3 November 2011

Maaemo, Oslo – Restaurant Review (Oct '11)

(You can read a more recent review of Maaemo from me herehere and here)


I know, I know, this is another review of Maaemo. In fact this is my fourth visit to Oslo's ground-breaking restaurant in the last eight months. I've already written over 12,000 words on Maaemo (which, worryingly, is almost as much as I did for my master's dissertation), so for more in-depth information on the restaurant see my previous reviews herehere, and here (and an interview here).

Given the amount of gushing praise I've penned about Maaemo, you'd be forgiven for thinking that I am involved with the restaurant in some way. But that is simply not the case; this place really is that good. As regular readers will know I've become totally captivated by the 'Maaemo experience' and, having met the people behind it and gotten to know some of them over the last nine months, I can't help but want to see their remarkable project succeed. Besides, if you doubt my impartiality then simply look at the many other reviews by bloggers and newspapers alike – virtually all are positively glowing.

So it is that on an unseasonably warm October night we enter the restaurant, sit down, relax, and prepare for one of the most exciting culinary rides around. Over the course of the next six hours we're taken on a breathtaking tour of Norway that sees us travel from the temperate climes of the southerly Hvaler islands to the cold pristine waters of Norway's West Coast and on to the expansive inland wilderness of Røros. We traverse mountain plateaus, cross crystal clear fjords, and delve deep into the heart of misty autumnal forests.

The menu choice at Maaemo is pleasingly simple – there is a single 9-course tasting menu for NKr 1,150 (€148) with the option of having matching wines (NKr 980 / €126) or non-alcoholic drink pairings (NKr 470 / €60). Their latest menu is very similar to that from my last dinner so I'll try and focus on the newer dishes.

Amuse-Bouches: We begin with some familiar and some new amuse-bouches. First, discs of toasted rye bread topped with sour cream and shavings of dried mackerel arrive theatrically under a smoke-filled glass cloche.

We also try some slices of fenalår from Hadeland, just north of Oslo. Fenalår is the traditional Norwegian speciality of salted and cured leg of mutton. The extra long maturing time of this fenalår lends it a soft, silky texture without it being too overpowering. Think of it as Norway's answer to Jamón Ibérico.

A new dish of crisp chicken skins dusted with a mild vinegar powder was next, which was delicious and as addictive as crack.

Then, another new dish, and this one the product a new gadget the kitchen has recently taken delivery of: the anti-griddle. First developed at the request of chef Grant Achatz for his legendary three Michelin-starred restaurant Alinea, the anti-griddle, as it's name suggests, looks like a griddle but instead of heating food it chills it instantly to a frosty -35 ºC.

Here, Danish head chef Esben Holmboe Bang had frozen discs of nýr – a type of tart cream cheese made at Grøndalen Farm in Nes – and used them to sandwich a layer of vibrant orange pearls of løyrom (Kalix bleak roe). This was a simple, yet very effective dish. The frozen nýr melts nicely on the tongue and it's a great companion to the mild salty tang of the roe. It would be nice, though, to see if the anti-griddle could be used to introduce some textural differences in the frozen nýr, perhaps by freezing just the base of each disc of cream cheese and leaving the top part still soft.

The final amuse-bouche is by now an old favourite and one of the most memorable things I have ever eaten. A small mound of delicate oyster emulsion is blanketed by a gossamer thin disc of oyster jelly. Spooned over this tableside is a mussel and dill oil sauce. Words alone just cannot express how good this dish is – we're talking last-meal-on-earth good. It is the very essence of the sea. Imagine standing on a pebble beach with a cooling salty mist of sea water brushing your face, while fizzing waves lap against your feet. That's how this dish tastes. Stunning.


Course 1: The first course was familiar to me from my previous meals yet its capacity to delight doesn't seem to diminish. The dish is simply titled “Sjøkreps” (Langoustine) and consists of a pristine langoustine tail from Frøya that has been very lightly grilled and served warm on a stone dotted with drops of rapeseed oil and vinegar emulsion. Surrounding the langoustine island is a bubbling sea of pine infusion and dry ice that gently billows clouds of pine-scented smoke across the table.

