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Marcus Samuelsson's Sweden

Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster in Harlem.

Photo: Beth Garrabrant

“There’s something similar at the core between Göteborg and Harlem,” Samuelsson says. The project of separating himself from the midtown-chic style of Aquavit to open Red Rooster meant looking for new ways to define himself. “Three years ago I was always thinking, How can this fit in with the image of Aquavit? How can this be perfect? Then you realize: F—ck perfect!”

Göteborg charms with its imperfections. Take that pizza. It is as bad as promised. Or worse. But no matter. I understand why Samuelsson chose it: the unnameable restaurant is cheap and fun and filled to capacity with people more interested in the Champions League soccer final on TV than the food on the plate. A group of Samuelsson’s old school pals join us and we cycle through a string of clubs, ending up late at a place called the Peacock Dinner Club. It is the kind of relaxed, goofy night G-borg (as Samuelsson and nobody else calls it) is made for.

The next morning we walk over to a cobblestoned street called Magasinsgatan and drink several coffees at Da Matteo, a local roaster with unfinished wood-plank floors and a lively, lingering young crowd.

Next to the café is an eclectic, well-curated boutique called Grandpa where you can buy preppy pink men’s corduroys from the Göteborg label Velour and fuzzy sweaters from the Swedish brand Uniforms for the Dedicated, as well as old maps of Sweden, sailor’s caps, locally made leather goods, and a gold-plated sardine can. “Everyone moves away but everyone moves back,” says Emmelie Böl, who works here. She is ethereally beautiful in pale-pink Chuck Taylor sneakers and a long gray dress she’s wearing backward. “Really, you should move here.”

Samuelsson, a confirmed New Yorker and chronic traveler, isn’t headed back for good, but he has found a way to go home again—and bring his work with him. This February, he’ll open his first restaurant in his hometown at the Clarion Hotel Post, a massive renovation project in a landmark 1920’s post office. The restaurant, Norda Grill & Post Bar, will reflect elements of both his adopted homelands. American classics through a Swedish looking glass: a traditional New England lobster roll, for instance, but filled with Swedish shrimp, cucumber, and dill.

“It’s funny,” Samuelsson says, “growing up I knew very early that, to go where I wanted in life, I needed to leave this place. Now I’ve traveled and I’ve figured out how to write a love letter to Göteborg. I’m comfortable with my Swedish side now.”

“Ah, this city is so crisp,” Samuelsson says. We’re in Stockholm, at lunch with Teresa Lundahl, the lovely woman whose ceramics company, Mateus, is producing a line of plates and tableware for both Red Rooster and Norda Grill. “Beauty is everywhere in this city, so whatever you add, it has to look great. You don’t want to be the architect who makes an ugly building or the designer who makes people look bad.” We walk through the narrow shopping lanes of Östermalm down to the newly opened Nobis Hotel, where an afternoon crowd has gathered for drinks in the sun. It’s brighter here, warmer, the sparkle off the water sparklier. There are no ugly buildings and everyone’s attractive. Stockholm is the great, underrated beauty of European capitals.

The thing to do, Samuelsson says, is wander and look. We walk by the opera house with its carved-wood cafés and hidden bars, turn at the water, and follow the embankment past the aptly named Grand Hotel and the intimate Hotel Lydmar, where another group is enjoying drinks in the glow of the early evening light. Around the corner, we stop for a beer at B.A.R., an airy bistro where every table is packed. Samuelsson notes the menus hanging from hooks on the wall, the platters of oysters, and the general cheerful hum of the place. “I take so much energy from the simplicity of Swedish style.”

That night we drive a bit out of the center to a restaurant called AG. “I already like it,” Samuelsson says, ascending the clunky circular stairs to the second floor. Within an unassuming apartment block, the room is low-lit and lovely, a tapas bar by way of an industrial Berlin nightclub: white tile; concrete floors; great slabs of beef aging behind glass. “This is fantastic,” he says. “This changes the conversation for Stockholm.”

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