No matter how trendy the foods of northern Europe may have become these past several years, the perception of them, outside of foodie circles, tends to be rather dowdy—when they are considered at all. And who can blame people? Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, even the not-quite-so-northern Netherlands: In the American mass mind, these are dark, cold lands where the crimes of Stieg Larsson’s villains are committed, fish is habitually smoked, and the names of dishes are often unpronounceable to all but Muppets, the letters littered with umlauts and other perplexing shapes.
Step back from stereotypes, however, and you’ll find a range of national cuisines as exciting as any in Europe—and far less explored on these shores. I visited Norway last summer and still think longingly about the food even now: daytime dreams of salmon glistening almost neon at the Bergen fish market; reindeer sausage stacked up like an oversized child’s collection of Lincoln Logs; filets of whale served simply on bread and streaked with lingonberry mustard.
How happy, then, that the best of what this part of the world has to offer, albeit with a focus on the Dutch tradition, has arrived in Philadelphia. Noord, the gutsy, unexpected restaurant by wildly talented chef Joncarl Lachman, opened its doors—and windows, which let in the sounds of the neighborhood like a subtly programmed soundtrack—in one of the most exciting dining neighborhoods in the city. Of course, launching a new restaurant in East Passyunk means high expectations, and with neighbors like Fond and Stateside, the pressure to live up to them must have been huge.
With my first bite of bread, any such concern vanished like a ship in a foggy fjord. Torn from a loaf residing atop the bar separating the gleaming, steel-shiny open kitchen from the elegantly simple dining room, it embodied all that would follow: Hearty and soulful yet carefully wrought, this barley rye smelled of brewing beer, or of grape nuts, and possessed a chew as comforting as a childhood blanket. Smear it with the excellent roasted garlic butter or not; the bread is the star, and a swooningly excellent one at that.
Make sure to keep it throughout the meal, too, the better to sop up the miraculous sauces with. Though an entree of rabbit leg confit was too much to finish in one sitting—but what a lunch the next day!—I didn’t miss a drop of the creamy sauce at the bottom of the plate; floating with thyme-tinged aromatics, it was a distillation of all that Noord does so brilliantly. As for the rabbit, it maintained a moistness and delicacy that the notoriously difficult-to-cook meat rarely does. Forked with zuurkool (think of sauerkraut) as well as a coin of smoked pork sausage and maybe a tender carrot slice, this was as hearty as it was thoughtful.
So, too, were the bitterballen, gorgeous fried meatballs of roux-creamy braised pork lifted with nutmeg and mustard. They arrived four to the order, a neat little procession of rich, palate-coating goodness. One of them had developed a crack in its carapace, and the impossibly moist center had begun to ooze out: one of the sexiest things I’d seen all month. A special of chicken croquettes, also perfectly fried, embodied a different side of the concept, seasoned with onion powder and thyme and based on the previous day’s impeccable rotisserie chicken.
It isn’t all hearty food at Noord, though, and it’s a mistake to assume so just because of geography: Chef Lachman, thoroughly aware that summer in Philadelphia requires an occasionally lighter touch, has a deft hand with these dishes, too. Icelandic haddock was accompanied by corn to highlight its own sweetness, basil for brightness and pickled peaches like a flash of lightning cutting through it all. Head-on prawns were among the most well-cooked crustaceans I’ve had all season. Cooked just past the point of translucence and with antennae charred black and smoky, these delicate creatures arrived atop of puddle of citrus butter practically electric with the pickling liquid from Noord’s herring.
Chances are you won’t have any room left, but order dessert anyway. The daily bread pudding is as justified a diet-buster as I can imagine, a dense-yet-light hillock that changes constantly. A recent white chocolate chip one was excellent after dinner and downright miraculous the next morning for breakfast. Butter cake, all dense with the perfume of almond, begged for half a glass of dessert wine, which I vowed to tote along next time. (Noord is BYOB.)
Then there is the joy with which this is all served: Noord’s staff is justifiably enthusiastic about the food, and they share Chef Lachman’s ability to fill the dining room with a kind of charm and ebullience that makes the experience that much more special.
One recent Saturday night, there was a wedding in full swing at the fountain at the center of East Passyunk Square just outside. At one point, fireworks began to go off, a volley of them shooting into the warm summer sky—their green and purple and white sparks lighting up the night in the most unexpectedly dramatic way. I couldn’t help but think there was immense symbolism in them; that, somehow, they served as a stand-in for Noord, an exuberant arrival itself that is lighting up an already sparkling dining scene in the neighborhood.
1046 Tasker St. 267.909.9704. noordphilly.com
Cuisine: Dutch-centric Northern European.
Hours: Wed.–Thurs., 5–10pm; Fri.–Sat., 5–10:30pm; Sun., 5–9pm.
Price range: $9–$28.
Atmosphere: Clean-lined and very comfortable.
Food: Delicious, with a real sense of discovery.
Service: Friendly, smart and helpful.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014