Drink pairing: a vibrant and acidic 2010 Riesling Kabinett from the Schätzel winery.


Course 2: Another familiar dish next, and this time "Breiflabb" (Monkfish). Grilled monkfish was served with roast parsley root, crown dill (dill after it has flowered), parsley stalks, parsley root purée, pea flowers, and a tangy apple and champagne sauce was spooned over the top.

Drink pairing: a bone dry 2006 Kastanienbusch Riesling GG from the Rebholz estate, whose complex mineral perfume really brought out the grassy notes in the crown dill.

Course 3: Maaemo's signature bread course of "Hvete" (Wheat) was next. Warm sourdough rolls made from wheat, spelt and emmer flours were served on squares of traditional Norwegian matpapir (food wrapping paper) with lashings of whipped salted butter from Røros.

Drink pairing: wheat beer from the tiny Bøgedal microbrewery in Vejle, Denmark. Each batch of beer is limited to just 500 litres. This was batch number 248 and was a light, golden wheat beer with notes of orange and coriander seed that complemented the bread perfectly.


Course 4: "Andehjerte" (Duck Heart) was a repeat of one of the highlights of my last meal here. Duck heart from Holte Farm in Drangedal had been cooked en sous vide and then lightly sautéed so they remained meltingly tender. They were served with pickled chanterelles, small blobs of an intense chanterelle purée and shavings of luxurious Gotland truffles. Milder than their French or Italian equivalents, the truffle slices imparted a subtle earthy taste of the forest to the dish. What a well-balanced and stunning dish!

Drink pairing: Duchesse de Bourgogne, a Flemish red ale from the Verhaeghe brewery, which had a fresh fruity taste and a nice sour finish to it.


Course 5: The next course, "Skogen Akkurat Nå" (The Forest Right Now), is a work of sheer brilliance. We first tried this dish at our last dinner here but it has evolved a touch since then and has now turned into an evocative trip through the Norwegian forest. Placed on the table is a large centrepiece, which appears to have been surgically extracted from the forest floor only moments ago. For a second I thought we'd be picking our own mushrooms and herbs from it (how cool would that be!), but instead the centrepiece set the mood for a clever piece of culinary theatre.

A Hario Syphon (normally used for brewing coffee) is used 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 mushrooms, dried onions, juniper, black pepper, and wild sorrell. 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.

The broth is then poured into a bowl containing royales of Røros sour cream, mushrooms, and small frozen pucks of wild sorrell emulsion that melt on contact with the hot broth. The resulting pretty green drops float on the surface like sparkling emeralds.

Drink pairing: a luscious 2009 Fleur de Savagnin from Domaine de la Tournelle in the little known Jura wine region of France.



Course 6: "Jordskokk & Valnøtter" (Jerusalem Artichokes & Walnuts). This was a brand new dish and we were honoured to be the first guests to try it. Deer from Røros was served with Jerusalem artichokes (whole, puréed, and powdered) and a walnut oil & plum sauce was spooned over it tableside. So often, venison can be bland, but this deer had a nice wild gamey taste with a robust texture. It was utterly delicious.

Drink pairing: Contrary to what you might expect, this course was served with white wine. And why not? Where's the law that says red wine must be drunk with venison? We were served a 2006 white Chorey-les-Beaune Burgundy from Domaine Sylvain Loichet, whose fruity finish went well with the meat while helping lift the flavour of the Jerusalem artichokes.

We took a little break next while sommelier Pontus Dahlström poured us a truly stunning 2004 Barolo Cannubi made by Chiara Boschis at her E. Pira e Figli estate. A powerful, but elegant wine, it was packed with scents of ripe fruit and spice. A truly magnificent wine.

Course 7: "Ost fra Eggen Gårdsysteri" (Cheese from Eggen Farm Dairy) was a unique cheese course that packed quite a punch. Fjellblå blue cheese from Eggen Farm had been cooked with milk and then frozen in liquid nitrogen. It was served with a purée of lightly pickled black trumpet mushrooms and a sprinkling of black mushroom powder. What a clever combination! The sweetness and acidity of the purée seemed tailor made for the pungent cheese.

