Filter's version of the Scandinavian favourite.
Filter's version of the Scandinavian favourite. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Matt Holden

First, the pronunciation. If, like me, you're not one of Melbourne's 200-odd native Danish speakers, you've probably been saying "smorrebrod" the way it looks. But screw up your face, imagine you're the offspring of a Scouse tea lady and a Geordie shipbuilder, and try this: "smairbrawd''.

That's about as close as I can get after being coached by Bente Grysbaek, chef at restaurant Dansk in the city, where the traditional Danish open sandwiches are on the lunch menu.

The word means "buttered bread" - the "smairing" bit - and in essence smorrebrod is a slice of dark rye bread spread with butter or lard and topped with a bit of preserved protein.

At Dansk, the offer might include gravlax on a dense, seedy bread ("Paleo bread," says Grysbaek)‚ rolled pork belly with beef aspic and onion, or herring fillet with curry salad and marbled eggs.

Curry? Where did that come from? "Probably some Danish housewife in the 1950s." (It's usually curry-powder curry: "Danes aren't into very spicy food," Grysbaek says.)

At Dansk, the meat and fish are cured in-house and the rye bread - dark and dense, but lighter in texture than pumpernickel - is baked on the premises.

Smorrebrod has its origins as a food of the common people - think of it as a Danish labourer's lunch - because the combination of dense rye and concentrated protein is filling and nutritious. But in the early 20th century, says Grysbaek, it became more sophisticated and was adopted by wealthier Danes as a party and picnic food.

"The rich ate the toppings and distributed the leftover bread to the poor," she says.

There were food trucks in the streets of Copenhargen selling smorrebrod, and the Danes even have special lunchboxes with compartments to hold slices of the herring-topped rye. Food trucks, exotic ingredients, a folksy origin and an unpronounceable name: smorrebrod ticks all the boxes for a hip Melbourne reboot.

Which is why I find myself eating garfish at 10am at the brand-new Scandi-blonde Filter, a specialty coffee and smorrebrod bar in a disused 1970s office block.

Three pickled fillets of the garfish sit atop a celeriac and fennel remoulade, with a blob of dark ruby herring roe and a strip of peppery pickled chilli.

The bread is a neat square of dark rye, baked by chef Boris Portnoy at the Auction Rooms commissary kitchen in North Melbourne. The Moscow-born pastry chef comes to Melbourne via Meadowood in the Napa Valley and, more recently, hawking flatbread-based Georgian street food around San Francisco from a tandoor strapped to the back of a moped.

The bread background is key. "It's like a canvas," says Portnoy of the smorrebrod's rye bread base. "You have a frame and you just fill in the frame."

Portnoy's kitchen is busy with other ingredients apart from the rye, which comes in dense loaves with a chewy, almost caramelised crust: the smorrebrod menu at Filter offers the rye tiles topped with, say, salmon pastrami, wagyu bresaola or pressed rabbit, all made from the ground up.

"It's very larder-focused: meats that are cured or smoked and kept ready to use, rather than food cooked to order," says Portnoy. The fatty intensity of preserved protein such as salmon and wagyu combines well with the clean, sharp flavours of horseradish pistou and pickled rhubarb, and the clean crunch of pea shoots, and it has real texture in the mouth.

"There needs to be a balance of flavours," says Portnoy. "The depth of the rye, the high notes of the pickles, the sweetness of honey or agave syrup in the dressing that rounds out the edges and the richness of the protein.

"There's this real construction to smorrebrod. When you cut it, it has to look good; it can't fall apart. When you're eating it, each bite should taste the same; there's no hierarchy of ingredients. The smorrebrod is a composition, instead of a plate."

Or, as Dansk's Bente Grysbaek puts it, "it feeds the eye as well."

Dansk 3/428 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9600 4477

Filter 555 Collins Street, Melbourne, 03 9620 1211