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.