Since I moved to Oslo from London almost three years ago I have been struck by an odd paradox. In Norway I have tasted some of the best examples of homegrown produce anywhere. We know that Norway has superb seafood, but its beef, lamb, game, root vegetables, and berries are also truly world-class. However, it seems that much of the population is almost oblivious to this local bounty, and if you visit Norway you'd be forgiven in believing that the national dish was hot dogs or frozen pizza. So in terms of eating out, with a couple of notable exceptions aside (here and here), I was resigned to my fate of getting my culinary thrills on trips outside of the country.
And then, in the summer of 2010 came news of Maaemo, an Oslo restaurant that would serve only 100% organic produce originating mainly from Norway. Could this be true? Would it be all hype and no substance? I couldn't remember the last time I was this excited about a new restaurant and, without spoiling the rest of the review, I can honestly say I enjoyed one of the most wonderful meals of my life at Maaemo – a meal so stunning in its beauty and flavour that I was at times left slack-jawed, eyes agog, taste buds singing to the heavens.
Maaemo – an old Finnish word meaning "Mother Earth" – is the creation of three men: Pontus Dahlström, a Finn and former sommelier of Oslo's then double Michelin-starred Bagatelle restaurant; Esben Holmboe Bang, a Danish chef with experience from Copenhagen's Noma and Oslo's Feinschmecker, Le Canard, and Oro; and Jon-Frede Engdahl, Managing Director of Kolonihagen, a café and supplier of organic produce in Oslo.
Their brief couldn't have been tougher – create a gourmet restaurant serving only organic food sourced mainly in Norway, a country where on average only 1.2% of food products bought by consumers is organic. In December 2010 their dream finally became reality and Maaemo opened its doors to the paying public for the first time. That the project got off the ground to begin with is amazing enough. Turned down for financing by the country's mainstream banks, the founders eventually managed to secure help and funding from varied allies including the Norwegian Agricultural Authority.
The restaurant is located in the new 'Z-building' in Oslo's Bjørvika neighbourhood, a stretch of no man's land near the Oslo Central Station and the National Opera House. Bjørvika used to be a gritty container port, but at the moment it is the centre of the biggest urban regeneration project Norway has ever seen. The plans for it are hugely ambitious, and eventually it will become a major cultural and economic centre for Oslo. Eventually. Today it is a building site, and Mrs. Nibbler and I found ourselves gingerly making our way past cranes and construction hoardings on our way to the restaurant. I thought this quite fitting though – a restaurant's location is so often a statement of intent, and while Maaemo could have played it safe and opened in the west of Oslo, they chose this new fresh location from which to launch their new Norwegian culinary revolution.
The interior of the restaurant is an exercise in clean minimalist Scandinavian design. It has a surprisingly office-like feel inside, but the hint of "conference room 3B" is avoided by softer touches such as thick tablecloths and cosy candles. The kitchen is housed in a large glass box construction that appears to float over the dining room and is accessed by a narrow spiral staircase (massive respect to the waiters for navigating these without dropping anything). The dining room has just eight tables serving 38 diners, each of whom gets to sit on beautiful 'Elbow' chairs by Danish designer Hans J. Wegner, and as such it never feels anything less than spacious. The floor covering is made from recycled plastic bottles, the towels in the toilets are 100% organic, and even the uniforms are made by companies prohibiting the use of child labour. I was starting to feel a bit guilty for arriving by taxi.
There is only one menu choice at Maaemo – a 9-course tasting menu priced at NKr. 1,050 (€135/$186) with the option of a matching wine menu at NKr. 950 (€122/$168). Expensive, but in line with other high-end Oslo restaurants. The menu is seasonal and the plan is for it to change four times a year, although there will always be variations according to product availability. Also, a nice little touch is that you are given a menu holder made out of offcuts of the same marble used on the roof of the nearby National Opera House to keep your menu in and refer back to while you are eating.
