1 June 2011

Maaemo, Oslo (Revisited) – Restaurant Review

(For more recent reviews of Maaemo see my blog posts herehere and here).

Spring is definitely in the air here in Oslo; the flowers are blossoming, the days are longer, and everyone seems to have a smile on their faces. But it wasn’t just the weather that was giving me cause to be happy. We recently had some dear friends visiting from London, and when I was tasked with picking a restaurant for us to eat at I instantly knew exactly where we would go. That place would be Maaemo, a new Oslo restaurant that is reinventing the concept of Norwegian cuisine.

I first visited Maaemo earlier in the year and you can read my review of that occasion as well as a bit about the background of the restaurant here. Suffice it to say that I just couldn’t contain my excitement of that wonderful experience. The majority of their seasonal menu has now changed since I was there last, so it seemed like a perfect time to pay Maaemo another visit and check out their spring menu, and to see if the dining experience was still as magical as I remembered.

By way of brief background, Maaemo – an old Finnish word meaning “Mother Earth” – is the creation of three men: Pontus Dahlström, a Finn who runs the front of house as well as being the sommelier; Esben Holmboe Bang, a young and supremely gifted Danish chef; and Jon-Frede Engdahl, a Norwegian who manages Kolonihagen, a café and supplier of organic produce in Oslo. Against the odds, the restaurant opened in December 2010 with an ambitious plan to serve only 100% organic, biodynamic, or wild produce that originates almost exclusively from Norway.

The restaurant is located in Oslo’s Bjørvika neighbourhood – currently the site of Norway’s largest urban regeneration project – and the new location seems a fitting locale for Maaemo’s ‘new Norwegian’ cuisine. The dining room itself is modern, uncluttered, and calm, and is a comfortable place to while away the evening over dinner. My previous meal here was in the depths of winter, where soft lighting and cosy candles added an element of “hygge” to counteract the cold darkness that lay beyond the large glass walls of the restaurant. Now, with over 21 hours of daylight in Oslo these days, the space was transformed into a bright airy room, with the clear Norwegian light cascading in through the windows. As the evening progressed, the light constantly changed, until by the time we left, the room was again much as it seemed when I first visited in February.

A 9-course tasting menu priced at NKr 1,050 (€135) is the only one on offer at Maaemo. Of course, allowances for allergies and the like can be accommodated, but it’s refreshing to not have to choose what to order. We are told that 95% of the produce served here is from Norway, with the rest coming from the other Nordic countries, and 80% of produce is sourced less than 100km from Oslo. It hardly gets more local than this. To go with the food we also opted for the matching wine menu, which is priced at NKr 950 (€122), as it is very cleverly paired and really adds an extra dimension to a meal here. One of our group didn’t drink alcohol and was instead served a variety of interesting and delicious juices.
To start, we were served a few small bites of food to get us in the mood. Dandelion leaves, dotted with sour cream from Røros and dusted with vinegar powder were eaten in one bite. The whole ensemble was a great way to open up the palate, being tart, creamy, peppery and bitter all at the same time.
Small pieces of dense rye bread were served under a smoke-filled glass cloche which, on removal, allowed white wisps of smoke to waft over the table and infused the bread with its taste. The rye bread had also been topped with a creamy blob of shellfish cream, which gave a nice salty tang.
The next little starter was some spankingly fresh and peppery new season radishes which, remarkably, are grown in Grünerløkka, right in the centre of inner-city Oslo. These were simply dipped in a small pot of nýr – a fresh and tart cream cheese (see my previous Maaemo post for a description) – which had also been mixed with salty fish roe. Delicious.
On to some warm amuse bouches next and something that was familiar to me from my earlier visit. A warm diver scallop was served with lightly pickled leek, a feathery plume of yarrow, sunseed oil, and leek ash. The naturally sweet scallops were balanced by the sharpness of the pickled leek, while the slightly bitter yarrow and mellow sunseed oil added another interesting element. Gone in one spoonful, it was gorgeous.
The final amuse bouche was also familiar to me from last time. Oyster jelly was served with oyster emulsion and a light horseradish and dill cream sauce was spooned over the top tableside. I leant over the dish and inhaled deeply to reveal intoxicating scents of the sea. The taste was incredible; ethereal and fresh – a multi-layered burst of an ozone-rich ocean breeze on a warm windy day.
The first course proper titled “Sjøkreps & Gran” (Langoustine & Pine) was arguably one of the best of the evening, both in taste and presentation. A solitary langoustine tail, so large that I initially thought it was lobster, was lightly grilled and served warm on a stone dotted with yellow blobs of rapeseed oil and vinegar emulsion. Surrounding the langoustine island was a bubbling sea of pine infusion and dry ice that gently billowed clouds of pine-scented smoke across the table.

