Food

Try Nordic Pastries and Smoked Fish at a New Cafe in Dupont Circle

Mikko comes from the former chef to the Finnish Ambassador.
The red, white, and blue storefront nods to the Scandinavian flags. Photo by Helen Carefoot.

On a street shaded by trees and lined with red brick buildings, Mikko stands out. Yes, that’s partially because the exterior is bright blue and red—a nod to the Finnish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Danish flags. But the place is also noteworthy for what’s inside: one of DC’s only Nordic cafes.

The place comes from Mikko Kosonen, who was previously the executive chef to the Ambassador to Finland for more than 15 years. Kosonen’s cooking incorporates four main tenets of Nordic cuisine: fish, grains, dairy, and smoke. Think smoked salmon, lots of lingonberries and mushrooms, and desserts and soups made with milk and Skyrr, an Icelandic dairy product with a thick, yogurt-like consistency.

On his wishlist? Reindeer. “I’m bummed because it’s impossible to bring it [from Europe],” he says. For now, he’s replacing that meat with venison and caribou.

Cinnamon rolls are among the pastry offerings. Photo by Helen Carefoot.

So far, Kosonen has focused on open-faced sandwiches topped with gravlax, shrimp salad, or roast beef as well as baked goods such as seven-seed loaf and pastries topped with egg butter and filled with rice porridge. The pastry case also stocks cinnamon buns plus daily rotating treats including caramel tarts or mushroom quiches.

Traditional Finnish fish soup adorned with potatoes and simple salads round out the lunch selections. Dinner entrées such as seared salmon with mushrooms and purple potatoes are available after 5 PM. Specials change daily and the menu rotates biweekly.

The cafe’s small market section includes some goodies to bring home as well. Kosonen makes his own rye crackers and cookies and sells pastel mugs emblazoned with Moomins, popular Finnish cartoon characters. There’s also a full coffee bar.

The interior of Mikko. Photograph by Helen Carefoot.
The interior of Mikko. The pastries in the case vary daily. Photograph by Helen Carefoot.

While Nordic cuisine has gained a reputation for being avant-garde, thanks to Noma (the “World’s Best Restaurant“), Kosonen says his approach is all about simplicity.

“People say, ‘Oh you have beautiful nature and clean water and the air is nice and fresh and the forests are beautiful and green… so the food must be simple and basic and not too complicated,” Kosonen says. “I’ve made dishes with 25 ingredients. But I’d rather have my Baltic herring cooked on an open fire seasoned with a little salt and eat it that way rather than make it complicated.”

The café serves various Nordic pastries and breads, such as seven seed bread (left) and Karelian pastries topped with egg butter and filled with rice porridge (right). Photograph by Helen Carefoot.
The café serves various Nordic pastries and breads, such as seven seed bread (left) and Karelian pastries topped with egg butter and filled with rice porridge (right). Photograph by Helen Carefoot.

Kosonen started cooking in his family’s restaurant in Stockholm at age 13 after a childhood spent helping his grandparents (who also happened to be his neighbors across the street) on their farm, where he milked cows and gathered eggs from their chicken coop. After studying at Helsinki Culinary School and a stint as a member of the UN Peacekeeping Forces in Syria and Lebanon, where he cooked for the Finnish military, Kosonen worked for the Norwegian and Finnish embassies in Lithuania. A job with a Swedish diplomat brought him to DC in 1996, followed by a position at the Finnish embassy for about 15 years before he struck out on his own to form a catering company and, most recently, this restaurant.

Chef Mikko Kosonen (who is wearing a hat in the pattern of the flag of Finland) stands in front of his new restaurant, Mikko. Photograph by Helen Carefoot.
Chef Mikko Kosonen (who is wearing a hat in the pattern of the flag of Finland) stands in front of his new restaurant, Mikko. Photograph by Helen Carefoot.

More developments are on the way for the young cafe. Soon Kosonen plans to serve alcohol and will expand the menu to include small plates and more dinner specials. New yellow patio furniture (to match the Swedish flag) will open up the cafe’s roomy front patio. And pre-work coffee-seekers will soon be able to get their caffeine fix even earlier: the restaurant plans to open its doors at 7 AM instead of its current 9 AM opening, starting next week. Mikko owns the whole building, so expansion to the upper levels is possible in the future.

Mikko. 1636 R St., NW; 202-413-6419.

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Helen joined Washingtonian in January 2018. She studied Journalism and International Relations at the University of Southern California. She recently won an Online News Award for her work on a project about the effects of the Salton Sea, California’s greatest burgeoning environmental disaster, on a Native American tribe whose ancestral lands are on its shores. Before joining the magazine, Helen worked in Memphis covering education for Chalkbeat. Her work has appeared in USA Today, The Desert Sun, Chalkbeat Tennessee, Sunset Magazine, Indiewire, and others.