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Scandinavia's Culinary Evolution

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.


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