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Special Events: A Scandinavian Christmas Feast

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Tre Kronor

3258 W. Foster

773-267-9888

Julbord--the "Christmas table"--is a pan-Scandinavian tradition, a gastroextravaganza staged annually in homes and restaurants across Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. In Chicago, every December, Tre Kronor puts on an old-school version for local Scandinavians and culinary explorers alike. It includes three candlelit courses and dessert, plus helpful guidance and narration--and angelic singing--from a host of Swedish women apparently committed to preserving the time-honored folkways of this communal festival of excess.

It begins with fish--lots of it. Tre Kronor offers nine variations on herring, and a boatload of other sea creatures as well, many accompanied by distinctive sauces. Inlagd sill is standard pickled herring, but there's also herring in mustard, with herbs, in tomato sauce, curried, and with creamy orange mayo. Glassblower's herring comes in a sweet and sour marinade of white onion and bright orange carrot. The matjes herring is fabulously dense and meaty; it's caught young during spawning season and packed in oil (rather than vinegar), flavored with sandalwood, and topped with creme fraiche and green onion. All these herring dishes, we were told by a server, should be accompanied by a red potato. It's also traditional to complement the meal with blasts of aquavit or other strong, clear liquor--and you might want to bring your own, because after the complimentary opening salvo of glogg (wine simmered with raisin, orange peel, cardamom, and other spices), the only spirit on hand is the holiday kind.

The second course of the julbord features cold meats on buttered bread (butter is the "smor" in smorgasbord). In addition to predictable turkey and beef, this "cold table" offers salted reindeer meat studded with clove, lean and flavorful, and kalve sylta, a head cheese good with mustard. The course also features homemade gravlax--flavorful salmon, or lax, that's been put in a "grave" to ferment, a Scandinavian technique of cooking by interment used to prepare shark and other fish--plus salmon and goose liver pates and a number of cheeses. But you might want to go easy on them in favor of what's to come.

Julskinka, or Swedish Christmas ham, typically baked with mustard and bread crumbs, is the star of the third course, but you also get Swedish meatballs, sausage, and an excellent prune-stuffed pork loin served with rosemary and plum sauce. And while turf is the main attraction, here's where you'll find the much-maligned lutefisk, a punch-line food whose very preparation is enough to turn off many eaters. Traditionally, cod is treated with lye, which causes protein to gelatinize and potentially turn caustic--if the fish stays too long in solution, it undergoes saponification, becoming soap. The modern-day lutefisk at Tre Kronor, preserved with something less toxic, has a surprisingly mellow taste, not at all harsh. The jellylike texture may still discourage some, but added bacon and butter--reflecting the Norwegian background of owner Patty Rasmussen--probably help smooth out the flavor. Though infrequently made at home these days, lutefisk gives special pleasure to Scandinavians in the same way that chitterlings might please a southerner: outsiders find it odd and perhaps inedible, but those who grew up on it taste home.

My personal favorite from this course is the suggestively named Jansson's Temptation, a casserole of shredded potato, onion, heavy cream, and Swedish anchovies, which are somewhat sweeter than the Mediterranean variety. This is an excellently balanced blend of bland starch, acidic onion, milky richness, and fishy funk. Like many dishes on the table, Jansson's Temptation could stand alone as an entree, which it would have done for me were there not 80 other dishes competing for my attention.

Near the end of the dinner festivities, one of the servers puts on a white gown and a crown of candles and sings "Santa Lucia." In Sweden the official Saint Lucy celebration takes place on December 13 (the middle of winter on the Gregorian calendar), but this centuries-old allegory of the triumph of light over darkness is reenacted every night of Advent at Tre Konor.

Dessert is a sideboard loaded with tasties like creme brulee, chocolates, cookies, and rice pudding with lingonberry sauce. At this stage most diners are stuffed and bleary, but my Norwegian companion and I managed to try one of everything--and go back for thirds of the herring.

Over the julbord season Tre Kronor serves about 1,500 people in a modest second-floor apartment above the main restaurant that makes it seem you're having dinner at a friend's house. (On the last three nights, December 21-23, the restaurant also offers the spread in the main dining room.) You won't find a cozier room in the city, and even at $46.95 it's not much to pay for one last stand of warm camaraderie in advance of a frigid season. --David Hammond

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.

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