Just what is it with Scandinavians?Blessed with an innate neophilia, they embrace the avant-garde with uncanny ease. Provocative forms and ideas are seldom dismissed as "too much"—hell, they'll take two for the living room and one for the parlor. This natural progressiveness found a global outlet in Scandinavian design, and it's manifest in everything from music to technology to fashion. But lately, it's spurred a bona fide revolution in cooking.
Restaurant culture developed late in the Nordic countries; home cooking was the norm through much of the 20th century. Today, however, Scandinavians love eating out and do so with aplomb. People don't go to a high-end restaurant to eat something familiar. Rather, they come to be surprised by what they're served. And across the north, innovative (and very young) chefs are making unabashedly artful food. "Compared to, say, in France, it's easier to be creative in Scandinavia, because you don't have such a defined tradition to go up against," says Fredrik Andersson of Stockholm's Mistral. "Nothing is ingrained, so diners are quite open to new things." Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson, of New York's acclaimed Aquavit, is amazed by the variety he now finds back home. "You don't see gravlax and herring much in Sweden anymore," he says. "Instead it's buckwheat noodles, tacos, sashimi, couscous. You can't put a label on 'Scandinavian' food—it's a little of everything, but prepared in a unique way."
Indeed, Scandinavians are increasingly familiar with foreign flavors. At markets in Göteborg, Oslo, Hälsingborg, and Copenhagen you find stalls selling Turkish and Yugoslavian delicacies; bins of rambutan, yucca, and dragon fruit; burlap sacks filled with cumin and garam masala. Nordic chefs are also exceedingly well traveled. Nearly every cook I met had worked abroad—in Beirut, Tokyo, Madrid—and none had reservations about appropriating foreign influences in their cooking. If a Nordic chef decides to take on Malaysian curry or Mediterranean tapas, diners will queue down the block.
Of course, Scandinavia has its homegrown advantages as well, including succulent berries, distinctive herbs, earthy chanterelles, ethereal lamb, and, not least, superb fresh fish. Nordic chefs have a deep reverence for their ingredients (you should hear them go on about crayfish), but also a playful irreverence about what they can do with them. No novel technique, combination, or presentation is off-limits.
I recently traveled through four countries to trace the leading edge of Scandinavian cuisine. Throughout, I couldn't help thinking of my Swedish grandmother, who never went to restaurants in her homeland, ever. (There was no need. Her husmanskost—home cooking—was extraordinary.) I imagined how Alice, born in 1903, might react to a lingonberry granita or langoustine foam. Would she furrow her brow and demand a bowl of split-pea soup?More likely, she'd take one bite, then another, then devour the whole thing. Alice was a voracious eater, and she knew a great meal when she got one.
My journey led me to more than two dozen restaurants. Here are 10 of the most exciting.
MISTRAL Due to the high cost of ingredients and staff wages, restaurants here are seldom overblown affairs—a few cooks in the kitchen, a tasting menu of six to eight courses, and fewer than 20 tables, with a single seating per night. Even by those standards, Mistral is an anomaly. This storefront in Stockholm's Old Town seats only 17 and has been booked solid since its opening in 2003. (A Michelin star followed within a year.) "We could probably fill a larger space," admits co-owner Björn Vasseur, "but then we wouldn't be doing right by the food." Chef Fredrik Andersson mans the tiny open kitchen with one assistant, while Vasseur serves as maître d', sommelier, waiter, and busboy. Neither owner looks a day out of college (they're both 27). The dining room feels like a grad student's apartment: houseplants on the windowsills, bare white walls, steam radiators. The cheese cart is wedged beside the door. Six hand towels—one for each table—hang on the bathroom wall, labeled "Sjostrom," "Olsen," "Lindberg," and so on.
Andersson's food is rooted in the peasant cooking of Provence, where the chef honed his trade. Robust, salty flavors are the norm, as is slow roasting of rustic ingredients such as lamb's neck and pig's cheeks. But Andersson's interpretations go way beyond traditional Provençal. Plates are composed like colorful canvases. One carries a strip of mackerel sashimi, layered with crisp pig's skin and plush oyster foam. Alongside rest two spoonfuls of gunmetal-hued caviar; scattered daintily around the rim are sprigs of sorrel, shiso, and chervil. The result could be mounted on a gallery wall.
