Magnus Ek is one of the pioneers of New Nordic cuisine. Yes, long before the famous manifesto came out in 2004. He is best known for his tireless pursuit of different plants and flavour-agents from the forest and the soil. But both at his first location on the island of Oaxen and now at the former shipyard on Djurgården in Stockholm’s inner archipelago, he forages as much along the water’s edge as on hill and dale. Seaweed, sea grass and algae of various types have been included in Ek’s gastronomy for over a decade, so of course it is here we have had the chance to try glass shrimp in their shells, swim bladders and Icelandic ocean quahog. The quahog is seriously chewy with powerful sea flavours, a real ocean tough guy, and can also be over 500 years old. Ek serves the recalcitrant old guy carved in its shell with crispy Icelandic dulse and matches its high salinity with the slightly tart sweetness of sea buckthorn. Then a series of similarly complex and confidently executed servings shows how Ek masters the marine theme and explains how he secured the 2017 Merroir Award. Kalix bleak roe is served with chips on venison topside and a cream of fermented blue plums and pineappleweed. Lightly marinated brown trout is crowned with Finnish Baeri caviar and grilled parsley. With this we drink house-made schnapps of parsley, dill and caraway, which is macerated three days before it is distilled, as the well-briefed waiter informs us. It’s certainly a digression from the house’s famous non-alcoholic juice pairings. Sweet, creamy raw shrimp from Fjällbacka mingle with a high-gloss fat cap from dry-aged rib-eye and a small piece of sirloin steak that is cooked on hot stones at the table. Smoked scallop gets a nice kick from nettles and unripe currants in an oyster emulsion with high mineral notes. A Meursault 2010 from Pierre Boisson meets it with both minerality and smoke and an excess of oak, indicating a classic tilt. The new chef/sommelier Hans Weinefalk has tossed out everything in Agneta Green’s basement that does not come from Europe. Some time into the meal a mighty piece of roasted turbot reveals itself, displayed in a wooden box, before it is served with pickled black radishes from their farm on the island. Of course there is still a focus on vegetation and the island’s wild flora, complemented now by their own garden, where they grow their favourite roots, leaves, flowers and herbs. Even stems, stalks, tops and roots have a place in Ek’s kitchen, and the ambition is to become as sustainable as possible. Yet the only entirely vegetarian dish is the kohlrabi baked in smen, browned and served with pickled peas, and ramsons for a little bitterness. Above all it is the wild-picked that is unique to Oaxen. Last fall on the island they harvested a 20-kg lion’s mane mushroom from an oak tree, not unlike a longhaired cat perched in the tree. The so-called “smart mushroom”, which allegedly has beneficial effects on various brain functions and possibly counteracts dementia, has a strange animal flavour, reinforced by serving it a hollowed-out piece of oak that resembles marrow bone. Naturally the carnivore is appeased by their ten-course meal preceded by eight snacks. Ek has experimented a lot with charcuterie and fermentation, and a thin slice of Swedish Wagyu on creamed corn in a house-made soy sauce on potatoes is certainly one the year’s highlights. The desserts are not super sweet: a roasted carrot sorbet with browned butter and hay-infused cream is based entirely on the inherent sweetness of its ingredients. But sweet tooths will never be disappointed in the ending here. The house’s little box of exclusive chocolates from their own chocolaterie is still in a league of its own.
The team at Oaxen has always been early, if not first, on the ball, and so of course they now offer a selection of handcrafted beverages. A battery of “mixers” – sodas with seasonally driven ingredients – lure you in with flavours like raspberry, mint, ginger and burnt honey cola. Add to the alcohol of your choice to make a “grog” or enjoy as a non-alcoholic alternative. The somewhat thin aperitif bubbles from Chartogne-Taillet are served with well-thought-out snacks like confited, fried hedgehog mushrooms with pure forest flavours; typically rich and salty ham from a Linderöd pig, aged 36 months; and fried Brussels sprouts that are juicy on the inside but crispy on the outside. The relatively short wine list with a focus on the organic and biodynamic still manages to cover most situations. And if you ask nicely you might be allowed to order from the wine bible at Oaxen Krog. The steak tartare is a harmony of textures and flavours: soft silverskin onions, silky mustard dressing, bitter cress, crusty sourdough, tangy cream and topside ground to perfect chewiness. Grilled celeriac baked in whey has a complex, deep richness enlivened by whitefish roe and chives. The forest-like flavours continue in a ragout of venison shank with Jerusalem artichokes and ramson capers, and in the dish with grilled duck breast and funnel mushrooms. Do not miss the sides, so carefully conceived that they constitute dishes in their own right. Round off with bread pudding, brown butter, jam and lightly whipped cream. Or the lighter dessert with fresh, macerated blueberries, sorrel, charred meringue and tarragon. Oaxen manages impressively to satisfy many different palates, but still retain its great personality – a warm bistro where the delicious Nordic flavours are purveyed with elegance and knowledge, against Stockholm’s restaurant scene’s loveliest backdrop.
