Nordic countries are anything but the land of plenty, with an aesthetic rooted in a constant awareness of scarcity, of winter that picks up again not long after it tapers off. In its short growing season, Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley produces thousand-pound pumpkins, their vines photosynthesizing the midnight sun. But Scandinavia doesn’t typically go for grotesqueries like that. Rather, it’s all about hygge, the “Danish national manifesto” of coziness and contentment, like listening to Carole King’s Tapestry and drinking green tea with a purring cat in your lap, or keeping a homemade candle lit under a wind turbine in a driving rainstorm while also leaving your baby unattended.
Kantine, the Scandinavian breakfast-and-lunch spot from husband-and-wife team Chef Nichole Accettola and Joachim Majholm, embodies this. A Nopa alum who lived in Copenhagen for a decade and a half, Accettola faced down some neighbors who grumbled over the closure of the Little Hollywood Laundrette, which previously occupied the space next to the Orbit Room that Kantine now occupies. The laundromat’s muraled walls and potted plants were as far from the space’s new white interior as a hot wash cycle is from vinterbadning. It could have gone cutesy-bland, but instead, it’s warm and inviting. Calling Kantine cozy might be a stretch, but the sunniest corner has upholstered benches and the lettered signs you take once you order — for it is indeed fast-casual — have the names of Swedish musicians on them, from Tove Lo to the Cardigans to Metallica (for Denmark native Lars Ulrich).
Nourishing though it is, sturdy rye bread can sometimes taste like unflinching moral rectitude. But it fuels a nation of apple-cheeked vitality and it’s what jump-started Accettola’s career — so your feelings about Kantine might closely track your feelings toward its nutty, dark-brown density. Buttered, it’s the basis for smørrebrød, the open-faced treat that can be topped with almost anything (but chiefly things that are smoked or somehow fermented). Katine’s lightly fried herring with a fat curl of pickled onion and plenty of dill ($10) is the best option.
Salads, like a combination of greens with bacon, walnuts, fennel, and a soft-boiled egg, are surprisingly winning. Even more than the lack of pro-salad propaganda on the walls, I appreciate the Sun Gold tomatoes and their glowing tartness, so unlike their wan cherry cousins. Why do you need a dressing when you have a yolk to play with? They show up again in force on an open-faced version of avocado toast. Hygge, that.
A $12 savory porridge is even better, the kind of thing a kindly woodsman might eat. On one visit, it was a little thin and watery, but still nutty when served with soft cheese and cucumbers among the Sun Golds to bounce acid off the grain. With apple, egg, fennel, and a profoundly generous $3 addition of pork belly it’s even more fortifying. (You can get a pork belly smørrebrød, too, although it seems to be the first item to sell out.) It might have a little too much fennel for some people, not because the flavor is overpowering but because there’s a lot of fibrous vegetable matter to chew.
A chocolate rye bun has a toughness that seems to envelop the chocolate, letting it melt into its nooks even if the exterior is a little shell-like. If you want something that’s rich inside and out, go for the tebirkes ($4.50), a poppy-seed pastry full of almond paste. A grapefruit-strawberry yogurt drink is as irresistible as any lassi, but Kantine has a beer-and-wine license and a pint of Mikkeller San Diego Raspberry Blush ($10) measures the berries’ brightness against a coffee-inflected finish.
If you like a profusion of small items, not unlike a German Frühstück, you can build your own brunch board (from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.). At $15 for five items or $19 for seven, it’s a way to round out your bases without diving headfirst into porridge. Choose your bread with care, though. A Swedish rye crispbread shaped like a flattened bagel, is much too stern — dour, even — and hostile to butter. Dip it into some herbed goat cheese if you like, but the rye bread is the happier foundation for a meal, especially with some Oregon pink bay shrimp and a sort of boreal eggs florentine.
Possibly owing to IKEA and its meatballs, these particular cuisines have a reputation for practically floating off the table, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Accettola approaches that fact from the other side, adding decidedly non-Scandinavian options like three-lentil hummus with carrots for color and lightness. Ditto the curried herring, which turns the most pedestrian fish in the ocean into something luscious (with capers and dill for the purists). Closer to home, a different rye porridge with peach elderflower puree and cream provides a sweeter note.
In short, Kantine is comfort food, but at an unexpected angle. Comfort foods satisfy that nostalgic part of the lizard brain that reminds you of childhood but without necessarily triggering specific memories. They’re usually the kind of dishes for which teasing out the flavors of the individual components misses the point; you’re not meant to enjoy it with a cerebral ferocity, but let yourself go and cut a big honking square of mac-and-cheese — or, in a more Swedish sense, wild strawberries. Kantine’s porridges are like that.
Savory porridge is also not something I grew up eating, as our house was more into Quaker Oats’ instant Peaches and Cream, but it gets at the relationship between sophistication and comfort. Specifically, it requires a little sleight of hand to appreciate the unfamiliar as the comfort food it’s intended to be. But at Kantine, that is the soul of contentment.
Kantine, 1906 Market St., 415-735-7123 or kantinesf.com