The Pleasures of Husmanskost: Rolf’s Kök
By Tom // Posted 10 October, 2011 in: Restaurants, Travel
If there is one meal that summarizes most of the eating Martha and I did in Sweden, it would have to be the one we ate at Rolf’s Kök (pronounced “shook”), just north of central Stockholm. No fancy restaurant, Rolf’s was one of many restaurants downtown focusing on husmanskost, everyday Swedish cooking. Husmanskost restaurants generally have a set menu of one or two choices that varies depending on the day of the week (and varies seasonally), as well as a few à la carte items. In our (brief) experience, the two choices were both “meat” (including fish) and “potatoes”. I’ve heard the American Midwest described as a meat and potatoes culture, but the Swedes take this to a whole new level.
We went to Rolf’s Kök on a Monday in late August, giving us the choice between “Lukewarm Poached Salmon with Cucumber, Fennel and Dill Mayonnaise” or “Isterband (Fermented Lard Sausage — post forthcoming), Mustard Creamed Potatoes and Beetroot”, preceded in either case by a bowl of Cauliflower Soup. I ordered the salmon, Martha the isterband.
After our menus were taken away our server delivered a tower of crisp rolls of bread impaled on a spike. I’m pretty sure this arrangement would have been met with many a personal injury lawsuit if it were attempted in the U.S.A., but Sweden is a less litigious place and anyway Martha and I somehow managed to remove our rolls without receiving the stigmata. The bread was accompanied by twin whipped butters and a third container full of tiny ziggurats of sea salt.
The rolls looked so good that they practically demanded to be eaten right away, but Martha and I somehow managed to resist long enough for the cauliflower soup to come to the table — a good thing, too, since bread was the perfect implement to sop up every last bite of cauliflower cream. Europeans have a better developed art of vegetable purée than we do in the United States. Give a European a vegetable — just about any vegetable — and they’ll serve it back to you as a creamy-textured soup that tastes like the vegetable in question, but with subtle flavors that suggest greater artifice than simply tossing cream, broth and cauliflower into a blender.
I’ve said that our meal at Rolf’s was a typical example of the kind of food we were eating in Sweden, and indeed salmon with potatoes and dill mayonnaise is something you can get just about any-where and time) throughout the country. But to call the salmon brought to me at Rolf’s Kök average really doesn’t give the restaurant enough credit: this was a really exceptional example of the Swedish favorite. Lukewarm (exactly the word our waitress used to describe the dish in her impeccable English) is not a word that carries positive connotations for me, especially when used to describe food, but it was just right for this fish — you can’t really taste anything when it’s piping hot.
The sausage Martha ordered was described as ‘tangy’ which indeed it was. At the time we assumed this was from lemon zest or some acidic ingredient but later found out that the tangy sourness of isterband is caused by Lactobacillus, active during the four or more days when the sausage is aged at just below room temperature. Isterband is not cured; it is moist like a fresh sausage. It’s just not quite fresh. This was one of the most interesting things we ate in Sweden.
That’s how it was with Rolf’s Kök: typical but especially well-executed Swedish food. The restaurant also stood out for us in a way unrelated to the food: this meal was the first time, after three days in Stockholm dining out twice per day, that we experienced real table service, where our order was actually taken while we were sitting at a table, looking at a menu book. Up to that point, the norm had been counter ordering, with our food either picked up at a central point our brought out by a server announcing the name in inscrutable-to-us Swedish or, better, our order number, which our two semesters of Swedish classes at the American Swedish Institute a few years ago barely allowed us to parse. Of course, the level of service we encountered might have had something to do with the types of restaurants we were eating at — Martha and I try to be frugal within reason when traveling. But it’s not like we were eating exclusively at coffee shops, which is about the only place, in Minneapolis at least, where you have to put up with counter based ordering. It seemed to be a cultural preference for the Swedes, and it makes sense from an efficiency standpoint: one central place to post the menu, take the orders, handle the cash. But I always feel a little on the spot when ordering at a counter: trying to read a giant chalkboard menu, a line of hungry and decided diners behind me — and being next-to-clueless about the language the menu is written in only exacerbates my anxiety issues. In light of this and the other stresses of travel, being seated and handed a menu at Rolf’s Kök was a relief.
And it’s not like we had to pay a premium for the convenience, either. The prices at Rolf’s were comparable to the other places we had been dining. Our lunch cost 274 Swedish crowns, which the good people at Visa tell me is $47.51. This seems like a lot, but it was pretty hard to find a meal in Stockholm that cost much less. If they could all have been as good as Rolf’s Kök, we would have been well pleased.