Not much has changed at Chef Jari Vesivalo’s little gourmet temple near the harbour, minimalistically decorated in sober shades. As on previous visits, the bread is placed on the table to rise while the initial imaginative snacks appear at a rapid pace: small crackers hidden in pine boughs, a lettuce leaf from Lindroth Nursery with a razor shell clam, and a small roll of finely sliced potatoes hiding under a piece of herring. But not until we get to the brilliant chicken trilogy does the kitchen really start to show off. A hard ball conceals almost-liquid chicken liver ingeniously flavoured with sweet-sour blueberries, served with a heart-warming umami-tinged broth made from the bones and sheer chips of chicken skin. So beautiful! Soon it’s time for the sweet porridge of emmer, which has become something of a signature dish at Olo. “This is a memory from my childhood in north-eastern Finland,” says Vesivalo, presenting it himself at the table. The little plate of creamy porridge floats on a mild mushroom broth and is topped with flakes of dried venison heart and malt crisp. It’s a perfect composition and in some ways the culmination of the tasting menu – the only option here – even though we are far from halfway through it yet. After a fun serving of the bread that has been baked in the kitchen, with a big pat of country butter that we almost lick off the paper, and a rustic stewed lamb with celeriac foam to dip it into on the side, it’s as if the kitchen changes its stripes. We get a young fresh riesling from Fritz Haag with a mosaic of zander blanketed in gelée and resting on horseradish cream; it’s a dish that in spite of the fried fish scales feels fastidious and more like classic fine dining. The king crab with Carelian caviar and fennel is along the same lines, as is a tender lamb tartare adorned with rose petals. Everything is skilfully prepared and on the mark, but we lack some of the cocky self-assurance that characterized the initial dishes. The cod in a smooth sauce characterized by brown butter notes even comes with such classic eye candy as a nest of fried potatoes. A recommended glass of wine made from the odd pelaverga grape from Burlotto feels a bit too rustic in this context. But perhaps we only have ourselves to blame for not choosing the much more expensive pairings of prestigious wines. But enough with the whining, because when our lively waitress starts bringing in the sweets, it immediately puts us in a good mood again. A mouth-watering sorrel sorbet with apple, vinegar and white chocolate is followed by a sweet-sour combo of lemon verbena, apple and small bits of salt liquorice. We can only surrender, and leave with the lovely memory of the porridge preserved deep in our hearts.
Alex Cabino, the sushi master and the mastermind behind the once prestigious sushi restaurants bearing his name (Alex Sushi), has jumped ship. He is finally free from the confines of the California maki and tempura regimen that has plagued Oslo's “raw fish in the Japanese style” restaurants for the last decade. With new and exciting quality-driven places like Babylon Surøl/Sushi and Restaurant Fangst revitalizing the sushi scene, it is about time Chef Cabino upped his game. Joined by his new Padawan, Mark Jayson Subia, Alex is back in the ring, and he has the right setting to perform in, as this restaurant has a lot of theatrics. The door opens at the exact time of your booking, and the front of house staff declares that they won’t open it again until the show, sorry, the dinner is over. It does indeed feel like a pre-paid performance, with tickets bought in advance, and if you don’t pre-order (and pre-pay) for any of the suggested drink menus, you’ll get a phone call recommending that you pre-order your wine – for the sake of your experience. All this machinery aside, the food Alex and Mark prepare in front of you is magical. It is a tour de force in terms of quality, where each pearl of seafood is followed by another. We start off with Norwegian oysters, elegantly matched with a sparkling wine from Nyetimber in West Sussex, England. The first part of the meal arrives – turbot sashimi followed by shellfish soup – and then the nigiri servings start. This is Alex’s strength – preparing every little bite of nigiri with such ease and routine, just as he has trained most of Norway’s sushi chefs over the past 20 years. We sample halibut, rose fish, some amazingly tasty Norwegian scallops and mouthwatering Scottish lobster, salmon toro, tuna, raw shrimps and salmon caviar. The most delightful morsels are a piece of Kamchatka crab and a serving of smoked eel with ginger. The nigiri round concludes with raw Minke whale and slightly grilled pieces of grade A5 Wagyu beef. Some of the presentations are a bit sloppy, but the quality of each bite is worthy of praise. As Chef Alex has a rather quiet persona, the sommelier and restaurant manager Aleksander Iversen does most of the presenting. He also naturally pours the wines this evening, and even if the price of the set wine menu surpasses the price of the food, it is a generous pairing, offering very good value for money. We are treated to gems like Krug Grande Cuvée and de Montille’s Volnay 1er Cru in a 2013 Les Taillepieds, along with Norwegian-made cider from the excellent producer Ulvik Frukt & Cideri. The non-alcoholic pairings, on the other hand, lack a bit of focus. With the serving of freshly tapped birch sap as the only highlight, the package is overpriced and not fully thought out. The difference between the sister establishment, Sabi Omakase in Stavanger, is that Omakase by Alex Cabiao lacks an X factor. This restaurant feels less exciting than Alex’s previous apprenticeship, Roger Asakil Joya’s more avant-garde and highly decorated version. But while Roger rules the west coast of Norway, we can only sit back and enjoy Chef Alex’s show.
