Chef Mikko wants you to know: when it comes to Nordic cuisine, use sparingly and carry a big fish.
Mikko Kosonen, the chef and owner behind his eponymous restaurant, Mikko Nordic Foods (1636 R St., N.W.), is something of an ambassador for Nordic foods, especially of his home country, Finland. Kosonen is well-versed in the vocabulary of diplomacy, having served the last 15 years as executive chef to the Ambassador of Finland, which he did with dexterity and a liberal helping of lingonberries, the Nordic answer to superfood.
Earlier this month, Kosonen, along with business partner (and boyfriend of 20 years) Rob Wing, opened up their own shop on R Street, just off 17th. The building, which the duo managed to purchase to house their store, is unmistakable. It’s grandly swathed in the colors of the various Nordic flags, bold red and Baltic blue and a touch of white, to match the bold flavors that star inside (chefmikko.com).
Kosonen has a history of being in the kitchen. He was raised at his grandmother’s side in her farmhouse and spent summers working in a family restaurant. Later, he attended the Helsinki Culinary School, honing his craft.
He eventually landed in Washington and has called it home for more than two decades, having watched the city prosper and grow. But after his time at the Embassy, while also running a catering company out of Union Kitchen that plated grand affairs within diplomatic circles, it was time for him to turn the world on to more fans.
Nordic food, Kosonen says, is “unique in its simple, yet versatile, presentation.”
While he may plead minimalism, evident in the smooth blonde-wood bar and low-slung tables recalling midcentury-modern design, his dishes are anything but unassuming.
Proteins cured, smoked and pickled, take up most of the menu, adorned with salt-of-the-earth accoutrements like mushrooms, berries, whole grains and roots.
The café, open all day, begins service in the morning with a foundation strong enough for a Valhalla army. Enter to an aromatic display of gooey cinnamon rolls and cardamom-laced sweet buns, as well as hearty seven-seed bread spread thick with jams of lingonberry, blackcurrant, gooseberry and cloudberry. The café also bakes its own breads, Nordic crisps and almond tarts.
In the afternoons and evenings, lunch and dinner mean an array of Danish-inspired open-faced sandwiches. One of these is the Nordic version of a millennial favorite: the shrimp salad Skagen, also known as shrimp toast. Other options include triple-cheese on rustic-style bread, as well as a mild gravlax with egg, a touch of mustard, egg, a micro dill sprig on rye, a dish that would have no trouble making friends at a corner Jewish deli.
As for entrees, Mikko sears his trout over an open flame, and sets it beside seasonal vegetables. He also crafts saucy meatballs in a lingonberry demi-glace that put IKEA’s to shame, and roasts mini root vegetables (parsnips, carrots, yellow beets) straight from a rainbow fairytale garden.
Yet bringing this food to D.C., mixing American and Nordic, was a challenge.
“Some of the specialties I was worried people would not understand or like,” he says, “but I had no reason for concern. American food is familiar with sandwiches, though the ingredients are slightly different.”
One item that turns American food on its head? The Swedish surf-and-turf hot dog, which, we are told, is all the rage in Stockholm today. This singular vista produces a boiled hot dog, halved, nestled unceremoniously in a potato bun, festooned with a crown of creamy shrimp salad. It sits lording over a side of greens that looks to be attempting to flee yet is crushed by the weight of its mashup-meal companion.
Kosonen’s personal favorite takes the form of Baltic herring, served alongside wild mushrooms and berries.
“I love my fish to be cooked on an open fire,” he says, with a touch of salt. All they need is a couple new potatoes, “maybe some fresh mushrooms and some wild berries from a forest of Finland.”
As for opening up in Dupont, “It feels great to offer my food to the general public and as I live here in Dupont it feels even better to open a business here and cook for my community and neighbors.”
And now that Café Mikko has received its liquor license (just last week) it will start serving select craft aquavit-based cocktails. It’ll surely pair well with shrimp and sausage.