This dish was very similar in concept to one I had at Noma, and here too the langoustine was to be eaten with the hands and dipped into the vinegar/oil emulsion. Eating it was one of those jaw-dropping moments – a truly exquisite dish where the real star was the impeccable fresh Norwegian langoustine. I ate most of it without the accompanying emulsion, which could be a touch overpowering, as I just wanted to fully savour the taste of nature at its best. This course was well matched with a 2008 Riesling from Egon Müller – arguably the best winery in Mosel – which was bursting with green apple and honey notes.

Next was the playfully named “Hvete med Hvede” (Wheat with Wheat) that I was also familiar with from my last visit. Small rolls of warm sourdough bread, made with wheat, spelt and emmer flours from Holli Mill in Spydeberg, were served on a warm grinding stone. The “hvede” was a glass of wheat beer from the small Bøgedal brewery in Denmark.

Last time, we had a light Belgian-style beer (also from Bøgedal brewery) with the bread. The bottle in front of us now stated that this was batch number 219 (only a few hundred litres of each batch is made) and it was slightly richer than what I had previously, with notes of honey, flowers and dried fruits. Such is the attention to detail at Maaemo that the bread recipe was adjusted to better match the taste of this new batch of beer.

The bread itself was wonderful; dense and chewy with a crisp seeded crust. It was eaten off a sheet of matpapir, which Norwegians traditionally use to wrap their packed lunches. Alongside this was a pot of whipped salted butter from Røros which we liberally slathered on the warm rolls. Røros butter is really quite remarkable – thick and luxurious it has a nice rich sour cream taste to it with visible grains of salt.
A new dish, “Ramsløk & Makrell” (Ramson & Mackerel) was next. Achingly fresh mackerel taken from the Oslo Fjord, which we could just about see from the window, was served with ramson (aka wild garlic) purée, ramson flowers and an apple-ramson vinegar dressing. It looked so beautiful on the plate, I almost couldn’t bear to mess it up. But it had to be done and oooh, lordy, am I glad I did!

The mackerel fillet had been lightly cured and had a surprisingly mild taste to it, not overly fishy as mackerel can sometimes be, which is surely a result of its freshness. The fish was well matched with the mild garlicky taste of ramson and the acidic tang of the vinegar sauce – the very epitome of spring on a plate. This dish was served with another Riesling, this time a 2009 Niersteiner Pettenthal Riesling from the Schätzel winery, whose mineral spiciness is a good pairing with mackerel.
Strandkål & Vassarve” (Sea Kale & Chickweed) followed. Here a warm salad of succulent sea kale (tastes like a slightly salty mix of asparagus and Swiss chard), mildly bitter chickweed, and pieces of crisp chicken skin were served with a velvety soft chicken and grain mustard velouté. Another playful dish as, of course, chickweed is often eaten by chickens. With this dish we enjoyed a glass of 2008 Brézème (from the Northern Rhône, 100% Roussanne grapes) made by former nuclear engineer, Éric Texier.


The ‘main’ course was a dish titled “Løk & And Fra Holte Gård” (Onion & Duck from Holte Farm). Accurately cooked tender duck breast was served with roast onions, onion purée, caramelised onions, aromatic woodruff, and garlic flowers. This was a good combination of flavours. Duck can often be overly fatty, but that wasn’t the case here and the duck was juicy without being oily, while at the same time having a nicely crisped skin. The accompanying wine was a 2006 Monthélie-Les Duresses from Comtes Lafon – a good medium-bodied Burgundy full of dark berry flavours that was well suited to duck.

The cheese course was next and Ost fra Eggen Gårdsysteri (Cheese from Eggen Dairy) was another familiar favourite from my last meal here. Soft Fjellblå blue cheese was mixed with Béchamel sauce and served with birch leaves, birch wine reduction, Swedish maple syrup, sea buckthorn berries, and oats. The combination of tastes is incredible; a riot of flavours on the palate. A light but fruit-packed Poiré de Poiriers pear cider from Eric Bordelet was perfectly matched with the cheese.

