Knut Hamsun is one of Norway's most prolific, influential and controversial authors. The above quote is taken from Hamsun's seminal debut novel of 1890 titled Sult (Hunger). In it the protagonist, a struggling young writer, charts his painful descent into near madness as he struggles for food and shelter.
One day, the delirious writer has a dream-like encounter with a beautiful young woman he calls Ylajali, who would go on to haunt his thoughts as wanders the streets of Christiania (old Oslo). Ylajali – a ghost-like object of abstract beauty that cannot be found...
Ylajali (the restaurant that is) first opened its doors in 2002 in the same St. Olav's Place building that Hamsun's mythical character lived. It is part of restaurateur Nevzat Arikan's empire, which includes the Oslo restaurants Arakataka, Olympen and Trattoria Popolare. As far as I can tell, Ylajali remained a decent but undistinguished restaurant until, that is, the summer of 2010 when chefs Even Ramsvik and Ronny Kolvik took over the kitchen and began Ylajali's transformation into one of Norway's most exciting restaurants.
Ramsvik and Kolvik were both part of Norway's gold medal winning team at the 2008 Culinary Olympics, the first time the country achieved this accolade. Both chefs also spent time working at Oslo's legendary Palace Grill. In addition Ramsvik was runner up in Norway's 2009 Bocuse d'Or and was chef and co-owner of Oslo's sublime Michelin-starred Oscarsgate. So clearly, there's no shortage of culinary talent in Ylajali's kitchen. Oh, did I also mention the pair are just 27 years old?
The restaurant is housed in a grand old apartment building dating back to 1872, and as you enter from the cobblestones of St Olav's Place the sense of its history is palpable. An old sign above the entrance also proclaims this as the former site of The National Hospital's pharmacy, a role it held for almost 100 years. The journey back in time doesn't end at the entrance, though. The interior of the restaurant feels like its been frozen in the 19th century; panelled walls, intricate cornicing, chandeliers, and beautiful floor tiles give a hint as to how majestic an apartment this must have once been. It's an enchanting place to while the evening away.
The restaurant is loosely divided in two. Near the entrance is a matbaren, a more casual dining area that serves up to 10 walk-in covers. There the food is more rustic, brasserie-inspired fare. The main restaurant offers only one menu – an 8-course tasting menu priced at NKr. 1,050 (€135 / $192) with optional matching wines available for an additional NKr. 900 (€116 / $165). It's also possible to have a smaller 6-course menu for NKr. 850 (€109 / $156). I never said eating out in Norway was cheap.
Mrs. Nibbler went for the smaller menu while I, being the glutton that I am, opted for the full 8-course treatment (the 6-course menu is identical to the 8-course one except for the removal of two dishes). To begin the proceedings, some glasses of Lilbert-Fils Perle Blanc de Blancs, olives, and salty rosemary breadsticks coated with marshmallow.
The first amuse bouche was a lightly seared rectangle of yellow fin tuna. It was dotted with blobs of soy and avocado purées and a sliver of shiitake mushroom. Fresh and vibrant, the meltingly soft tuna was gone in an instant.
The first course in earnest came in two parts. The first being skagenrøre – a prawn and herb mayonnaise salad, served with flatbrød (Norwegian flatbread) and potato crisps. It was served dramatically on a layer of pine branches and moss, while wisps of dry ice made it look like the forest floor on a misty morning – certainly an unusual interpretation of 'surf & turf.'
Next was one of the star dishes of the evening. Smoked scallops had been very lightly pan-fried and were served with artichokes, thin crisps of cauliflower, löjrom (vendace roe), and a mussel-sherry sauce. Although small, it packed a huge punch of flavour. The mild smokiness of the sweet scallops went so well with the slight acidity of the sauce, while coriander cress gave the whole thing a fresh lightness. Simply superb.
Rather incongruously, bread arrived next. The sheepish apology it came with made me realise that this should have been served at the beginning of the meal as is typical. No biggie though, as I've never seen the point of loading up on carbs just before tucking in to a multi-course tasting menu. The ordinariness of the rye, sourdough and ciabatta breads was in sharp contrast to the deliciousness of the housemade knekkebrød (crisp bread). Crunchy, nutty and malty, it went so well with lashings of salted butter from Røros.
Halibut followed next; it had been lightly baked in a citrus crust and was nestled in a tube of crispy rye. It was served in a cockle, petit pois, fennel and sago pearl sauce. The dish had such a pleasing contrast of textures; soft, squishy sago pearls, firm but succulent fish, and crisp bread. Again this was another ethereally light, but delicious dish.
Another fish course was next, but its richness marked the distinct transition to the main courses. Roasted hake, morels, hollandaise sauce, chicken stock reduction, and asparagus from French farmer Jerôme Galis in the Languedoc. The dense but moist fish could almost have been beef fillet, such was it meatiness. Another great dish.
Next came a mix of flavours I've never had before – pork and foie gras. Sitting in a pool of clear meaty bouillon was a meltingly tender slice of pork knuckle topped with a disc of soft foie gras terrine. Sprinkled over this was some breadcrumb 'soil' and crisp vegetables. I must say I was more than a little taken with this combination. Truly fantastic.
After the heft of the previous dish, a much needed palate cleanser followed. Tart passion fruit, cool cucumber noodles and cucumber jelly were doused in champagne tableside.
The second meat course was a more complex affair. Pigeon breast (cooked medium-rare) was served with Jerusalem artichoke purée, romanesco cauliflowers, salt-baked celery root, redcurrants, grapes, and a little pastry parcel filled with pigeon leg and mushrooms. An aromatic sauce was spooned over the dish by the waiter. Wow! What a combination of flavours; intense, but not too gamey pigeon, soft purée, sweet fruit and hints of star anise and cinnamon in the sauce. Heavenly.
Then, a quirky little cheese course of soft warm Vacherin Mont d'Or, nuts, batons of fresh green apple, and crunchy fruit bread. Over this, a velvety liquid cheese 'fondue' was poured over. An original and exciting take on the standard cheese board.
Dessert was a dark chocolate bombe filled with praline, banana, and peanuts. Next to this was a quenelle of clean-tasting yoghurt & olive oil sorbet. Attractive jewels of beetroot coulis dotted the plate. I've said it before that I'm not a huge fan of chocolate desserts, so the fact that I finished every last bit of this course should speak volumes.
Finally, neatly arranged petit fours of mini tiramisu's, crema Catalana tarts, and caramels.
The good news though is that the excellence of the cooking at Ylajali makes it very hard not to forgive their tardiness. Ramsvik and Kolvik's cooking is characterised by a light touch and clean, laser-sharp flavours. At the heart of the food is superb Scandinavian produce, but there's no dogma here and the pair are not afraid to incorporate other elements from around the world in their cooking to create something beautiful and original.
The fine-dining scene in Oslo is really blossoming now and it's such an exciting time to be witnessing this rapid transformation. This restaurant, along with the utterly gorgeous Maaemo and the sublime Oscarsgate has to be among the best the city has to offer at the moment. Could this therefore be the unwritten ending to Hamsun's bleak first novel? Ylajali, that elusive object of abstract beauty is finally revealed again.
Food: 8 / 10
Service: 7 / 10
Ambiance: 10 / 10
St. Olavs Plass 2
Tel: +47 22 20 64 86