New Nordic cuisine has started a quiet revolution in the food scene of much of Scandinavia. Yes, we all know about Noma and to a lesser extent Faviken, but there is much more going on throughout the region than just that. What, to me, is most exciting about food in Scandinavia right now is its focus on – as it says in the New Nordic Cuisine Manifesto – ‘purity, simplicity and freshness’.
Menus are created to reflect seasonality and to promote ingredients that thrive in Nordic conditions: wild berries, mushrooms and fresh fish straight from the water. If an ingredient isn’t available, you won’t find it on the menu.
Last week I was in Stockholm and spent an evening in Matsalen – the two Michelin starred restaurant in the Grand Hotel Stockholm overseen by Mathias Dahlgren. The Grand Hotel is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World and has an imposing waterside location directly opposite the Royal Palace. Impressively it has been open every single day since they launched back in 1874 – I doubt many other places can claim to have done such a thing. It is one of the grand old dames of the hotel world yet it has recently been extensively renovated and has a wonderful spa to sit alongside its world class dining options.
Matsalen initially offered two tasting menus and an à la carte option when it first opened to the public almost ten years ago. A while back they removed the à la carte option and they are planning to offer just the one tasting menu in the near future. The idea here is that is gives them more flexibility to play with ingredients that become available according to season and sometimes only in small quantities. Arctic char for example is very rarely available fresh in Stockholm but last week it was. So on the menu it went.
Much like Noma, they want diners to feel involved in the cooking process, so to start your evening you are given a tour through the kitchen, glass of champagne in hand. One of the chefs explains the various sections and talks you through the philosophy of the kitchen (the beautifully organised, polite, efficient kitchen) before you have a few snacks at a high table on the edge of the dining room. It is a lovely idea and – as they point out – fairly unique from the point of view that you see the kitchen during service. Many places will take you into the kitchen but only after service, once they’ve had a chance to reorganise. Not here.
The dining room itself has only a small number of covers, around twenty, and is simply decorated with pale grey walls and white tablecloths. One corner has been sectioned off with large glass panels and now contains Matbordet, their private dining option where you have your own personal chef for the evening with up to ten guests. They hold different sessions in there, from bread making to ‘radical cooking’, and Mathias Dahlgren also uses this space as his development kitchen. It is a rather lovely set-up.
Dahlgren describes his food as ‘natural cuisine’ and this is paired with natural wines, beers and other drinks to create a dynamic and interesting dining experience. As you’d expect with two Michelin stars, the food is wonderful. A small snack of mushroom puree on a crisp bread in the kitchen set the tone for the evening. Course after course of beautiful, simple, ingredient focused food made its way into the dining room. The exceptional quality of the produce was obvious – the arctic char was as soft as butter, the langoustines beautifully sweet and the porcini mushrooms had such depth of flavour.
Stand-out dishes for me included the second amuse bouche of Jerusalem artichoke purée, with wild mushrooms, a slow poached egg and huge amounts of summer truffle. It was earthy, silky smooth, unctuous and with each individual flavour distinguishable but perfectly in balance with the others. This was a great example of how to let ingredients shine.
‘Swedish Coolness’ – a delicate array of raw Nordic seafood with ginger and horseradish – all presented on top of a block of perfectly clear ice was a delight. You don’t get seafood much fresher than this unless you eat it straight from the sea or wait for the fishing boats to come in to the harbour at 4am.
The small palate cleanser between the savoury dishes and dessert was also worth a special mention. The fresh, sweet carrot sorbet with carrot juice was simply beautiful. Everyone laughs when you say ‘gosh, this carrot really tastes of carrot’ but if there was ever a time to say it, it was now. You rarely get to enjoy the delicate sweetness of carrots, as they often taste so very bland and a little bitter, but this was how carrots should taste. To place such a focus on just one ingredient was lovely. It was a simple dish that placed a humble root vegetable in the limelight. I could have eaten it over and over again.
‘The natural cuisine’ here leads you through the Swedish countryside from the wild berries and mushrooms of the forest, to the fresh seafood of the coast and potatoes and carrots of the farmlands. If you want to enjoy the best of Swedish produce in a relaxed fine dining environment you’d be hard pushed to find a better place.
The Leading Hotels of the World (00800 2888 8882 (toll free) offers stays at the Grand Hotel Stockholm from £140 per room per night based on two people sharing including buffet breakfast and VAT. www.LHW.com/grandstock