Andersson creates endless permutations from just a few dozen core ingredients, as when he pairs a langoustine tartare with four different forms of apple: roasted to a deep scarlet, diced fresh, frozen as sorbet, and pressed to drizzle over the plate. His signature, however, is the confit of lamb's neck, cooked in the fat of some assertive chorizo. Tender enough to be served with a spoon and fork, it's a knockout punch. How impressive, then, to glance into the kitchen and confirm that only two people—mere mortals—are responsible for your dinner.
F-12 Say the word chair to an American and he'll picture a wooden square with four legs. Say chair to a Scandinavian and he'll likely imagine an amoeba-like blob of fiberglass. As in design, so it is with food. Nordic chefs instinctively think outside the box, or the egg, or whatever form they're presented with, crystallizing olive oil, liquefying foie gras, vaporizing rosemary, and frothing and foaming like so many baristas. This mad alchemy owes much to Spain's Ferran Adrià and France's Pierre Gagnaire—progenitors of what I call the Metaphysical school of cooking—and Scandinavians are embracing it with glee. Far from distracting from the food itself, such transmogrifying experiments coax out flavors in thrilling new ways.
Consider the beet appetizer at Stockholm's F-12. A deceptively simple menu lists only ingredients, not preparations. What's described as "beet root" turns out to be a deep-purple beet granita, spiked with lemongrass and ginger and "Christmas spices" (cardamom, clove, and cinnamon, the staples of Swedish holiday glögg). The icy mixture is laced with a dappling of Iranian osetra (!) and morsels of smoked eel (!!) that lend a briny kick. The combination is outstanding—and more than satisfies a craving for beets.
A decade after its debut, F-12 is still at the vanguard of Swedish cuisine. Founding chef Melker Andersson has handed the reins, such as they are, to the equally zany Danyel Couet, who plays with traditional dishes like liver-and-apples (here, it's a foie gras terrine with a glasslike coating of apple gelée, accompanied by a dollop of ginger sorbet). A pasta course seems refreshingly old-fashioned—cavatelli with chanterelles—except the cavatelli is brushed with a lusty black-soy jelly that a Milanese grandmother would die for, after first murdering Couet for having thought of it.
LUX STOCKHOLM This trendy room, another of Stockholm's Michelin-starred entries, is as busy as a Manhattan hot spot—yet the staff is so solicitous it's as if you're at a leisurely dinner party.
Lux took over a 1907 red-brick building that was once part of an Electrolux factory, 15 minutes from downtown. The mood inside is soothing: walls painted honeydew green and mangosteen red, set aglow by Moooi lamps that resemble orbs of spider's silk. Arched windows provide views of sailboats on the harbor.
Like so many of their peers, chefs Henrik Norström and Peter Johansson riff on familiar dishes with unlikely twists. "Chicken soup," said the menu, but what came out was a shallow bowl of creamy foam of cauliflower and truffle oil, tiny cubes of Beaufort cheese, and two poached quail eggs. Over this was poured a hearty chicken broth, reduced to its salty essence; the fragile yolks burst into the liquid and transformed it into a deliciously frothy lather.
The richness didn't let up. A cube of ruby-red tuna was perched atop a sliver of calf's tongue and sided with delicately fried sweetbreads and a potato purée flavored with anchovy, capers, and wild garlic. Somehow all this intensity cohered. It helps that portions are perfectly sized—five or six bites, enough to invoke each flavor but not to overwhelm. Our waitress told us the provenance of each ingredient, the history of the building, and the address of a shop selling the Moooi lamps. I bought two the next day.
SKÄRGÅRDSKROG Despite their exorbitant prices, Scandinavian restaurants have a remarkably casual vibe, in keeping with the Nordic temperament. At the most fabulous places you'll see families with toddlers—though, let's admit it, the kids' strollers probably cost more than your car. At Oaxen Skärgårdskrog, in the Stockholm archipelago, we sat beside an elderly woman and her towheaded grandson. While she lingered over a $200 lunch, the boy gobbled up a bowl of (specially made) Swedish meatballs, then quietly amused himself with his Game Boy.
Reaching the island of Oaxen requires a 40-minute train ride from Stockholm to Södertälje, a 30-minute taxi ride to the coast, and a 10-minute ferry crossing. It is entirely worthwhile. The craggy limestone isle holds only a few houses, a windmill, and the former inn of Oaxen Skärgårdskrog, which now serves one of the most divine meals in Sweden. Chef Magnus Ek's food is startlingly modern and as colorful and pristine as the view of the sparkling bay. He presses paper-thin slices of salmon, cured halibut, and calf's tongue into a delicate cube, dapples it with anise syrup, and then pairs it with a shot glass of pickled chanterelles in fennel foam. He laces a coarse terrine of duck confit with cocoa-bean purée, layers it with fried strips of truffle-flecked egg yolk, and rests it atop a parchment-like mortadella of smoked pork, rabbit, carrot, and cabbage. The highlight is a pair of seared scallops, quivering on a grainy mash of water chestnuts and sharp pecorino, all lightly drizzled in an oxtail reduction. Circling the plate is a trail of the chef's own "alder oil," a blend of olive and rapeseed oils that Ek smokes—yes, smokes—over alder wood.