Throughout the meal, we kept updating our best course of the night list, and none of us could quite agree, which I suppose speaks to the overall high quality of the cooking at Maaemo. However, one dish we were all unanimous in adoring was Rabarbra med Melk (Rhubarb with Milk). This was another work of culinary art and its execution was as complex as it was beautiful. Rhubarb, wood sorrel, rhubarb jelly, flowers, and thin shards of nougatine that looked like jagged mountain tops were carefully arranged on a plate. Next to this, on a base of white chocolate crumble, was a scoop of milk ice cream. Remarkably the ice cream had no sugar added to it, instead it is cooked overnight at 85°C to concentrate the natural lactose sugars of the milk.

The mix of the flavours worked so well. The taste of sour rhubarb, refreshing wood sorrel, crunchy nougatine, sweet crumble, and mild milk ice cream were just sublime. This dish wasn't overly sweet and worked very well as the first of three desserts. A 2007 Moscata Rosa di Monte Torre from Cantina Gorgo was paired with this course and was packed with flavours of sweet tropical fruits.

The second dessert, “Hylleblomst & Timian” (Elderflower & Thyme), came served in beautiful deep Kosta Boda bowl, designed by Swedish designer Anna Ehrner. Elderflower sorbet and foam was served with crisp sugar bread, a lemon thyme sauce and dried chamomile flower heads. This was a delicate dessert bursting with floral scents and had a nice contrast of soft/crunchy textures. This was served with a 2008 Chaume Clos de L’Élu – a powerful and complex sweet wine made with Chenin Blanc grapes.
The final course was one of the show-stoppers from my last meal here. And “Smør fra Røros” (Butter from Røros) was exactly that. Smooth Røros butter ice cream was served with butter crumble and a brown butter-caramel sauce. A little dollop of molasses flavoured with a hint of coffee broke the butter hegemony. My god it was good! I liked the way the drizzle of warm butter caramel solidified on the cold surface of the ice cream to create a chewy and creamy topping – a bit like the Ice Magic (Magic Shell in the US) sauces of my youth. This dish was paired with a sweet raisiny 1995 Vin Santo from the Tuscan wine producer Monsanto.

Even the coffee is unusual at Maaemo. For this, they teamed up with Norway's “king of coffee” and former World Barista Champion Tim Wendelboe. For Norwegians, the association of drinking coffee while being out in nature is very strong indeed. Most Norwegians will bring a flask of hot black coffee with them while they are out and about på tur. For longer excursions, you may even brew your own coffee, and this is the experience that Maaemo and the Tim Wendelboe team decided to recreate.

A primus stove is brought to our table on a moss-filled tray. An old coffee kettle is then filled with exactly one litre of water and brought to just below boiling point. The gas is then switched off and 67g of ground coffee is then added to the pot and allowed to brew for 4 minutes. The resulting cup of coffee is extraordinary. This gentle method ensures maximum flavour is extracted from the coffee beans – you could even see a few tiny droplets of the flavour-rich oils from the coffee floating on the surface. So simple, yet so effective.
To go with the coffee a camomile truffle, whose thin shell burst in the mouth revealing a liquid caramel centre.
What a stunning meal this was! I know I sound like I’m gushing with praise, and no, I’m not affiliated with the restaurant in any way, but it really is that good. In fact, if anything, it seems Maaemo has stepped up another gear since I was there last. The cooking is just as accomplished, the food just as sublime, but it now seems more polished, more confident. It’s as though the Maaemo team is more assured of itself and what they are trying to achieve with their radical concept.

After dinner I had the chance to visit the kitchen and chat with Esben and Pontus. I asked them about how difficult it has been to secure Norwegian suppliers that could deliver the sort of produce they were looking for. I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that it had been somewhat of a tough challenge, but what did surprise me and lifted my heart was that more and more suppliers are starting to come round to the idea of a restaurant that strives to serve the very best organic and sustainable Norwegian produce. This is exactly the sort of shop front that artisanal producers need to showcase their products and hopefully make more Norwegians aware of the wonderful local bounty that is laying on their doorsteps.

Dinner at Maaemo was another heavenly experience indeed. This really is cooking of the very highest level; intelligent, skilled, creative, even witty at times. And as I left the restaurant into that cool spring Oslo night, for one fleeting intangible moment, all seemed right with the world. Surely that’s enough to make anyone smile.

(Postcript: I have returned to Maaemo a few times since and you can read those reviews herehere 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.

Schweigaardsgate 15b
0191 Oslo
Norway
Tel: +47 91 99 48 05

Food:           10 / 10
Service:       10 / 10
Ambiance:   10 / 10