Beyond Goldilocks: Porridge gets top billing at NY’s Grain Bar
Grains have long been a staple of the human diet, from the rice and millet in the Far East to the barley and wheat in the northernmost corners of Europe. Grains—in solid and in liquid fermented form—nourished Viking traders and raiders during their long voyages when they needed foods that would not rot.
Reclaiming forgotten (or lesser-known) grains has been on trend for decades, and today Nordic grains are making a big comeback in New York. The Great Northern Food Hall in Grand Central—created by Claus Meyer, cofounder of Noma and one of the authors of “Manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine”—includes a Grain Bar. Pull up a stool and have a bowlful. Located in the beautiful architectural gem of Vanderbilt Hall, what they serve is not your mormor’s grøt.
The morning offers several breakfast selections. Oats and Apples comprises steel cut oats, apple compote, fresh apple slices, and maple skyr. The first taste was crunchy and crisp, with a little sweetness. My first words were “Wow, this is nothing like my Quaker oats.”
Barley and Plums consists of pearl barley, coconut, pumpkin seeds, toasted oats, and plum compote. The consistency of the pearl barley is so smooth; it all melds so nicely together but still allows for distinctive flavors to emerge. The Oats and Apples will be most familiar to the American palate, but ordering the latter will give your mouth a new adventure.
The exotic øllebrød made with old rye bread, vanilla milk foam, sea buckthorn, tarragon sugar, caramelized rye crumbs, and homemade buttermilk is perfect for those who wish to try something new. The rye bread is soaked overnight in beer and they add a layer of rye praline. I had never tasted sea buckthorn before, an interesting acidic taste with a touch of anise flavor. Although Meyer’s philosophy is to eat local, which is a great boon for New York and regional area purveyors, it is nice to see unique Scandinavian touches such as this berry.
This dish harks back to the idea of waste not, want not in Scandinavian society, especially in poorer times. According to Jeppe Andersen, the Great Northern Food Hall’s sous chef, who grew up in Vojenes, Denmark, “We wanted to do something traditionally Danish with a twist.” Andersen grew up eating this dish as a child. I asked him how he came to work at the Grain Bar. “I came to New York for this particular job. Claus had a dream. When he told me it, he sold it to me directly.”
The first two breakfast dishes I sampled are their top sellers and the prices for morning offerings range from about $5 to $7. The afternoon and evening offers savory grain dishes. The base for all but the seafood one are two types of barley: pearl and black, as well as freekeh (cracked wheat).
I began with Mushroom and Parsley, my bowl filled with the three-grain base, wheat croutons, Havgus cheese, and shiitake and trumpet mushrooms. Both aromatic and meaty, the broth and cheese give the dish a perfect consistency and an al dente texture.
Diego Rojas, the Grain Bar chef, enlightens: “Each porridge has a different stock. I guess that’s what makes it so cool. The preparation process is more time consuming than the cooking of the dish.”
The second savory I tried was Chicken and Cabbage, reminiscent of Asian food, perhaps because of the chicken skin. It has so many flavors peeking through as time passes on your palate, including chervil.
There is also the vegetarian choice, Greens and Goat Cheese, with spinach, dandelions, radishes, and other greens floating on top. It has an earthy taste blending room temperature greens above with warmth below.
By this time I was really getting full. I told the staff, “I think I bit off more than I can chew.” (This does not diminish the quality of the food, but rather its ability to satiate.) Luckily, to avoid overload, I had reached my last sampling, and that was Beef Brisket blended with fried onions, celeriac, turnips, carrots, Havgus cheese, veal stock, and horseradish. It was delicious, like a warm stew, perfect for the damp New York day. These savory dishes run from $10 to $14.
The Havgus cheese was a first for me. It is light and creamy, acting with the various stocks to fuse the carefully picked mélange of ingredients in each savory dish. Havgus is one of the four new cheeses created a little over a decade ago in Denmark in response to the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto.
I didn’t try the seafood choice, which must be delicious, blending pearl barley creaminess with seafood. I imagine it to be like the creamy, flavorful shrimp and grits so popular in the southern U.S. This is the one I plan to order on my next visit.
The staff was attentive and enthusiastic, embodying Meyer’s philosophy and dream. They are not only excited about food and cooking, but also about working and cooking the food here under these parameters, under Meyer’s tutelage.
Grain Bar Morning Chef, Abi Sola lit up when I asked her how is it different working here from other restaurants. She ruminated, “The fact that nothing goes to waste. For example we make croutons from bread that has not been used. Our mussel shells are boiled for stock. One of the biggest reasons I like working here is that I hate to throw out anything at all. The fact that Claus does it is amazing. I’ve seen chefs create menus from what remains. Here is it different. Quality, not quantity.” This attention to quality is also true in the preparation at the Grain Bar, as every single serving is made to order.
Meyer has taken New York by storm. Adjoining the Great Northern Food Hall is his restaurant Agern. He has a bakery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and in that same borough he is opening a culinary school and restaurant in the job-deprived neighborhood of Brownsville.
It is hard to believe he has time to juggle anything else. But another restaurant is in the works. It is coming to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on Norman Avenue (named after the neighborhood’s first European settler, a Norwegian who was colloquially known as Dirck de Noorman) in partnership with Fredrick Asker. “It will be located in a space called ADO Design, an incubator space for designers. It will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. for the freelancers and neighborhood,” explains Christina Heinze Johansson, Communications Director at Meyers USA.
So when you are in New York, check out the Grain Bar in the Great Northern Food Hall. It’s guaranteed to leave a great taste in your mouth!
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.