In a 1987 piece in the “Home & Garden” section of the New York Times, Florence Fabricant warned that smørrebrød — a “decorative, infinitely varied Danish open-faced sandwich” — was “easier to make than to pronounce.” She never mentioned that simply finding it would be hardest of all.
This was especially apparent on a recent goose chase I took through L.A. County in search of serviceable smørrebrød, a present for my curious yet fermentation-averse father. A casual foodie, he had given me and my partner a stay in Copenhagen earlier this year after hearing about the renaissance in local cuisine there. He only asked that we return the favor by bringing back a classic Danish pickled herring smørrebrød, a simple request rendered impossible by U.S. Customs.
I vowed to go hunting for one on my return to Los Angeles, in part because the ongoing wave of “New Nordic” cuisine has turned the potato-heavy folk traditions of Scandinavia into a gastronomic paradise that everyone deserves to experience. The fish my partner and I tried in Denmark’s most acclaimed restaurants — the silken poached perch at Kødbyens Fiskebar; breaded fiskefilet at Rita’s Smørrebrød — were wonders of balance, size and freshness. (Noma was overbooked.) I wanted that for my dad.
But as Food Editor Katherine Spiers noted in a recent profile of Alta Nordic Kitchen, Scandinavian cuisine is frightfully scant in L.A. Downtown's Hygge Bakery, founded in 2009, once took pride in its Danish pastries, but it has new ownership and savory Nordic delicacies like smørrebrød have been removed from the menu. Then there’s Poul’s Danish-American Bakery, which was founded in Orange County in 1955 and has since become locally famous for its buttery angel cookies. Poul’s does not serve smørrebrød, either.
Salvation for my family was found in the more broadly Scandinavian establishments that cater equally to Danes, Finns and Norwegians. Alta, the closest aesthetic match in the city to the modernist eateries in Copenhagen, serves an open-faced macka called “Sill & Gubbrora,” a typically Swedish sandwich of herring fillets and fragrant anchovy-egg salad. This is appropriate: The chef, Christer Larsson, is from Sweden.
Mikkeller DTLA beer bar, which is still finding its sea legs after opening earlier this year, also offers a revisionist pork shoulder smørrebrød with tangy cabbage on fresh rye. In an unfortunate parallel to current haute cuisine trends in Denmark, the snacks are addictively tasty but portions are finger-sized (those visiting for the massive beer selection will need at least one more sandwich to keep vision from blurring).
Still, as I quickly learned, neither Mikkeller’s sleek hipster enclave nor the Frank Lloyd Wrightian charms of Alta offered the familiar, delicate simplicity of Olson’s Scandinavian Deli & Café on West Pico.
A long-standing anchor for L.A.’s Nordic community (Linda Burum wrote of its exceptionality for the L.A. Times in 1991), Olson’s has been owned for the last four years by Christian Kneedler. Its interior, however, still smells as I like to imagine it did upon its founding in 1948: of light vanillin from old Danish cookbooks, lingonberry tonic and pungent cold cuts.
Like Alta’s Larsson, Kneedler is Swedish, evidenced in his menu’s leanings toward meatballs, weiners and shrimp skagen. Yet since Scandinavians from multiple nationalities often stop in for specialty lattes (when I visited, several couples were celebrating a major soccer victory), Kneedler and his staff are prepared to accommodate off-menu requests, including some of the most handsome and generously portioned open-faced sandwiches in Los Angeles.
Olson’s gravlax toast is a delight, the salmon cured with dill and tossed in heaping slices over an excellent homemade horseradish cream. I found myself overwhelmed — but not without joy — at a gargantuan, golden remoulade-topped beef smørrebrød. Each bite rang out with capers’ saltiness, mustard seed spice and Danish-style fried onions.
Camila Karlstromer, Olson’s manager, then prepared an elegant smørrebrød by perching tender pickled herring on a soft bed of egg, onion and pumpernickel. The result was a too-pretty-to-defile portrait of a sandwich, a working lunch in striking still-life. The herring reeked wonderfully of sweet vinegar.
Surprising my father with this meal was rewarding. He has an evolved sense of smell, and stared daggers, as if trying to get the fish to confess to an odor-related crime. Then — finally! — a bite, a smile, and a whispered “wow.” Maybe someone, somewhere, makes a better smørrebrød, but this was perfect for us.