Service is languid, on island time. Lunch takes three hours. Take in the setting: a pine-swathed shoreline, creaking docks, the squawks of gulls. The towheaded boy scampers off to do cartwheels down the hillside. But he soon returns, seduced by a compote of strawberries and caraway-spiced chocolate with cilantro sprigs. Ah, to be young in Sweden.
NIKLAS The Swedish port of Hälsingborg has an old-world feel, with its turreted mansions, medieval castle, and neo-Gothic city hall. It's the last place you'd expect to find a temple of cutting-edge cuisine like Niklas. I have friends in Copenhagen who think nothing of making the three-hour round-trip for dinner here. After apprenticing with Ferran Adrià and Charlie Trotter, Niklas Ekstedt opened his own place at age 23; four years on, he's grown even more daring, serving amuses in test tubes, offering potato ice cream as a side and tobacco mousse for dessert, and recasting prosciutto-and-melon as a cantaloupe sorbet with shavings of cured duck meat.
His mentors would surely approve. It's not all outlandish, however. The housemade popovers look and taste like, well, bread, and they're fabulous. This was true of every restaurant I visited—Scandinavians are wizards at making bread. I asked the waiter at Niklas what their secret was, and he said the flour was imported from Manitoba. ("That's in South America, right?" he asked. "Sure," I said, not wanting to disappoint.) The popovers were especially useful for soaking up spare foam, of which there was plenty—a pearlescent square of halibut came bathed in a tangy artichoke froth with drops of green-tomato gelée. The sauce was fantastic, and even better with the bread.
Niklas's dining room, paneled in teakwood, is outfitted with mocha leather banquettes and wiry copper chandeliers that cast a sultry glow. Even on busy nights the atmosphere is hushed, with all attention focused on the plate. Come to think of it, this was also true of every restaurant I visited. Scandinavians are a reticent bunch, even in the presence of brilliance.
PAUSTIAN Nordic fusion reaches its giddy apex at Danish chef Bo Bech's new restaurant, housed inside the landmark Paustian furniture showroom (designed in 1987 by Jørn Utzon of Sydney Opera House fame). The dining room is a marvel, with gallery-white walls and dramatically pitched, 20-foot-high ceilings, from which clusters of globe lamps dangle like planets in a space museum. The airy restaurant holds a mere 11 tables, each with a view of the open kitchen, where Bech assembles his far-out creations.
The show kicks off with some tasty snacks: shards of fried tapioca dusted with anise; a container of fried (raw) spaghetti sticks, to dip in olive-oil mayonnaise; ink-black crisps of malt, to plunge into celery sauce; and some luscious, licorice-studded bread. (Not even my grandmother considered making licorice bread.) What follows is more Kandinsky painting than food: a square white plate brushed with avocado purée, swirled with almond oil, and speckled with French caviar. It's shockingly formless: a dish without a base, just unadulterated flavor.
Bech revels in odd juxtapositions. He smokes freshwater eel, then pairs it with kumquats, macadamia nuts, and lychees. Now, I don't particularly like kumquats, nor macadamias, nor lychees, but in this combination, I'm entirely persuaded; the sweet fruits cut through the fat of the fish and offset its brininess. And the finale?A dessert of slightly sour olive-oil sorbet laced with caramelized eggplant. Right—eggplant. As our party oohed and aahed over the mesmerizing flavor, I saw Bech watching and flashing a wild-eyed grin.
NOMA Oaxen's water chestnuts beamed me to Asia; Paustian's macadamias had whisked me to Hawaii. I found myself craving my grandmother's split-pea soup, her pancakes with lingonberries, her homemade lumpa bread—something, anything, to tell me I was in Scandinavia. Had everyone turned their backs on traditional, regional food?
