinctively fishy taste that negates freshness.
- Garnishments should be classic and/or seasonal. Creativity is great, as long as the garnish brings balance to the fish and doesn’t take flavors down an uncomplimentary path.
First up: Public Kitchen and Bar in Lowertown St. Paul.
I met Public’s Chef Greg Johnson at New Nordic event last month. He told me about his efforts to make Public a sustainably- and locally-sourced dining destination. Then he mentioned his gravlax and I could think of little else until we finally made the trek to Lowertown for something other than our weekend trips to the Farmers Market.
Public’s space is stunning. We sat in the spacious upstairs dining room bar in brown cushy booths and high backed seats, surrounded by gorgeous dark wood and huge arched windows overlooking Mears Park. I ordered a Vikre juniper gin martini and asked for the gravlax which is normally served downstairs in the lounge.
Public’s gravlax is billed as house cured salmon with toasted crostini and classic garnish. It is prepared with a traditional cure of sugar, salt, and dill. The generous portion of thinly sliced gravlax was succulent, almost sweet with richness. Each bite was exactly what I look for in an outstanding cured salmon: glossy and luxurious. Garnishments included crème fraîche, spicy mustard, diced soft boiled egg, red onion rounds, cornichons, and perfectly toasted crostini. My only complaint with the preparation is that I wanted more crostini, but to be fair my blasphemously anti-gravlax friend helped herself to a toast sans salmon. My pro-gravlax companion declared it to be the best gravlax he’s ever eaten.
T arrived long after the gravlax had been devoured and just as we were finishing our appetizers: warm jalapeno cheddar biscuits with jalapeno jam and honey butter; calamari tempura served with lime aioli, garlicky peanut sauce, and fresh bits of mango; and crab cakes with cilantro lime coleslaw. All were superb, as were the specialty cocktails we tried. It was decided that another plate of gravlax was needed, and T, as is his fashion when the gravlax is to his liking, shared none of it.
Conclusion: Public’s Salmon Lox ($11) is well worth a trip to downtown St. Paul. I’m curious to see whether Chef Greg Johnson will update the presentation or keep it classic. Either way, we’ll return for another plate. And another.