Posted on Tuesday, 8th September 2009
I have a thing for Swedish chefs. When I was little, my favourite character on The Muppet Show was ‘The Swedish Chef’. For whatever reason, I found the combination of his sing-song voice, his incoherent chanting and his hairy eyebrows rather endearing. My sister could never understand it – he only talked gibberish after all – but oh how I loved him so!
To another famous Swedish Chef, Mathias Dahlgren, who is something of a celebrity in this part of the world. His namesake fine dining restaurant (Mathias Dahlgren Matsalen) at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm bears two Michelin stars and is ranked number 50 in this year’s San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants List. His restaurant is well known for his ‘organic and natural approach’ which he couples with themes drawn from memories of his childhood. There is also a casual eating area adjacent to the fine dining room called Matbaren which is run out of a separate kitchen.
The Matsalen it is a thing of beauty and refinement – tasteful but understated with light wood floors, classy furniture and soft, gentle lighting. The dining room certainly made an impression, as did the waiter who, the moment we sat down, took the lid off a bowl placed on our table containing potato crisps and proceeded to shave lashings of summer truffle all over it. It was a touch of class – pure theatre – and it certainly captured our attention.
After this little bit of excitement came another heart stopping moment. I was told I was not allowed to take photos in the restaurant itself. Can you imagine – no photos? I almost had a panic attack, but the waitress promised to make sure that someone in the kitchen would take photos of all the food before serving it to us with my camera. Nevertheless, the ban didn’t quite stop me. I pulled the most adorable ‘pretty please’ look that I could muster and I managed to convince (or in her words – make) my sweet (again her word) little sister sneakily take some photos with her trusty iphone. Therefore most of the pictures you see were not taken by me, but by a (probably very adorable) Swedish Chef, and the ‘loveliest little sister in the whole wide world’.
We selected the eight course ‘Natural Cuisine’ tasting menu (SEK1,500 (about £134)). There is also a five course tasting menu (SEK1,000 (about £89)) called ‘From the Plant World and the Ocean’ and two choices are available per course in the à la carte section.
Canapes included some delicately pickled oysters; cured salmon with smoked mayonnaise and salmon roe which was both sweet and smoky; and a wafer-thin selection of beetroot, Jerusalem artichoke, algae bread and smoked reindeer crisps, dipped in a cream cheese mixture containing watercress and horseradish. All the flavours were delightfully subtle and well balanced.
For the amuse bouches we were presented with a variety of items to go with our bread basket. The waitress explained that this was a drawn from some of Chef Mathias’ “childhood memories” when he use to bake bread with his grandmother. These were, from the top left in a clockwise direction, bread with warm melted butter in the middle, three year old Comte cheese with fennel, salted butter, grapeseed oil, whipped bacon fat and a delicious creamy cow’s milk cheese presented in a ‘toothpaste’ tube. The Comte cheese was exquisite, and the bacon fat tasted like creamy, smoked bacon. I was enthralled by this plate, especially for the sheer fun of it. At this point, I too, couldn’t help but relive a childhood memory of my own – how funny it would have been if Mathias came out of the kitchen then and there and spoke to me in a sing-song Swedish voice. Just think, my own Swedish Chef!
To our first taster which was a dish of baked scallops and ling fish. The seafood was tender and moist, and was served with a slightly sweet garlic puree that was neither pungent nor overwhelmingly garlicky, crunchy broccoli, a delicate squid sauce and some garlic crisps. This was rounded off with the beautiful aroma of fresh parsley.
Next was a dish of artichoke and asparagus. The artichoke had been charcoaled and was therefore slightly smoky, and the asparagus had been both grilled and blanched for contrasting flavours. There was also some tasty raw salmon and white fish roe which oozed with creaminess. The dish was finished off with a slightly nutty brown butter. The flavours were delicate and sweet and natural.
To langoustines, which were firm, and served with and slivers of tender pig’s cheek, fried cauliflower, aromatic lovage (a cousin of celery) and crispy crackling. This was a tasty dish, although the astringency in the accompanying puree of peas, avocado and lemon clashed with the flavours of the langoustines and the pig’s cheek. The puree was also served colder than the usual expected temperature.
The next course was interesting. It had been devised to accentuate the flavour of a birch sap chosen specifically for this course. The result was an accompaniment of sourdough and cow’s milk cheese bread. We were advised to taste the sap first. The sap was cold with a hint of nuttiness in its aftertaste. When taken after the sourdough, it became extremely refreshing and crispy in the throat and the nuttiness had dissipated. The bread was also delicious – crunchy, gooey, sticky and crispy, all at the same time.
‘Pumpkin paper’ was the name of the next course. Essentially a pumpkin cream with truffles, almonds and parmesan cheese topped with milk foam, it was delicious – creamy, sweet salty and nutty. It was paired with a wafer thin ‘pumpkin paper’.
A tartare of beef and oysters was topped with a tallow emulsion, raw onions and watercress. The tartare was so smooth it was like eating silk. The onions and watercress added bite to the dish, and the emulsion helped to cut the rich beefiness of the dish.
The main course was a fillet of deer served with honey, celery, roasted endives and crispy fried onions. This was a lovely dish. The deer was flavoursome and tender, the roasted endives were buttery and sweet, and the remaining accompaniments served to add a little crunch to the dish.
As there were two of us, rather than having two servings of deer, we exchanged one for a dish of the dry aged Swedish beef from the a la carte menu (SEK495 if taken from the a la carte menu (about £44)). The beef was cut into bite sized pieces. It was a little chewy although tasty nonetheless. It came with some wild mushrooms packed full of earthy flavours. There was also some tallow butter, and a cream of potato and cheese which was very rich and heavy, and consequently overwhelmed the beef. Nevertheless, this was a tasty dish, but the less successful than with some of the others that we had eaten.
Pre-desserts included two different sorbets. One was made from seabuck thorn (a berry), and the other from mixed herbs. The seabuck thorn was sweet, tart and tasted a little of both melon and orange, and when eaten alternately with the aromatic herb sorbet proved very refreshing and sharp on the tongue. The contrast between the two flavours was exquisite.
Dessert was a simple affair of mixed Swedish berries, almonds, currants and milk foam. This was a nice dessert. It was light and simple, so there wasn’t enough detail in this dish to fully assess the pastry abilities of the kitchen. But as a way of finishing off the menu, it was more than enough given how full we were by this stage.
This was an excellent meal. With the exception of the pea puree in the langoustine dish, I enjoyed the food immensely. It delivered a great contrast in flavours, balance of composition, and a deft, earthy touch in its execution. And above all, the menu had personality. It was fun, evocative, inventive, playful and original, and this also extended to how the restaurant chose to engage with its patrons. The service was excellent, attentive and personal, and it made for a lovely evening. And with good reason, I have found another Swedish Chef to adore. So a toast – to childhood memories.
PS: The Swedish Chef can be found on YouTube.