With some glasses of Blanc de Blancs to ease us into the evening, the first of three amuse bouches was served. Thin strands of lush green fennel from Korsvold Gård, a farm located on an island 120km south of Oslo, came served with a small pot of sour cream and liquorice. I liked the way the liquorice intensified the aniseed taste of the fennel, but the texture was all a bit too woody for me; the jury was still out with this one.
However, on tasting the next amuse bouche I knew everything was going to be just fine. A diver scallop had been barely cooked and was served warm with lightly pickled leeks, tarragon, and a few drops of rapeseed oil. The soft sweet flesh of the scallop was achingly fresh, its taste instantly transporting me to the cold clear waters of Western Norway. Surely Norwegian scallops have to be among the best in the world? It seems incredible to think that until relatively recently scallops were not widely eaten in Norway, and for centuries they were considered only good for bait.
Hvete med Hvede (Wheat with Wheat) – a playful take on the Norwegian and Danish spellings of 'wheat' – was next. The 'hvete' consisted of warm rolls made from wheat and spelt flours from Holli Mill in Norway's Østfold region. These sat atop a heavy piece of stone that was once used for grinding flour. Alongside this was some whipped salted butter from Røros. The bread was just divine – malty and nutty with a crisp crust and a soft open-textured interior.
The other half of this course – the 'hvede' – was a glass of the most extraordinary Danish wheat beer from the Bøgedal microbrewery. This tiny brewery is run by a husband and wife team who limit each production run to just 500 litres. The bottle said this was batch number 208 and I was told Maaemo had managed to secure the entire 60 bottles that were allocated to Norway. The beer had glorious subtle aromas of orange and coriander, and was very fresh with a touch of spice in the finish. It complemented the bread beautifully.
I think the fact that Maaemo is able to serve bread and butter as a separate course on the menu and pull it off with such skill speaks volumes about their confidence. This dish was just stunning in its simplicity and depth of flavour.
The next course, Selleri og Balsamisk Epleeddik (Celery and Balsamic Apple Vinegar), turns out to be a beautiful fillet of snow white skrei (spawning Arctic cod) from Norway's Lofoten islands. It was served with thick discs of roasted celeriac and thin slices of blanched celeriac that sat on top of mounds of celeriac purée. Drizzled over the fish was a light balsamic and apple vinegar reduction. The fish was beautifully cooked, and came apart in thick translucent flakes that tasted sparklingly fresh. The wine pairing for this course was a match made in heaven, and the apple vinegar reduction really helped bring out the best of the green and herbal Grüner Veltliner from the Nigl winery.
Next was Løk med Persille (Onion with Parsley). In another twist this was actually beef from Horgen Farm, 50km north east of Oslo, where farmer Trond Qvale raises grass-fed Angus cattle with minimal intervention. His cattle are left outside to graze grass pastures that are intermingled with wild herbs, giving the meat an amazingly fragrant minerally taste. The meat was tender, but not so much that your teeth didn't get a pleasant workout. It tasted like the animal had actually worked for its living. Accompanying this were onions prepared four different ways: a smooth purée, a dark and sweet caramelised onion 'soil,' pungent grilled onions, and mild pickled onions. Topping the whole thing were leaves of spinach and parsley. This was yet another sensational course, perfect in conception and execution.
On to the cheese course with Ost fra Eggen Gårdsysteri (Cheese from Eggen Dairy). Eggen Dairy is located in Vingelen, some 350km north of Oslo, and has been going since the 18th century. Here their soft Fjellblå blue cheese was served with birch leaves, birch wine reduction, Swedish maple syrup, sea buckthorn berries, and oats. The combination of tastes was revelatory, a little explosion of flavours on the palate. Pungent but creamy blue cheese was tempered by the sweetness of the maple syrup and tart juiciness of the sea buckthorn berries. The pairing of a light Poiré de Poiriers pear cider from Eric Bordelet was inspired. Low in alcohol but packed with concentrated fruit aromas, it complemented the cheese perfectly.
