INTENSE FLAVOR: The seared diver scallop with mustard soup underneath and lumpfish roe on top is a memorable starter.
“I think people thought it was going to be weirder.”
I’m asking Joncarl Lachman, Noord’s chef/owner, about early perceptions of his East Passyunk BYOB, because I remember this spring’s pre-opening hype being marked by confusion. Maybe because Philly doesn’t have much Northern European food, or maybe because our brains are all awash in the ambient global buzz about Danish restaurant Noma, much of the chatter ranged from pedantic to plain wrong. It was going to be Scandinavian. No, it was Dutch. But there was waterzooi on the opening menu; what's Belgium's latitude? The phrase “New Nordic” was even batted around for a second or two.
By the time I visited, any notion of being served ants or lichen had long been put to rest. And the first thing to hit the table quietly but powerfully quelled any lingering questions of weirdness. A hunk of dense barley rye, torn roughly from a larger loaf and sporting a healthy char along its craggy edges, shared its dish with a spoonful of butter and a few roasted garlic cloves. The unfussy presentation had hidden perks: The warmth of the bread had melted a bit of the butter, and it had started to soak into the substantial bottom crust. This is the sort of tiny joy that has to be damn near universal.
Bread service may look different on other nights. The breads have been so well received that Lachman is considering a rotating "bread of the month" program to highlight the variety. It's pretty impressive, considering the tiny kitchen, and that sous chef Jonnathan Yacashin made enough barley rye for the packed room purely by hand, without the aid of a mixer.
Just as the tiny kitchen seems wholly unfettered by its size, neither does the small space of the dining room feel limiting. From where I was sitting, at a prime window-side table, there was no hint of the elbow-knocking intimacy we often put up with in support of our cozy BYOB culture. The potential limitations of a small BYOB are deftly navigated here by Lachman, perhaps because his love for them runs deep. Though he left the area in 1985 for stints in D.C., New York and Chicago, he’s from around here and made frequent return visits. “I’ve always loved the honesty of the food in Philly,” he says, and “honest” seems as good a word as any to describe the place he came back to create.
Even if your experience with Dutch or Scandinavian cuisines is scant, there are plenty of points of familiarity on the menu — Philly knows from chicken croquettes, a version of which finds a spot on the specials menu, while pork bitterballen from the regular menu were described as having a similar quality. One starter presented a generous quenelle of chopped chicken and duck liver and a fried chicken liver, with whole-grain mustard, arugula and pickled bits to balance out each bite, but with no surprises.
A smorrebrod board leaves more to chance, offering a trio of open-faced sandwiches topped with a rotating variety of seafood smoked or cured in-house. The clear star on our board was the lightly smoked scallop, lush and bright with dill and red lumpfish caviar. Another offering paired a huge, head-on prawn with smoked egg, which combined with mustard sauce to suggest a gently briny-sweet version of a deviled egg. Though fine on its own, the smoked-salmon sandwich was overshadowed by the brilliance of the other two sandwiches.
The bread underneath was the same barley rye I loved at the start. But here, thickly sliced, it made for clumsy eating and even more awkward sharing. Still, through some combination of knives, forks, fingers and shamelessness, we managed to clear the board of any sign that it had once held food.
The most memorable starter was the seared diver scallop, with its drop-dead presentation of impossibly yellow mustard soup underneath and vivid lumpfish roe on top. (The soup’s color is aided by an especially carrot-heavy mirepoix.) Simultaneously sharp and rich, the flavors were intense — well-suited to sharing and to balancing the sweet, well-colored scallop. The only misstep was the crouton, completely hidden under the soup’s surface, yet somehow still oddly tough after a long soak.
Warming entrees were perfectly calibrated to the fall breeze streaming in, and brought to mind some unexpected reference points. Though my hands-on experience with Dutch food is scant, my dish of konijn in het zuur (Lachman translates this as “rabbit in its sour”) tugged insistently on my Polish-Lithuanian heartstrings. Described on the menu as rabbit leg confit, the dish, Lachman explains, is actually braised in cider vinegar, a traditional preparation from the south of the Netherlands — though serving it on a stew of zuurkool, or Dutch sauerkraut, is his own touch. The rabbit, moist and flavorful, pulled cleanly off the bone to meld seamlessly into sweet and tangy caraway-spiked vegetables, making for unusually engaging comfort food.
Salmon served over Norwegian chowder called lohikeitto was similarly surprising — so perky with coriander that my dining partner posited a slight comparison to Southeast Asian cuisine, and I couldn’t disagree. Here again, the cooks showed off serious skill with fish, somehow turning a salmon filet into a conversation piece. The combination of a perfect crust and seasoning and a medium-rare interior is expected at this level, but I'm still unsure which law of physics allows skin to stay so preternaturally crisp despite being submerged in soup.
Dessert almost demands that you linger. Coffee comes in a French press that serves two — unless you're with a tea drinker, in which case you'll be kicking back with a refill. Good thing, given the size of our wedge of butter cake, a dense almond affair with textures ranging from moist cake to cookie as you work from center to edge. Served on a pool of advocaat, it presented a daunting-yet-welcome challenge at the end of the meal. (Come morning, the consensus at home was a wish for more butter cake for breakfast.)
This is certainly not New Nordic as we’ve heard of it, but it’s rooted in principles similar to that movement: This is old Northern European, brought perfectly into step with its home city right now.
NOORD | 1046 Tasker St., 267-909-9704, noordphilly.com. Hours: Wed.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m. Appetizers, $9-$19; entrees, $19-$29; desserts, $9.
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