Fresh off a recent trip to Denmark, I came home infatuated with smørrebrød, the open-faced sand- wiches found in just about every deli, pub, and snack bar north of Hamburg.
Because they're often such perfect, dainty artworks, it feels rude to describe smørrebrød simply as "open-faced sandwiches." Sure, they're in the same family, but because there isn't a piece of bread on top to smash everything down, the styling and composition is more creative, à la sushi. Overseas, the really involved smørrebrød are more like little food dioramas, so lovingly tweezed and landscaped that you can barely stand to ruin them with your dumb, clumsy mouth.
Initially created as a way to use up leftovers, smørrebrød can be made out of pretty much anything. But they're generally built upon a slice of dense, malty rye bread (rugbrød) that's about half the size of a standard American slice. Per the name—"buttered bread" or "smeared bread"—smørrebrød's base layer is butter or some other fat, often with mayonnaise slathered on top.
The flavors take off from there. The usual Danish renditions might feature, for example, lox, roast beef, liver pâté, bay shrimp, pickled herring, fried flounder, a hard-boiled egg, various cheeses, and/or caviar, especially the kind from a tube—along with, perhaps, avocado, tomato, rémoulade, infinite types of fresh or pickled veggies or other delectables in hundreds of permutations. Sprigs of herbs, usually dill, garnish the top, and they're often adorned with a small slice of lemon or orange like a bright little crown.
The Danes have eldritch rules about the order in which you must eat your smørrebrød when there is an assortment of them (for instance, first herring, then other seafood types, then meat, and then cheese). Also, you use a knife and fork—never your hands. (I didn't do any of that stuff. Instead, I wolfed them all down like a cartoon monster, in the order my eyeballs saw them. But, y'know, FYI.)
In Seattle, there are at least three local spots that can help me pursue my newfound love of smørrebrød closer to home. Fortunately, they're all legit.
The Dane in Crown Hill offers laks (smoked salmon, cream cheese, arugula, dill, and red onion) and æg (hard-boiled egg, Havarti, tomato, dill, arugula, balsamic, and red onion), both on buttered rye bread. These are the largest, least ornate smørrebrød in town, and they fulfill their original role as casual pub grub best.
Freya at the National Nordic Museum in Ballard has the most authentic smørrebrød in town, and the loveliest. The crown jewel among them features juniper-smoked king salmon, pickled fennel, tart apple, frisée, and lemon, all topped with apple-horseradish yogurt. But the tomatmad—with tomato, pickled fennel, arugula, tarragon mayo, herbs, and crumbled bacon—is neck and neck with the salmon for first place. Freya's menu changes from time to time, and all their smørrebrød are both heavenly and dazzling to behold.
Open to the public, the Friday night Kafe at the Swedish Club on Dexter Avenue North offers a darling and wholesome time, with a rotating menu of prim smørrebrød options—called smörgås because they're Swedish. Plus, there are the Scandinavian-inspired cocktail specials and the sweeping view. The club leans heavily on the bay shrimp and roast beef, so they may not have anything to feed vegetarians, other than booze.
When eaten correctly, smørrebrød are chased by a stinging-cold shot of akvavit, of which the Swedish Club has a nice selection. That's the only one of the Danes' arcane sandwich rules I always make sure to follow.