Drink pairing: 1988 Madeira Terrantez Colheita from Pereira D’Oliveiras, which had gorgeously sweet notes of dried fruit and citrus.
Palate cleanser: Lightly pickled cucumber sorbet served with a tube of cucumber jelly filled with yoghurt. This one-bite dish had a very clean, pure, and mildly sweet flavour.

Course 8: "Multer med Fløte" (Cloudberries with Cream). Ahh, finally! Cloudberries on the menu of a Norwegian restaurant. I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to find some of these arctic delicacies in a restaurant, but what a way to end the drought. Whole cloudberries were served on a layer of clouberry & caramel purée. At the table, granules of nitrogen-frozen sweetened cream were sprinkled over the top. If you've never tried cloudberries before, their taste is unlike anything you will have tried before and is almost impossible to describe. They have an intense floral aroma that is sort of musky, exotic even. Their taste is as crisp as the cool air they grow in. You don't want to mess too much with cloudberries and this dish was perfectly judged. Simply wonderful!

Drink pairing: A biodynamic 2008 Gewürtztraminer VT made by André Ostertag. This late harvest wine had good floral sweetness that was well balanced by a saline/mineral finish. Not a typical 'jammy' dessert wine by any means, which makes it all the more intriguing.


Course 9: "Smør Fra Røros" (Butter from Røros). The final course of the evening has been a feature of every meal at Maaemo and it makes me smile every time. Butter ice cream, butter crumble, butter molasses and warm brown butter caramel is simply astonishing. It's not at all as heavy as it sounds – an obscenely good celebration of all things butter.

Drink pairing: 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: The attention to detail at Maaemo is staggering. This fact is illustrated perfectly in the restaurant's coffee service. Not content to offer the typical after dinner espressos and Americanos, Maaemo decided to do something different and created a unique Norwegian take on the coffee experience.

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". Sometimes people will even brew their own kokekaffe (literally "boiled coffee"). It is this ritual that Maaemo have recreated.

A camping stove is brought to our table on a moss-filled tray. A coffee kettle is then filled with water and brought to just below boiling point. Freshly ground coffee is then added and allowed to steep for a few minutes. But this isn't any old cup of Joe. Maaemo teamed up with one of Norway's leading coffee experts and former World Barista Champion, Tim Wendelboe, who has selected and roasted the beans for the restaurant's very own "Cuvée Maaemo" batch of coffee. The resulting brew is amazing; packed with notes of stone fruits, it has a naturally sweet finish. The organic beans come from the Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza estate in Brazil and, unusually, they have been dried in the shade instead of the sun. This longer drying time gives the resulting coffee a very clean taste with lots of lively acidity.

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.

Finally, a couple of nightcaps in the form of some unusual Douglas-fir eau de vie from Clear Creek distillery in Oregon, and a spruce brandy from Danish distiller Schumachers. Both had beautifully complex and very fresh flavours. Such a great alternative to regular brandy.

I've long since run out of superlatives to describe the Maaemo experience. The level of cooking and service is as high as any I've experienced. You'll be thinking about your meal here for a long time afterwards. What is interesting is that now Maaemo seem to have nailed the food, they really appear to be focussing on delivering a 'total' experience, and many dishes focus just as much on creating evocative sights, sounds and sensations as on delivering such crystal clear flavours. So, we're not just served mushroom broth – we're taken into the heart of the Norwegian forest. Bread doesn't sit ignored on a side plate – it is celebrated and served on the very stones used to grind the flour. Oysters are eaten among the shells and seaweed on the beach, while coffee becomes the reward of firing up the kettle at the top of the mountain peak you've just climbed. And, what's more, it's not gimmicky at all. It all feels as natural as breathing.

Maaemo is one of those rare gems that crops up every once in a while in the restaurant world; the right planets align at the right time and something truly extraordinary is created. Maaemo is both a breath of fresh air for the Oslo restaurant scene and a fantastic ambassador for Norwegian cuisine and the sheer quality of produce that this country is capable of producing. In Maaemo Norwegians can be proud, for they have a truly first-class restaurant on their hands. As for the rest of the world, take note – I have a feeling this is a restaurant we're all going to be hearing a lot more about.

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.

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

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