Every now and then you have a dining experience that is so wonderful and so unexpected that you're left in an almost bewildered state. You wake up the next morning asking yourself whether you had indeed just experienced some of the finest cooking of your life, or whether it was part of some hazy wine-fuelled dream that your overactive mind had just concocted. My recent dinner at Restaurant Oscarsgate in Oslo was one such happy event and, like most of the best dining experiences, I never saw it coming.
Oscarsgate is the creation of Björn Svensson, a young Swedish chef who honed his craft working for culinary luminaries such as Ferran Adrià (El Bulli), Gordon Ramsay (Royal Hospital Road), and Eyvind Hellstrøm (Bagatelle). Svensson opened this, his first restaurant, five years ago in a pleasant enough corner of town, a javelin's throw from the eyesore that is Bislett Stadium. Its mundane location (next door to an execrable "Pizza & China Express" delivery shop) belies the culinary heroics going on inside. Oscarsgate gained its first Michelin star in 2008, which it has held ever since, and surely it's a matter of when, not if, it gains a second.
The restaurant is tiny, with eight tables seating only 18-20 covers each night. It's a claustrophobic L-shaped room that you'd struggle to swing the proverbial cat in. But, like the best Scandinavian designs, they have managed to make the most of the space available while keeping it uncluttered, and the overall feel of the dining room is of understated luxury.
We were shown to our table and eased into the evening with a glass of excellent Pierre Péters Champagne Blanc de Blancs. The waitress then proceeded to tell us about the evening's menu. There is just one menu available here: a nine-course tasting menu for NKr 1,150 (€141/$197). We also opted for the matching wine menu at NKr 950 (€117/$163). There are no printed menus at Oscarsgate and none online either so, as I'm loath to take notes in a restaurant, I'm left to describe the components of the meal from memory. So forgive me if there are any glaring omissions.
First, the amuse bouches. We started in classic Scandinavian style with a plate of three small smørbrød (open faced sandwiches). On the left was salmon in a mustard and sour cream dressing topped with a slice of apple and a smattering of caviar and dill, in the middle was a foie gras terrine, and on the right prawn and fish roe on a slice of dark and dense rugbrød.
Next were some thin, crisp slices of flatbrød that were served with a tube of homemade truffle butter. I loved the way the waitress opened the butter, piercing the top like a new tube of toothpaste. The butter was gloriously rich and steeped with pungent black truffles, whose aroma lingered pleasantly in the air. I had to ration myself as I could have happily munched away all night on these and there was, of course, the rest of the meal still to come.
The first course proper was a colourful arrangement of salmon (farmed, unfortunately) cooked two ways. A carpaccio and a thin cylinder of barely poached salmon were served with small balls of cucumber, mango, and avocado in a ponzu sauce. This was accompanied by a shiitake-filled wonton and a quenelle of coconut and lime sorbet. Crystal clear balls of salmon roe were scattered over the top and looked like glistening jewels. The flavours were astounding - so vibrant and fresh that they seemed to fizz on your tongue.
This was followed by another visually stunning dish. A layer of dark green ravioli blanketed pieces of perfectly cooked scallop and lobster. This was topped by a jerusalem artichoke sauce and some shellfish foam. This dish had such an intense ozone-rich aroma of the sea, with a taste to match.
Then something richer and earthier. A poached egg from the extraordinary Ramme farm was served on some potato cream, and was topped by luxurious slices of black truffle, sautéed wild mushrooms, and potato crisps. This dish was full of those powerful, dense, autumnal flavours and it was fantastic. My only gripe was that the poached egg was a tad overcooked for my liking and, disappointingly, the yolk didn't ooze over the plate as your knife cut into it.
A little intermezzo next of crisp bread, leverpostei (liver pate) with a slice of apple jelly, and homemade butter.
Another little teaser dish was next. This time a smoked eel mousse was served with toasted seeds. I love the taste of eel, and here it was intensely smokey and creamy, with the toasted seeds giving some welcome bursts of crunchiness.
