The New Nordic movement, led by chefs like René Redzepi and his Danish restaurant Noma, has accomplished the seemingly impossible and spearheaded a local, “hyper-seasonal” movement in countries covered in snow for half the year.
Now, one of Grand Rapids’ latest restaurants, The Sovengard, is looking to do the same here with a Scandinavian-influenced, Midwestern restaurant and biergarten with a focus on Michigan products. Revue sat down with Chef Patrick Conrade and founder Rick Muschiana to see how the grand experiment is faring.
The Sovengard has an expertly curated beer list, with a refreshing number of beers from out of state. Was that intentional?
Muschiana: I think it was. Of course, we always want to support Michigan first, especially in our culinary program that Patrick has led. But it’s also a nod to those companies outside the state that are doing the right things and have been, if you’re talking certain wine or spirits, for hundreds of years. We have some tremendous breweries in Michigan — and on our beer list, too — but we also like to support those who are making some fantastic beer and share what else is happening outside our boundaries.
And the food too?
Conrade: Yeah, kind of in spirit. But our climate (in Michigan) is very similar to some Scandinavian countries — you’d be surprised to see the similarities in cuisines. Plus, Michigan’s agricultural biodiversity contains such a large variety, and that allows us to pull items from across Michigan year-round.
How does this play into your menu?
Muschiana: I think our secret mission is to define a Midwestern culinary tradition — or join that process — because it certainly exists in certain spots around the region. But when you think about it, it’s less recognizable (than), say, Southern food or a Pacific Northwest cuisine.
You guys are committing to a seasonal menu too, right?
Muschiana: Yeah, the menu has already changed three since we opened (in August). For us, there’s no demarcation in when it will change, it’s literally a matter of what our farmers and sources can offer us on a week-to-week basis.
Patrick, is a rapidly changing menu a hindrance to you or just the opposite?
Conrade: No, I don’t think so. We get in products that are at the peak of their freshness, and so our team will get together and see what we can do to pair flavors and textures with what we’ve got, or let the ingredients stand alone if need be. And it’s being conscious of what’s available, what’s in season, because working with the freshest ingredients is ultimately what makes it easiest.
Rumor is, you guys are interested in being at the forefront of the fermentation and preservation movement in GR.
Conrade: Within reason, yes, we’d like to introduce those concepts. Some things, obviously, aren’t viable for restaurants because of health department rules and regulations. But on an individual level I think it is pretty important to return to older food storage processes in order to showcase these ultra-fresh ingredients for a longer shelf life.
How important is that to a sustainable culinary tradition?
Muschiana: Imagine living in Michigan a hundred years ago. Where would you get asparagus in the middle of wintertime? Your pantry! We always go back to the asparagus example because it tastes terrible out of season. Nowadays, you can get it “fresh” this time of year up from Mexico, but it’s not the same as fresh, Michigan, springtime asparagus. And proper preservation techniques like fermentation or pickling are an old but efficient way to preserve those bright spring and summertime flavors in the dead of winter.
And has everyone been receptive to the concept so far? Honestly, we’ve yet to hear a bad word about The Sovengard.
Muschiana: We’ve had a lot of encouragement from our guests, which is validating. I don’t know that we would have been able to open a restaurant like this even five years ago, but the amount of public curiosity to try new things — and the producers’ and farmers’ interest in growing new varieties — has all been very encouraging.
What else makes The Sovengard’s experience unique?
Muschiana: A lot of times, guests will come in and ask their servers to choose three plates for the table to split, and I believe that’s a culture that might not exist as frequently in other restaurants downtown.
The Sovengard, 443 Bridge St. NW, Grand Rapids; (616) 214-7207, sovengard.com. HOURS: Mon.-Thurs.: 3-11 p.m., Fri.: 3-midnight, Sat.: 3-midnight, Sun.: 3-10 p.m.