I drank the aquavit wrong. I know this because text and a series of photos of chef Magnus Nilsson later made clear that “sipping is generally considered not good practice for enjoying aquavit.” Still, I felt compelled to sip, after standing in a line of a few dozen people on Wednesday for a taste of herb-infused aquavit from Gamle Ode. It was dill-icious.
The event was a celebration of Magnus Nilsson’s Nordic, a new exhibit occupying the Osher Gallery and much of the Turnblad Mansion at the American Swedish Institute (ASI). The show comprises large-scale photographs by Nilsson, along with ten photos — by Minnesota photographer Cameron Wittig — of Nilsson’s restaurant Fäviken.
Fäviken is one of those international destination restaurants that sound almost mythical. It only has 16 seats. To eat there, you need to not only get to Järpen, Sweden, you need to succeed in landing a reservation — which will run you about $370 per person, or $580 with wine pairing. It’s that kind of place.
If you can’t swing a stop at Fäviken, you can DIY it with Nilsson’s Fäviken cookbook — or his latest tome, The Nordic Cookbook. The new door-stopper is illustrated with photos by Nilsson, who has a fine eye and strong technique and makes Scandinavia look wind-swept and extraordinarily sincere.
Getting the show — and a visit by Nilsson, who appeared on Wednesday looking placidly bemused — is a coup for ASI, which continues to pull off the seemingly impossible feat of celebrating Minnesota’s Scandinavian heritage in a way that’s relevant for the 21st century.
The Nilsson show resonates not just because of the cultural connection, but because Minnesotans, like Nilsson, are trying to solve some fundamental conundrums of our era. How do we celebrate the local and specific while keeping a global perspective and not becoming exclusionary? In a factory-farming era, is it possible to pull back to more traditional, sustainable methods of agriculture? We all need to eat better, but we can’t all afford $370 a plate — or even $11 for a salmon sandwich at ASI’s FIKA cafe.
ASI, like Fäviken, is a good place to get a hit of hygge — especially at events like Wednesday’s, with local microbrews flowing and fire pits roaring and the gentle tap of kubb blocks on the lawn. As Park Avenue traffic whirred past outside the gates, I wondered whether places like Fäviken are islands of privilege or bridges to the future. Nilsson, it seems, hopes they can be both.
Photo by Magnus Nilsson, via American Swedish Institute