Who would guess that the land of meatballs and pickled fish could send shock waves around the food world? It seems an unlikely development, but Scandinavian cuisine is all the rage in Europe nowadays, with chefs like René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken in northern Sweden and Björn Frantzén and Daniel Lindeberg in Stockholm in the vanguard.
Other big hitters are Magnus Ek and his partner Agneta Green of Oaxen Krog in southern Sweden. This celebrated restaurant is among the country’s growing band of super-trendy eateries, not to mention one of the world’s 50 best restaurants according to the U.K.-based Restaurant magazine. Oaxen is the name of the island on which the restaurant is located, although in October they’ll move to another island, Djurgarden, in central Stockholm, to rise again in a new guise in 2012. A krog is a cafe/bistro/tavern/bar/dive, which seems something of a misnomer in light of the resto’s credentials.
Menu alone was worth the hour drive and ferry ride
It would be an exaggeration to say that we shaped a recent visit to southern Sweden around the restaurant, but Oaxen Krog was definitely a contributory factor. Four of us sat out on the deck of my sister-in-law’s delicious, red-painted, red-tiled summer house with views down to a lake and considered the logistics of driving an hour and catching a ferry to dinner. We checked the map, studied the menu online, marveled at the English translations of the dishes (oysters and pike-pearch [sic] in port foam with bladderwrack purée and curds granite with wild chive water; fried black pudding and pork belly glazed with maple syrup from Blaxta, roasted leeks, toasted fennel seeds & Oaxen cold smoked wild boar sausage with apple & red wine jus…), gulped at the prices (the least expensive option is the four-course tasting menu at 1,100 Swedish Krona ($173 U.S.), and made a booking.
An early summer evening drive in dappled sunshine took us through classic southern Swedish countryside — rolling farmland dotted with the ubiquitous red-painted farmhouses interspersed with dense forests and lakes — to the tiny four-car ferry which crosses to Oaxen Island.
After dinner, a night on the hotel boat
After the five-minute trip and a short drive round the headland, we reached the restaurant, which sits high above the water. Glimpsing the elegant, seven-cabin 1930s hotel-boat moored below for the use of sated diners, we briefly regretted the decision to drive home (thanks to our generous designated driver) rather than stay over.
The two small dining rooms (10 tables, around 40 covers) exhibit a typically understated, Scandinavian cool: sleek white walls, roller blinds and linen tablecloths, dark chocolate brown curtains, wildflowers on the tables.
We unfurled napkins, unfolded triptych-shaped menus tied with elegant ribbons and decided on the four-course tasting menu. A flurry of nibbles arrived to keep palates amused until the curtain was raised on dinner: slivers of raw lake perch with horseradish foam and perch roe in cupped bowls set at crazy angles on a slate slab, flash-fried slices of Jerusalem artichoke and beetroot, a thimbleful of intensely flavored consommé. To go with the house bread (diminutive, chewy sourdough and white cabbage brioche, both baked in teensy flowerpots) came a couple of chunks of butter, one nature, the other flecked with seaweed.
Frozen salad and moose tartare
Starters ranged from a so-called “frozen salad” (frosted beet flakes, slim sections of air-dried whitefish, a couple of local asparagus spears and shimmering bubbles of salmon roe) through a tartare of moose with raw shrimp, a herring and lobster creation and a diminutive ragout of cockles with local vegetables.
There was a brief onion interlude before the main courses arrived: the bulb, parceled up with thyme en papillote was molded in clay and baked until hard. The waitress tapped solemnly on the clay shell with a stout stick, extracted the succulent onion and served it, voilà, over a sliver of lardo.
The main courses were the best of the bunch: crisp-skinned baby pork shoulder with sundry trimmings and pinkly roasted saddle of veal with more sundry trimmings. A pair of ambitious-sounding desserts — a “chocolate fried cake”/caramel mousse combo and a caramelized warm parsnip/buttermilk sorbet creation — promised much. They were prettily presented with some curious flavor combinations, but just missed it.
The wine list, compiled by Green, is larded with intriguing bottles, many of them organic and/or biodynamic, so-called “natural” wines from the likes of Pierre Frick and Marcel Deiss in Alsace, Nicolas Joly in the Loire, Gauby in Roussillon plus a huge showing from California.
High expectations hard to meet
So how was it? It was a long and leisurely meal, as you’d expect for such an ambitious cuisine, in a place of great natural beauty. The service is attentive and unrushed. But the meal, save for a few high spots, somehow missed its mark. Expectations ran high and I was curious to sample this new Scandi-cuisine, which draws heavily on local food from a painfully short summer season, and wild food from fields, forests and waters. Perhaps the constant chatter about the rise of Scandinavian food raises expectations to absurd levels. As it was, there was so much going on in every plate that the meal dissolved into a bit of a blur.
I love chefs who work with whatever nature has given them, capturing from their local ingredients, however humble, the essence of something rare and memorably tasteful. But oak moss, ashes from field wormwood, buckthorn foam and spruce bark crumbs? I caught myself sighing for a touch of that famous, pared-down, Scandivanian simplicity. Meatballs and pickled fish, maybe?
Zester Daily contribuor Sue Style lives in Alsace, close to the border of Baden, Germany. She’s the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October, 2011, is Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture.
Top photo: Frozen salad with beet flakes, whitefish, asparagus and salmon roe.
Photo and slideshow credit: Sue Style