Not everyone. While others embrace the exotic, Copenhagen's Noma is creating a radically modern cuisine using only ingredients from the Nordic countries. "The challenge is that people are accustomed to menus that 'speak gourmet,' " says chef Rene Redzepi. "They want to see foie gras and truffles and artichokes. That tells them it's an ambitious, upscale restaurant." Redzepi aims to redefine Scandinavian cooking on its own terms—and its own terrain. He has built his own network of farmers, hunters, fishermen, and foragers from Lapland to the Faeroe Islands. "There are occasional problems with shipping," the chef admits. "When we got our first musk ox from Greenland, Danish customs had no idea what to do with it. They didn't even know what it was." Musk ox, related to the buffalo, has the sweetness of venison and the texture of goat; it has since become Noma's signature dish, topped with its own gelatinous marrow and paired with spring and pearl onions.
Redzepi and his crew have devised some convincing Nordic interpretations of non-Nordic foods. Salted baby elderberries stand in for capers in a spicy sauce for baked turbot. In lieu of rice or couscous, the chef grinds up some cauliflower. Throughout the meal, the underlying tastes are pure Scandinavia: pickled, cured, salty, sweet, and, above all, resoundingly earthy. Root vegetables—beets, radishes, turnips, celeriacs—play a major role. The meal begins with dried strips of Icelandic seaweed and a mayonnaise made from langoustine coral. Rye kernels are pounded and baked into a pappadum-style flatbread. Sweetbreads are glazed in hoppy beer, then lathered with celery foam and flavored with malt.
Noma, which was awarded a Michelin star this spring, is tucked inside North Atlantic House, a new cultural center devoted to the Nordic countries and colonies, carved out of a 19th-century warehouse in Christianshavn. Torches mark the restaurant entrance; animal hides are draped over wooden chairs; whitewashed oak beams line the ceiling. Rough-hewn and rustic, it's the antithesis of the modernScandinavian dining room.
Redzepi has done stints at French Laundry and El Bulli and previously worked at Copenhagen's Kong Hans, a bastion of avant-garde cuisine. "I spent years cooking with anything under the sun," he laughs. "Honestly, it's easier this way. The restrictions give it focus. Now there's a logic to what we do, and a natural fit between the ingredients."
Recently, Noma was the site for a conference on the future of Scandinavian cooking. An elite cadre of chefs from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland gathered to devise a manifesto for "New Nordic Cuisine." Though the participants did agree on a few buzzwords—salient among them individuality, freshness, and purity—the question, What is Nordic cuisine?was never answered. Happily, I can't imagine them concurring on that one.
GÖTEBORG Fond Scandinavia's busiest port rivals Stockholm in the caliber of its restaurants. Stefan Karlsson is the most "Swedish" of the country's Michelin-recognized chefs, offering modern takes on favorites like crayfish-and-herring, served with dill sprigs and caraway-spiced cheese, or whitefish roe paired with housemade schnapps.
REYKJAVÍK Vox Hákon Orvarsson won the bronze prize at 2001's Bocuse d'Or; here, he works wonders with Iceland's sublime trout, herring, lamb, and lobster. But nothing beats his foie gras terrine, paired with morsels of thyme-cured puffin breast, stewed figs, marinated oyster mushrooms, buttery brioche, and 25-year-old balsamic vinegar.
OSLO Oro From an elegant, earth-toned dining room, gaze into the open kitchen and watch chef Harald Berger prepare his breathtakingly creative nine-course tasting menu, featuring impeccably fresh Norwegian fish and shellfish.
Dinner for two $265; 12 Fredsgatan, Stockholm; 46-8/248-052; www.fredsgatan12.com
Dinner for two $240; Götaplatsen, Göteborg, Sweden; 46-31/812-580; www.fondrestaurang.com
Dinner for two $160; 116 Primusgatan, Lilla Essingen, Stockholm; 46-8/619-0190; www.luxstockholm.com
Dinner for two $175; 21 Lilla Nygatan, Stockholm; 46-8/101-224
Dinner for two $175; 16 Norra Storgatan, HÄlsingborg, Sweden; 46-42/282-565; www.niklas.se
Dinner for two $165; 93 Strandgade, Copenhagen; 45-32/963-297; www.noma.dk
Lunch for two $185; Oaxen island, Sweden; 46-8/5515-3105
Dinner for two $220; 6A Tordenskioldsgate, Oslo; 47-23/010-240
Dinner for two $150; 2 Kalkbraenderiløbskaj, Copenhagen; 45-39/185-501
Dinner for two $260; Nordica Hotel, 2 Sudurlandsbraut, Reykjavík; 011-354/444-5050; www.vox.is