Well, this is becoming quite the habit. But I just can't help it. Regular readers will know that I've become totally smitten with Maaemo, the ground-breaking Oslo restaurant that has completely redefined the concept of Norwegian cuisine. My previous meals at the restaurant (see here and here) left me in no doubt that I had truly tasted some of the best cooking of my life – a bold statement, but Maaemo really is up there with the very best. Indeed, such is my fascination with the restaurant that I even interviewed some of the people behind it to learn more about what they are trying to achieve. Have a look at these links if you'd like to learn more on the background of the restaurant and the people behind it.
By way of brief background, Maaemo – an old Finnish word meaning “Mother Earth” – opened its doors in December 2010 and is the creation of three men: Esben Holmboe Bang, a young and supremely gifted Danish chef; Pontus Dahlström, a Finn who runs the front of house as well as being the sommelier; and Jon-Frede Engdahl, a Norwegian who manages Kolonihagen, a café and supplier of organic produce in Oslo.
This latest tryst (my third) in what is rapidly becoming a great love affair with Maaemo occurred at the end of August, which is an interesting time of year in Norway from a food point of view. The air is cooler, the skies are greyer and the promise of the long balmy days of summer are now a distant memory. However, although it's on the way (oh yes, it's most definitely on the way), the cold has yet to set in, and as a result we're stuck in this meteorological limbo between seasons. Naturally, the ingredients used in Maaemo's menu reflect this transition from summer to autumn to great effect. All produce used at Maaemo is either organic, bio-dynamic, or wild, and remarkably, 95% of that produce is Norwegian with around 80% of it coming less than 100km from Oslo. It doesn't get much more local than this.
Amuse Bouches: We start the meal with some glasses of champagne and a few amuse bouches. Three dishes arrive simultaneously. The first of these were plump broad beans grown on Korsvold Farm on the Hvaler Islands around 100km south of Oslo. These were simply blanched and sprinkled with salt. Sometimes you just cannot improve on nature at its simplest, and these beans were as fresh and as sweet as they come.
Next, a glass cloche was removed, releasing wafts of smoke and revealing small discs of toasted rye bread topped with sour cream, flakes of dried mackerel, and wild flowers. The smoke had gently infused the rye bread with its aroma and the salty savoury tang of dried mackerel went well with the cooling sour cream.
The last of the three opening dishes was slices of fenalår from Hadeland in the hills above Oslo. Fenalår is salted and cured leg of mutton. It's a very traditional Norwegian food eaten across the country. Here it was both smoky and salty with a soft texture to it and wasn't overly strong, as fenalår can sometimes be.
The final amuse bouche was a familiar favourite from before, yet its capacity to astonish never ceases. In a clear glass bowl sat a disc of oyster jelly that blanketed a small mound of oyster emulsion. Sprinkled on this were dill fronds, while a mussel and dill oil sauce was spooned over the top.
The star of this dish, of course, is the oysters, which are European flat oysters (a.k.a. Colchester natives) and come from Bømlo, between Bergen and Stavanger. The cold Norwegian waters result in a very slow growing oyster (it can take five years for these oysters to fully grow), which intensifies their sweet mineral taste. And what a taste it is – the absolute quintessence of the sea. It is an ethereal and fleeting thing, like being kissed by an ocean breeze. Simply amazing!
Course 1: The first course proper was a deceptively simple looking plate of green beans and salad leaves (again from Korsvold Farm) that had been paired with winter cress, and a salad espuma made with hard boiled eggs. The flavours and textures were incredible for something so seemingly simple; fresh sweet salad leaves, crisp beans, and soft salad espuma worked beautiful together. This was a gorgeous salad and a clever seasonal crossover dish using the last of the summer salad leaves with the first of the green beans.
Course 2: The next course was another familiar and much-loved dish from my last visit. “Sjøkreps & Gran” (Langoustine & Pine) was again one of the many, many highlights of the evening, both in taste and presentation. An enormous solitary langoustine tail from the island of Frøya was lightly cooked and served warm on a stone dotted with yellow blobs of a sweet and acidic rapeseed oil and vinegar gel. 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 eaten with the fingers – you simply dipped the langoustine tail into the vinegar emulsion and took a bite. On my last visit I felt the emulsion was a little overpowering, however it seems to have been toned down a notch and it's now perfectly in balance with the taste of the langoustine – a great dish just got even better. If there were ever an ambassador for Norwegian seafood, it would be the majestic langoustine, which is just so sweet and so fresh. Wow! This course was again well paired with a 2008 Scharzhof Riesling from Egon Müller that was full of green apple and honey flavours, echoing the acidity of the emulsion and the sweetness of the shellfish.
