Gravlax proves that two cuisines far apart on the map can still make a very good match
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
There’s a logic to serving multiple cuisines in the same restaurant. It helps if they share a lot of the same ingredients, like Greek and Italian food, or Chinese and Vietnamese. Those pairings of cuisines would likely attract the same clientele, as anyone who likes one probably would enjoy the other.
The real world is not logical, so culinary combinations that defy rationality can also flourish. Among the most interesting of these is Gravlax, a collaboration between a Swede and a Turk who wanted to open a Westside restaurant. Magnus Stefansson and Arda Koca evidently have a passion for modern art as well as their traditional cuisines. Their bistro is a fantasy of murals, woodwork and dramatic lighting — a wonderful bohemian hangout space.
Although Swedish and Turkish food have few ingredients or techniques in common, they are similar in the style of dining. Both involve many small plates of food, most served at room temperature or chilled. Gravlax doesn’t have an oven or grill, so the more ambitious dishes from either cuisine aren’t offered, but Stefansson and Koca manage a wide diversity of flavors and effects anyway.
The Scandinavian way to start a meal here is with a shot of akvavit, and a homemade equivalent is served here. Though lower-octane than the traditional Swedish version, the caraway or lemon- and dill-infused sojus are remarkably reminiscent of the Scandinavian national tipple. Some of the other “akvavits” here are less traditional but still worth trying. I’d recommend the hibiscus for those who like a delicate flowery flavor, or Thai chili and ginger for a liquid wake-up call.
Our party of six ordered an assortment of small plates: a cheese and pickle platter with Scandinavian crispbread and duck prosciutto, a herring plate, pepper-smoked trout, dandelion salad, a Turkish mezze plate, hummus with zatar and pita, a lobster roll and, of course, the gravlax for which the restaurant is named. This sounds like a gigantic feast, but since the portions are small it was actually a manageable meal.
Note from the list above that there were no fusion items mentioned —dishes were either Swedish or Turkish, with the exception of the lobster roll. When I asked why Gravlax served an item associated with New England, Koca said that it’s remarkably similar to the flavors of a smorgasbord. So it is, though this version isn’t entirely traditional: instead of chopped celery and celery seed, the mayo and lobster were mixed with scallions, cilantro and herbs. It was a different way of achieving an herbal sharpness, and tasty on its own merits.
I am puzzled that real Scandinavian smorgasbords haven’t flourished in L.A., and the procession of light, fresh flavors at Gravlax made me wonder about that again. There’s a remarkable variety here — the smoky, peppery trout contrasted wonderfully with the sharp pickles, crunchy rye flatbread and silky cheese. The herring had a rich, slightly oily flavor that blended with the sour cream and dill, and the slightly bitter dandelion salad was a perfect palate cleanser any time the richer flavors started to overwhelm my taste buds.
As for the gravlax, it was luscious — the fish, with a balance of salty and sweet, topped with cucumber salad and fresh dill. Gravlax must go through pounds of dill here, and not a sprig is wasted.
I had been concerned that the items native to a culture more than 1,000 miles to the south and east of Sweden would be jarring, but the Turkish snacks were a remarkably good match. The cool, tangy yogurt and garlic dip on the meze platter had more in common with Scandinavian flavors than I had ever realized before. Stuffed grape leaves? A different pickled flavor, but still rewarding after a bite of smoky trout. The hummus topped with zatar — a sharply flavored mix of oregano, thyme and sumac — was quite a contrast with most of the other flavors, but the mix of cool beany richness and herbal bite was delightful.
Koca surprised us by bringing out one item we hadn’t ordered: a Turkish salad of roasted red peppers and cooked zucchini topped with herbed yogurt. This isn’t on the menu, but she had made some and shared it because we were enjoying the food so much.
We paired our meals variously with wine and beer, which comes from a well-selected but somewhat pricey list. The beer prices look moderate but the pours are well short of a pint, so a thirsty customer can spend more than they expected.
Four desserts were offered, and in the spirit of inquiry we got them all. The torta and yellow cake were good but unremarkable, the rich chocolate Budapest cake and the mosaic cake of nuts and chocolate worth coming back for.
Our dinner with wine and aperitifs ran about $45 per person before tip — not unreasonable for a long and lively evening of snacking and good cheer. Gravlax is one of a kind, a cross-cultural collaboration that engages the senses and the mind. I find it delightful, and will be back.
Gravlax is open from daily from 5 p.m. to midnight. Corkage is $15.