Beyond meatballs, lefse, and lutefisk

Old Ballard’s new café explores lesser-known traditional and contemporary Nordic foods

Photo courtesy of Old Ballard A smoked vegetable terrine with leeks, beets, rainbow chard, and a wild mushroom aspic.

Photo courtesy of Old Ballard
A smoked vegetable terrine with leeks, beets, rainbow chard, and a wild mushroom aspic.

Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American

Since 2013, Old Ballard Liquor Co. has been producing a range of Scandinavian aquavits and other liquors in their warehouse location in the shadow of Seattle’s Ballard Bridge. Its tasting room has introduced many a curious visitor to that most Nordic of spirits.

But the true versatility of aquavit isn’t fully apparent until you pair it with food. The new café, a more casual version of the Tumble Swede restaurant that pops up every six months or so, lets you taste a wide variety of aquavits and some of the foods that go along with them in one convenient location.

The previous tasting room experience has been bumped up several notches. Where once visitors stared through a chickenwire divider at the no-nonsense workings of the distillery, a small space has now been carved. In it, just inside a roll-up garage door, you’ll find one long table flanked by eight chairs. Another four stools hug a slightly more polished version of dad’s old workbench, a counter that does double-duty as actual tool storage.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Pull a stool up to the workbench and make some new friends.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Pull a stool up to the workbench and make some new friends.

Visitors can now order from a selection of boards (cheese, charcuterie, and herring) whose exact components are updated weekly. On the weekends more involved items are also available—things like lamb tartare, rullepølse, and vegetable terrine, to name a few recent selections. They are all served with a side of house-made crispbread (knäckebröd) and freshly churned butter.

One of the unexpected (to this writer, at least) stars of the food show is the cardamom sweetbread (vetebröd) baked fresh daily on special contract with Bothell’s Svea bakery. The menu exhorts you to try it, and I fully agree. Have it with a cup of Herkimer Coffee for the full “fika” (Swedish coffee break) experience.

What you won’t see on the menu are things like lutefisk, meatballs, waffles, lefse, or anything else served at your local Sons of Norway buffet. “Swedish meatballs are well and good,” says owner and dynamo Lexi, “but there’s a lot of places already serving them regularly. We want to challenge people a bit more and expand their horizons instead of serving up food that—let’s be honest here—has become pretty stereotypical.”

Lexi’s goal is “to expose people to some traditional dishes that maybe they haven’t had (like different flavors of pickled herring) and also some really interesting contemporary dishes that are still identifiably Scandinavian.”

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun The day’s herring board (left, half-devoured) and “land” board (right) offer a sampling of Nordic fish and meat.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
The day’s herring board (left, half-devoured) and “land” board (right) offer a sampling of Nordic fish and meat.

“I find that there’s a lot of nostalgia around Scandinavian cuisine, and a lot of misunderstanding. I’d like to see people get engaged in this cuisine in a way that’s respectful of the complexity of it but also have fun experiencing things that maybe they’d never had before and are surprised by. Whenever someone comes in and is surprised that they liked something, I feel like we’re doing it right.”

Lexi is joined in the café by Ballard-raised chef Justin Newstrum, who brings his substantial 20-plus years of experience to the menu. His Norwegian ancestors would surely be proud.

Both chefs are committed to using local ingredients whenever possible. “One of the important goals I have is to promote and use as much Pacific seafood as possible, so we’re the only West Coast location regularly using Pacific herring (from Alaska) instead of Atlantic. Most salt herring in the U.S. comes from the Atlantic, via Chicago, and that seems just ridiculous to me, since wild herring grows right here in our own backyard,” Lexi explains.

Of course some of the necessary ingredients aren’t available locally. Old Ballard turns to Seattle’s terrific Scandinavian import shop, Scandinavian Specialties, or even to IKEA to fill in those gaps.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Distiller Jane Frazee measures half-ounce tasters of aquavit into snaps glasses for visitors. Despite all the food, Old Ballard is still primarily a distillery and tasting room.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Distiller Jane Frazee measures half-ounce tasters of aquavit into snaps glasses for visitors. Despite all the food, Old Ballard is still primarily a distillery and tasting room.

With so much great food on the menu, it’s easy to forget that the café is still technically a tasting room. This means that it’s subject to Washington State’s liquor laws, and visitors are only allowed to enjoy four small tastes per person. However, you can now choose to have your tastes in the form of mini-cocktails, all designed in-house to be innovative and to pair with the food offerings—and of course to showcase the company’s liquors, which are still for sale alongside a small offering of deli-style takeout items and merchandise like snaps glasses and t-shirts.

Old Ballard’s café hours are Wednesday to Friday 3:00 to 7:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 1:00 to 7:00 p.m. If you’re in the Seattle area I recommend you drop in, pull up a seat with some strangers, and let your taste buds explore Scandinavia while you make new friends.

Old Ballard is located at 4421 Shilshole Ave NW. Learn more at oldballardliquorco.com.

Full disclosure: Lexi is a columnist for The Norwegian American, and Old Ballard is an advertiser. We have also written about the distillery before, in our April 17, 2015, issue. That article is available at www.norwegianamerican.com/food/seattles-skal-worthy-akevitt.

This article originally appeared in the July 15, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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