Feinschmecker is perhaps Oslo's oldest of old school restaurants. Located in the elegant Frogner area of Oslo, it has been a regular fixture of loose-jowled businessmen and Hyacinth Bucket types for 20 years. I must have passed by this restaurant hundreds of times on my way to and from work, but even though it has held a Michelin star for 19 consecutive years, I had never been tempted to stop by and try its mix of French and Scandinavian cooking. By day it just looked so stuffy and uninviting. Enough was enough I thought! And, following a glowing review in Norway's leading broadsheet paper, Aftenposten, I decided to put my prejudice to one side and give it a go. And do you know what? It wasn't half bad at all. In fact, it was pretty darn good.
The restaurant is co-owned and run by Norwegian chef Lars Erik Underthun, who was the first of many Norwegian chefs to ascend the podium of the prestigious world chef championship, the Bocuse d'Or, winning a silver medal in 1991. Underthun's history is an interesting one; starting out in the humdrum world of hotel catering, he became a member of Norway's national golf team in 1985, before opening up Feinschmecker in 1990, his first stand-alone restaurant venture, gaining a coveted Michelin star just one year later.
Mrs. Nibbler and I were welcomed in from the cold, snowy street to a warm dining room buzzing with pre-Christmas cheer and excitement. Our coats were taken and we were shown to our seats. Looking around I realised that the interior of the restaurant should probably be consigned to some sort of time capsule, for it must have seemed dated even when the restaurant first opened in 1990. Peach coloured walls, chairs upholstered in crimson and sage green fabric, and brass light fittings completed the Berni Inn look. I suspect that without the full complement of diners to liven things up, this restaurant might feel a touch staid. The fact that, without exception, every male diner was wearing a dark suit and tie didn't help to shake off the sense of formality. At 35, Mrs. Nibbler and I were probably the youngest people in the room by a good 10 years. But I needn't have worried; from the outset, service was friendly and welcoming. Soon, glasses of Blanc de Blancs Champagne were offered and we immediately began to relax.
Feinschmecker offers a traditional à la carte menu, with seafood-heavy starters at the NKr 250 ($43/€32), mains at NKr 390 ($67/€50), and desserts at NKr 170 ($29/€22) – pricey, but in-line with other Oslo restaurants of this calibre. However, at NKr 1,075 ($186/€137) for eight courses, the "Classic Feinschmecker" tasting menu makes much more sense, and this is what Mrs. Nibbler and I went for, minus the cheese course (I've yet to have an interesting cheese course in Norway). We also opted for a reduced matching wine menu and let the sommelier pick three or four glasses of wine to go with our meal. I wish I could remember what we were served (I'm terrible at remembering wines) but suffice it to say each wine was excellent and perfectly matched with the food.
To start things off, an amuse bouche of cauliflower purée and Swedish caviar was served in a small kilner jar. Cauliflower is a surprisingly difficult vegetable to cook and turn into something exciting. It's just so dreadfully dull – the Al Gore of the brassica world. I mean how many times have you looked at a menu and thought, "Oooh, look! They have cauliflower." This little dish was a good attempt at elevating this sober vegetable into something with a bit more joie de vivre. A light cauliflower purée was served with a neat dollop of bright orange caviar. The light, and somewhat bland, purée was lifted by the vibrant tang from salty pearls of roe. The only disappointment was the telltale farty whiff of overcooked cauliflower. Perhaps this was a dish designed to go easy on the dentures of the restaurant's key demographic? This was an okay, if mundane, start to the meal.
The first course in earnest was foie gras au tourchon served with tomato compôte and toasted brioche. This is a classic preparation of foie gras, where the liver is lightly cured in salt, rolled into a tight cylinder and poached. The end result is a luxurious and smooth pâté-like foie gras that can be spread on toasted brioche. the foie gras was deliciously creamy, but unfortunately the brioche was somewhat stale, while the accompanying tomato compôte was cloyingly sweet and one-dimensional.
Mrs. Nibbler is not a fan of foie gras, so had asked for this course to be substituted. She definitely got the better deal as she was served a truly beautiful plate of glistening langoustine tails that had been roasted and served with dill mousseline, pumpkin purée, and shellfish sauce. I managed to sneak a bite with my "look-isn't-that-Jude-Law-sitting-over-there" trick (works every time) and marvelled at the stunningly fresh taste of the langoustine. The shellfish sauce had a majestically rich and sweet intensity, while the pumpkin purée gave comforting earthy warmth to the dish – what a magnificent plate of food!