For the first of the main meat courses we had guinea fowl. Judging by its tenderness, I'm guessing it was cooked en sous vide. It was served with apple purée, beetroot, potato, and a little filo pastry triangle that had been stuffed with some unknown goodness. It was definitely a contender for star dish of the night.
Then there came a little palate cleanser. I almost though this was a tub full of caviar, but alas it was not to be the case!
The cheese course was next, but it was served with a twist; a warm, fluffy blini was topped with pungent raclette cheese and sprinkled with chopped nuts and dried fruit. It was quite a refreshing change from the standard type of cheese course and I enjoyed it immensely.
The first of two desserts was next. We were served a soft honey biscuit filled with thick eggy custard, yoghurt, raspberry sorbet, and mango foam. There were many other elements on the plate, and the dish just erred on the right side of confusion. Every ingredient seemed to have a purpose, and every flavour combination worked beautifully.
Our final dessert was equally complex and equally well executed. A Valrhona Manjari choc mousse was served with plum sorbet, cinnamon, powdered chocolate, a square of salted caramel chocolate, and a warm berliner (a beignet-like pastry). The whole lot was drizzled with a rich crème anglaise. I had to resist the urge to lick my plate clean.
To finish, some petit fours of mini vanilla ice cream cones with cloudberries, raspberry macaroons, and spun sugar.
To go with the coffee we were offered chocolates and madeleines. How could we refuse?
The service throughout the evening was faultless; efficient and attentive without being overly formal. Testament to the quality of the service (and the prowess of the kitchen) was the fact that when we suddenly mentioned that one of our party suffered from a gluten allergy – a fact we had totally failed to mention when reserving the table – no one batted an eyelid, and of course they could accommodate that request. Without skipping a beat, the kitchen provided our dining companion with gluten-free food that was every bit as good as that on the regular menu.
As we were leaving we were given a goodie bag to take home that contained an apple, a bag of chopped nuts and dried fruit, and a pouch of thick apple purée. I felt virtuous the next day as I ate this for breakfast with some plain yoghurt. It was so simple, yet so delicious, and put to rest any doubts I had about the previous evening meal's existence.
Dinner at Oscarsgate has to be one of the highlights of my year. Björn Svensson's cooking is layered with a myriad of flavours, and it really is an assault on the senses. On paper this shouldn't work; every dish is such a complex construction, each plate a riot of different colours, flavours, textures, temperatures, with most displaying a liberal use of the oft hackneyed foam. That it not only works, but also leaves you in awe is testament to maestro Svensson's prodigious talents. No element on the plate is without purpose, and the combination of each ingredient sings on your tongue like a Beatles harmony.
When Eyvind Hellstrøm's exquisite Oslo restaurant, Bagatelle, closed at the end of 2009, there was a collective sigh of sadness from Oslo's food lovers. With it went not only Norway's sole two-Michelin Star restaurant, but also some of the most sublime cooking I have ever tasted. In Oscarsgate and Björn Svensson, Oslo has a restaurant and chef that give cause for food lovers across Norway to rejoice again.
(13.09.11 Update: It was announced that Oscarsgate will close its doors at its current location at the end of June 2012. The plan is for it to reopen under new ownership in different premises in September 2012. What will happen to its Michelin star is unclear, but this is good news as I feel the one thing holding the restaurant back is the tiny and cramped dining room).
(23.08.12 Update: It seems like the restaurant's plans to move locations is still ongoing. In the meantime their website states that Oscarsgate will be open as normal in their current location until at least the end of 2012. So watch this space for news of their move).
(22.12.12 Update: Well it looks like plans to relocate the restaurant didn't materialise and sadly Oscarsgate has now closed for good. I'm not sure what Svensson has planned for the future but I do hope he continues cooking in Oslo – the city needs more chefs of his calibre).
(June 2013 Update: Hurray! Svensson and his Oscarsgate team are finally back. Their new venture is called Fauna located in Oslo's Frogner area and it promises to be very different to Oscarsgate. Joining Björn in the kitchen is Jo Bøe Klakegg, a young chef with experience from Noma, Marque, and Bagatelle).
Food: 9 / 10
Service: 10 / 10
Ambiance: 7 / 10
Tel: +47 22 46 59 06