The national treasure in the Opera House lives on, trying to find the right balance between past and present, formal and relaxed. This is clearly illustrated in the beautiful fin de siècle interior by the architect trio Claesson Koivisto Rune, whose large angled brass screens, displayed all around, reflect Oscar Björck’s famous frescoed ceilings. Elegant frivolities are also plentiful at the table, not least in the lightly gracious service. In a time where downshifting to casual dining has become the norm, we are thankful that the Main Dining Room stubbornly protects classic restaurant culture. The champagne trolley, one of several magnificent carriages that roll up during the evening, tempts with around ten treats by the glass – like Initial, the first champagne of the evening, from cult producer Jacques Selosse, which was disgorged in January 2016. The house champagne by André Jacquard would make anyone happy. The wine selection here is consistently among the best in Sweden. Restaurateur Carl Frosterud’s whole performance actually outshines by a broad margin that which comes from the kitchen. The parade of amuse-bouches has difficulty engaging us, though the best is a baked egg from Sanda farm in a mushroom cream broken by herb oil and topped with tarragon-rolled matchstick fries – a nice contrast in textures. A lot of greenery pops up here and there in the meal and gets in the way. Coriander takes command over a Belon oyster served in the shell with a cucumber granita. And a seared scallop is totally out of sync with the ferocious chervil oil, which kills the heap of Périgord truffles on top. The menus, which change monthly, are structured modularly. A number of classic main ingredients in traditional preparations are varied with familiar sides and sauces and the always reliable and delicious oyster beurre blanc can elevate any sea creature whatsoever, especially in the company of a hefty scoop of Oscietra caviar, as on the pan-fried Atlantic cod. The foie gras is perfectly seared and challenging in the odd company of liquorice root, lingonberry and almond cream. Pigeon from Bresse is a beloved classic in Catenacci’s kitchen and the delicately seared bird bleeds nicely into its green pepper sauce with pickled elderberry capers. The skillets are at full capacity in the kitchen and the fifth pan-fried item in a row is beef tenderloin, served with its marrow and a composition of onions. The cheese dish is real rock ’n’ roll: a Roquefort with Jerusalem artichoke foam, caramelised hazelnuts and maple syrup, bright, full flavours in fine balance. Getting to roast the marshmallows at the table yourself is now a foregone conclusion here, as is the thimble-full of the house’s “own” calvados, Coeur de Lion.
The name could mean several things – that the meat here is top notch or that they go about their business with passion. It could also apply to the fact that they don’t seem to waste a thing. All the fat from the meat is drained off and bottled and all the bones and onion skins are used in stock. Sit at the counter – it’s the best place to be. You can watch the boss Janne Ahola and his team at work in the open kitchen and pick up a tip or two. They’re not averse to answering some questions even though the heat is on, literally and figuratively. The fennel bread is made on the premises and comes as your own darling little loaf with brown butter and fennel dust. Why didn’t we think of smoked asparagus? It’s raw and crunchy with a lovely crisp, fresh taste and the added dimension of smokiness. It’s served with creamy avocado foam, and each ingredient brings out the flavours of the other. The 100% xarello wine from Spain is fruity and peppery and actually has hints of asparagus. Australian beef is up next, perfectly rare, retaining its juices without any blood spreading across the plate into the green spring onion purée that keeps this dish light and balanced. With fried and dried onions on top and buttery onions underneath, it's deliciously oniony. A big, bold and acidic Nero di Troia from Apulia steps right up to this meaty plate. The menu is made up of dishes from all over the globe: “Boquerones” herring, parsnips “baharat”, and “maminha” beef. It lacks cohesion. On the other hand, these guys are cooking stuff that they like, that they’ve discovered on their travels, and they do it with heart.
With over 100 Masters Level restaurants, the Nordic countries offer a wide variety of excellent culinary experiences. The Top 30 are all at the Global Masters level and they include some of the best restaurants in the world.