Course 3: A dish of "Persillerot & Krondill" (Parsley Root & Crown Dill) followed. Here grilled monkfish was served with parsley root, crown dill (dill after it has flowered), fried parsley, parsley root purée, violets, and a tart apple and champagne sauce was spooned over the top. This was an exquisite course; every single flavour just sung out in harmony – dense but subtle monkfish was well matched with the sweet earthy purée, grassy herbs, and acidic sauce. The wine pairing of a bone dry 2005 Kastanienbusch Riesling GG from the Rebholz estate was inspired with its complex mineral perfume really bringing out the grassy notes in the crown dill.
Course 4: The bread course of "Hvete med Hvede" (Wheat with Wheat) was next. This playful take on the Danish and Norwegian spellings of the word "wheat" consisted of warm sourdough rolls made from wheat, spelt and emmer flours from the small Holli Mill in Spydeberg. The bread was served with whipped salted butter from Røros, which is ludicrously tasty with a rich sour cream flavour. The "Danish wheat" was provided in the form of a glass of beer from the tiny husband and wife-run Bøgedal microbrewery in Vejle, Denmark. Each batch of beer is limited to just 500 or so litres. This was batch number 248 and was a light, golden wheat beer with sweetness and spice that complemented the bread beautifully.
Course 5: "Poteter & Rygeost" (Potatoes & Smoked Cheese) arrived next on a warm stone. Firm waxy Norwegian Troll potatoes were served with rygeost (a Danish smoked cheese), Kalix bleak roe, horseradish, and malt powder. The fresh, mild smokiness of the cheese balanced the sweetness of the potatoes. With this course we had a wonderful 18-year-old white Rioja from Viña Tondonia with notes of pencil lead and citrus and a briny feel that reminded me of a manzanilla (in fact this dish was initially paired with sherry, but it was deemed to be too strong).
Course 6: Next was a beautifully conceived dish simply titled "Kantareller" (Chanterelles). But the simplicity of the name was misleading; what arrived was duck heart from Holte Farm in Drangedal that had been cooked in a water bath and then lightly sautéed, and then served with pickled chanterelle mushrooms, small blobs of the most intense chanterelle purée, and bright yellow winter cress flowers. What a stunning combination! To really appreciate the dish you had to place a little bit of each component on your fork. The hearts were so tender and milder than I had imagined them to be, their meatiness offset by the super-concentrated chanterelle purée, while the acidity of the pickled chanterelles and the crisp peppery taste of the winter cress balanced things nicely. I love this dish. Profoundly.
Interestingly this dish wasn't paired with red wine as you might expect, but instead was served with a much more unusual glass of Duchesse de Bourgogne, a Flemish red ale from the Verhaeghe brewery that has been matured in oak barrels for 12 months. The beer was smooth, with a fresh fruity taste that had a nice sour finish to it, and was a great foil to the rich duck hearts.
Course 7: The next dish was a little encore for the chanterelles. In a clever stroke, Maaemo has used a Hario Syphon (normally used for brewing coffee) to create a concentrated umami-packed mushroom broth. First the bottom of the Syphon is filled with chicken consommé, while the top is filled with dried chanterelles, dried onions, juniper and black pepper. A gas flame is applied to the lower chamber and we watch as the liquid mysteriously travels upwards to mix with the dried ingredients in the upper chamber. The gas is then turned off and the resulting vacuum draws the liquid, which has now been infused with all that mushroom goodness, down through a filter and back into the bottom chamber. With me so far?
This broth is then poured into a bowl containing royales of Røros sour cream, dried trompette de la mort mushrooms and powdered chanterelles. I cannot describe just how intensely savoury and delicious this soup was – such an ingenious dish and the first time I've seen a Hario Syphon used this way. Paired with this course was a weighty and minerally 2000 Riesling Hengst from Josmeyer in Alsace.
Course 8: The next course "Løk" (Onions) was exactly as was billed. Onions from Korsvold Farm had been baked and lightly pickled and were served with a powerful onion purée, a sweet caramelised onion 'soil', woodruff, yarrow flowers, and a beer sauce. The dish had an incredibly pure onion flavour that wasn't too pungent. It was served with a 2002 Selbach-Oster Spätlese Riesling, which at first tasted quite sweet, but then after a couple of seconds the sweetness goes away to be replaced by citrus acidity as the onion flavour of the dish kicks in.
Course 9: The cheese course was next and like before we were served "Ost fra Eggen Gårdsysteri" (Cheese from Eggen Farm Dairy). However, this time the preparation was a little different. A thick béchamel sauce is made using Fjellblå blue cheese, however this time it was served with spheres of gooseberry purée and caramelised almonds. This was a good little dish that packed a wallop of a punch, but I felt the gooseberries were a bit too tart and it could have done with more sweetness to balance things out. This course was paired with a fresh and light tasting Sydre Argelette cider from producer Eric Bordelet.