Another dessert followed, this time Smør fra Røros (Butter from Røros). The sound of a whirring Pacojet machine emanating from the kitchen gave us a clue as to what this course might be. But even with this inkling, neither of us was quite prepared for how earth-shatteringly good this dessert would be. Impossibly smooth Røros butter ice cream came served with butter crumble and a sweet butter sauce. A little dollop of molasses perfumed with a hint of coffee broke the butter hegemony. The waiter called this their "crowd pleaser," and I can see why – butter, sugar, cream, what's not to like. I had to stop myself licking the plate clean. This dish was paired with a sweet raisiny 1995 Vin Santo from the Tuscan wine producer Monsanto.
We finished our meal with the cryptically titled Over Tregrensen (Above the Tree Line). Shavings of Valrhona chocolate, dollops of chocolate mousse, crowberries, white chocolate, and thick milk snow were artfully arranged on a jagged slab of stone. I'm not a huge fan of chocolate desserts, and although this dessert was excellent, it didn't quite reach the stratospheric heights of the previous two. Interestingly, it was the only dessert not to feature local ingredients as its main component. It was as though Holmboe Bang lost his nerve at the last minute and decided to serve something he knew would be universally popular and safe for the final course. I would loved to have seen another homegrown masterpiece instead, or I could have just had the butter ice cream again.
We finished our meal with some silver tip white tea that came with petit fours served on chalkstones from the Swedish island of Gotland. Sitting on these stones were chocolate shells filled with egg cream and apple syrup, chocolates filled with blackcurrant cream, and chocolate fudge sprinkled with salt from Oslo Fjord.
Dinner at Maaemo simply took my breath away. It showed me exactly what is possible to achieve with good Norwegian ingredients. Chef Esben Holmboe Bang's light touch with the food is a key theme, allowing the sheer quality of the produce to shine through. His is certainly a name to watch and, at just 28 years of age, I've no doubt he will achieve even greater things going forward. Service throughout was impeccable too – efficient and warm waiters brimming with enthusiasm were knowledgeable about every aspect of the menu. Having been hooked on the BBC's excellent TV series "Service," I have a new sense of appreciation for how difficult it is to have a front-of-house operating at this level.
There is a notion I keep reading about in many articles that good Scandinavian food did not exist until Noma came along. That is simply not true. Scandinavia has a rich culinary heritage. However, certainly in Norway, it seems that Norwegian produce has been neglected and increasingly overlooked, often in favour of more 'exotic' imported fare. So it's out with the cod and potatoes (as delicious as they may be) and in with the sushi bars and Tex-Mex restaurants. Strawberries in January? Great! Green beans from Kenya? What a sign of progress! In all honesty, though, I don't really have a problem with this per se – increased consumer choice should generally be applauded – but what makes my blood pressure rise is when this 'progress' comes at the expense of good quality local food producers.
Fortunately, the tide is turning, and it is places like Maaemo and Kolonihagen and the Norwegian Farmers' Market Association that will be the saviour of artisanal food producers in Norway. The idea of a 'Norwegian Terroir' might have been laughable until very recently. Slowly but steadily, though, this idea is gaining credence mainly thanks, ironically, to the 'Noma phenomenon,' and the renewed global interest in Scandinavian food. Restaurants like Maaemo, Noma, Geranium, Relæ, F12, Fäviken, and Oscarsgate are at the vanguard of this rediscovery and reinterpretation of Nordic produce – the 'New Nordic Cuisine' movement – and it is unbelievably exciting to be in the midst of this culinary revolution. So go to Maaemo and revel in the beautiful cooking and purity of flavours – your perception of Norwegian cuisine will never be the same again.
(Postscript: I have been back to Maaemo a few times since. The experience just seems to get better and better – you can read those reviews here, here, here and here).
Update (14.03.2012): In the 2012 Michelin Guide, Maaemo was awarded not one, but two Michelin stars; an incredible achievement after being open for just over a year and testament to just how good this place is.
Tel: +47 91 99 48 05
Food: 10 / 10
Service: 10 / 10
Ambiance: 9 / 10