The next course was a roasted scallop from Frøya, a tiny island on the West Coast of Norway. This was served with parsnip "crème" and pancetta. The plump scallop was beautifully roasted, leaving it with a crisp crust that yielded to a soft, barely cooked centre, and was topped with some sevruga caviar. It was a joy to eat; so fresh and exciting, and a real showcase for Norwegian seafood.
For the next course we were served fillet of Arctic char that had been very lightly poached and was accompanied by more of the Swedish caviar, an apple beurre blanc sauce, and thin slices of fennel. Again, the sheer quality of the seafood was outstanding, and it had been cooked with the gentlest of touches, leaving it soft and moist and flaking at the slightest prod of the fork. A close relative of salmon and trout, char has a mild fattiness that was well-matched by the sharp beurre blanc. This was a simple, but sublime dish.
A soup course followed, and a bowl containing a thick piece of Norwegian king crab leg and sautéed mushrooms was placed before us. The waitress then proceeded to pour a lobster velouté over the whole ensemble. Heavenly sweet seafood aromas enveloped the table, and it was love at first sip. The velouté had such a deep and rich lobster taste that only lots of lobsters and lots of reducing can achieve. Its consistency was velvety smooth and decadently creamy. The crab was tender and sweet and, unusually, was somewhat of a sideshow compared to the glory of the velouté. I want to bathe in this soup.
A little palate cleanser of passion fruit sabayon with blood orange and ruby port sauce was tart and refreshing and not too sweet.
The main meat course was expertly prepared, but was easily the weakest dish of the meal. Roasted duck breast was cooked a pleasing shade of pink, and came served with potato purée, parsley root, and Jerez sauce. Although this was a well-executed dish, it was all just a bit 'meh'. There was nothing exciting and nothing inspiring about it. Meat. And. Potatoes. This is such a common theme for main courses in Norwegian restaurants, almost as though a Norwegian doesn't feel properly fed unless they've had a good chunk of meat, potatoes, and sauce. Not that there's anything wrong in wanting meat and potatoes, but I'd like to see something more interesting served.
For dessert, raspberries and raspberry sauce had been covered in sabayon and lightly grilled, the whole thing topped with a scoop of pistachio ice cream. This was a good, if unspectacular dish. I'm not such a big fan of cooked berries, preferring them to be plump and fresh and not seeping any of their precious juices. I'd also question the wisdom of serving raspberries in the middle of winter; surely something more seasonal would have been a nicer touch? The pistachio ice cream was sensational though – creamy, rich and packing a fragrantly nutty taste.
To go with our coffee we were served petit fours that were elegantly presented on a circle of slate. These were: salted butter caramels that had been dusted with coconut; mini chocolate and almond tarts; chocolate chip cookies; and chocolate, orange and marzipan truffles. These were all fine. However, and this was a real revelation for me, the real star was a little innocuous kilner jar of candied black olives. This was the first time I've seen anything like this and I marvelled at the simple genius of it. Small black olives had been pitted and slightly dried, and their fruity umami-packed flavour was transformed by the addition of sugar. As addictive as crack, our fingers were soon scrambling round the bottom of the jar to pluck out the very last one.
Feinschmecker is unashamedly traditional. If you're after modern and innovative cuisine you won't find it here. However, the overall execution of the dishes, the quality of the ingredients used, and the absolute attention to detail by the front-of-house team was supremely impressive. I enjoyed a truly splendid meal at Feinschmecker, although that had as much to do with the company I was with, the wonderfully warm atmosphere, and the faultless service, as it did with the actual food. But isn't that the whole point of going out to eat – to enjoy yourself? And besides, isn't it nice to take a break from all the liquid nitrogen, the 'food-in-five-textures', and the spherifications that seem to have become de rigueur in the world's high-end restaurants? If you're looking for a memorable dining experience in Oslo, then look beyond Feinschmecker's old school cuisine and dated interior and give this grand old dame of Oslo's restaurants a try.
Update (14.03.2012): In the 2012 Michelin Guide, Feinschmecker lost its Michelin star which it had held for 19 consecutive years.