Course 10: Next, a pre-dessert of "Frilandsagurk & Yoghurt" (Cucumber & Yoghurt). This was such a beautiful dish; I could hardly bear to disturb it with my spoon. Curls of lightly pickled cucumber were served with yoghurt-filled cucumber jelly tubes, cucumber granita, cucumber sorbet (all sorbets and ice creams at Maaemo are made to order in Pacojet machines), sorrel leaves, and bluebell flowers. This was such a crisp, refreshing and clean tasting dish. It wasn't too sweet either, and as such was an ingenious intermezzo before the desserts proper. This course was also cleverly paired with Maaemo's own dill tea, made simply with dill, water and sugar.
Course 11: Following this we were served an outstanding dish of "Blåbær & Lavendel" (Blueberries & Lavender). Just thinking about this course gives me goosebumps. A vibrant blueberry and lavender sorbet was served on a crumble base. Alongside this, a thin sheet of sweet milk jelly dotted with blueberry purée and wild oregano flowers blanketed marinated blueberries and lavender jelly. This was such a clever and well-executed dish of what is essentially just two ingredients. This was served with a very unusual, but utterly heavenly, sweet sparkling red 2010 Birbet Brachetto from Piedmontese producer Malvira, which was packed with flavours of blackberries and strawberries.
Course 12: The final course of the evening was a dessert that the restaurant had tried to take off the menu. Such was the outcry that it was reinstated as an optional extra course. Of course, there's nothing optional about it as "Smør fra Røros" (Butter from Røros) is a show-stopper and is simply one of those must-have dishes. Smooth, light ice cream made from lashings of Røros butter was spooned onto a mound of butter crumble and coffee-infused molasses (yup, more butter in there too). Over this was drizzled a warm brown butter caramel. The taste and texture of this dish is just so sensual – soft, silky ice cream, warm butter sauce, sweet molasses, and a crumble that dissolves on the tongue. It's probably about as much excitement as you can have in a restaurant with your clothes on. This course was paired with a sweet and light 1995 Vin Santo from Tuscan wine producer Castello di Monsanto that was full of aromas of tropical fruits, raisins, and vanilla.
Coffee & Petit Fours: Even the coffee is unusual at Maaemo. 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 kokekaffe (literally "boiled coffee"). To recreate this experience Maaemo teamed up with one of Norway's leading coffee experts and former World Barista Champion, Tim Wendelboe.
A camping 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 catuaì coffee from Los Cipreses Farm in Honduras 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 and it's full of aromas of plums and chocolate. So simple, yet so effective.
To go with the coffee were some petit fours of camomile truffles made from cocoa butter and filled with liquid caramel that gushed out as you bit into it.
And before we knew it, the meal had come to an end. Four hours seemed to have vanished in the blink of an eye, yet every second had been savoured. We headed out into the cool Oslo night with warm farewells from the staff ringing in our ears and a goody bag filled with heather honey sweets in our hands.
I didn't think it was possible to improve on the last two meals I had at Maaemo. But how wrong I was – the experience just gets better and better. Eight months since they first opened, the place is now running like a well-oiled machine. The Maaemo team seem more confident and assured of their chosen path, no doubt buoyed by the positive feedback they have received to date.
I've mentioned before that chef Holmboe Bang seems impossibly young to be running a kitchen that produces such utterly sublime food. But what really amazes me is how intuitive his sense of taste is and how naturally his cooking comes to him. Every single element on the plate is there for a reason and has earned its place on the plate. No more, no less. Flavours are clean, fresh and focused. It's such a mark of a chef's confidence and skill when they know that less is often more and are able to pull it off with such remarkable results.
But that's not to say it's a one man show. In true Scandinavian style, Maaemo is a collaborative team effort. From the food, to the inspired wine pairings chosen by sommelier Pontus Dahlstrøm, to the genuinely warm and faultless service, everyone has a role to play in delivering such excellence. And this teamwork is also evident in the blistering pace and creativity of the menu development, no doubt borne of the four hour staff meetings held twice a week for this very purpose.
As far as restaurants in Norway go it is very simple: there is "before Maaemo" and "after Maaemo". This small restaurant of just eight tables has shaken-up the at times staid Oslo restaurant scene and set a new benchmark in the process. Indeed, Maaemo is now being paid perhaps the greatest compliment in that other Oslo restaurants are starting to incorporate some of its ethos into their own. This is a great thing as it shines a brighter spotlight on the sheer quality and diversity of local Norwegian produce, as well as serving to lift the overall standard of restaurants in the country.
Maaemo remains one of the best restaurants I've been to anywhere. You'll be thinking about your meal here for a very long time afterwards, replaying each of the flavours, sights, and sensations over and over again in your mind. But such is the velocity of the restaurant's upward trajectory that I sense the well-oiled machine has several more gears yet to come. These are exciting times indeed for Maaemo and for Norwegian cuisine, and I cannot wait to return.
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.
Service: 10 / 10
Ambiance: 10 / 10
Tel: +47 91 99 48 05