The scent of cumin and peppercorn wafts from the Shui Dong baby back ribs, announcing delights to come. That intensely flavorful spice blend encrusts unctuous beef inside, yielding a tingly heat that dances on the tongue without overwhelming the flavor of the rich meat. To perfect that dish, Don Golden, chef-owner of Njord Haven in Swampscott, credits a travel delay in Shanghai. Before his rescheduled flight, he whiled away hours at a tiny side-street restaurant that was renowned for ribs. Golden couldn’t speak the chef’s language, but he could understand the techniques, the aromas, and the flavors.
That’s par for the course for Golden. For more than a decade, the chef’s extensive travels in Asia have informed his cooking. So naturally, when Golden opened his own restaurant, the South Shore native intended to focus exclusively on recipes collected from floating markets, food stalls, and backstreets throughout China, Vietnam, and Thailand. But something about the windswept Atlantic Ocean, spied through plate-glass windows on the day he signed the lease on his waterside restaurant, stirred another desire: to serve the Scandinavian food his mother cooked during his youth.
The result is Njord Haven, an unlikely but totally delightful mashup of two cuisines. One side of the menu is rife with the hearty dishes of far Northern Europe—Swedish meatballs, stews, and grilled lamb—while the other pays homage to Asian cuisine, with noodles, fried rice, and those delicious ribs. There’s a cross-pollination of flavors and techniques between the two sides, bringing the menu together so that ordering dishes across the menu becomes a harmonious experience.
Like much of Golden’s thoughtful cuisine, the ribs are a complicated affair. The chef starts by grilling them over an open flame, to impart a subtle smokiness. Then he braises them in the oven, and then deep-fries them before finishing in a searing-hot dry wok, tossed with Szechuan peppercorns, cumin, and Shaoxing wine.
The ribs pair well with Kanom Gui Chai—square garlic-chive rice cakes that the chef first tasted in the floating markets of Thailand. Like much of the menu, the ribs and rice cakes, which are addictive, with a crispy exterior and moist chewy interior, are small plates intended for sharing.
It’s easy to mix and match from both sides of the menu, while admiring the ways the chef melds ingredients. For example, the Sesame-Crusted Ahi appears on the Scandinavian side of the menu, but it’s really a lovely showcase for the way Golden intertwines the two cuisines. The tuna is seared, crusted with black and white sesame seeds, then served with unagi—a classic Japanese sauce used most often for eel—that the chef brightens and sweetens with lingonberries, which are a Scandinavian staple. The glistening fish is curved around Golden’s take on sunomono. He amps up the traditional Japanese cucumber salad with earthy beets and salmon trim, alongside a smear of intense wasabi.
That’s a light start to the Nordic side. Further along the dishes get heartier—the cheesy Stockholm Caesar could be a meal, dotted with pumpernickel-rye croutons, and the substantial Rabbit Farikal is the chef’s take on the national dish of Sweden. While it’s lighter than the traditional mutton version of this stew, it is still comforting and filling, served with mashed potatoes to mop up the deliciously complex gravy.
Perhaps pair that with the light, fresh Viet Lemongrass Beef Noodles. It’s a chilled salad with tender slices of rib-eye steak and rice noodles, redolent with lemongrass, cilantro, and mint. The dish makes a lovely palate refresher.
Do not skip the cocktail list. It’s full of hard-to-find spirits and delicious infusions, like the Tokyo Rose Martini. A delicate mix of Roku gin, sake, yuzu juice, and Japanese dry cherry, it is bone dry and perfectly colorless, belying the floral, fruity mix of flavors. Seeking intensity with a Nordic edge? Try the Blood Eagle, which blends aquavit, mezcal, amaro, lemon, and grapefruit soda. Sounds like it shouldn’t work at all, but trust Golden’s mad mixology skills and give it a whirl, as long as smoky cocktails are your thing.
For dessert, explore the chef’s twist on Bananas Foster. The centerpiece is smaller, sweeter Thai bananas, which have an interesting cakelike consistency. Floating in a caramel made from coconut milk with a scoop of ice cream, they are a sweet finish to a jet-setting meal.
408 Humphrey Street, Swampscott, 781-910-4516, njordhaven.com