26 September 2013

Fauna, Oslo – Restaurant Review

When Oslo's Oscarsgate shut its doors for good at the end of last year, a collective sigh of disappointment could be heard from the city's food lovers. Not only had the Norwegian capital lost another of its precious few Michelin-starred restaurant, but it was also unclear as to when or where we'd see Swedish head chef Björn Svensson in a kitchen again.

The demise of the Oscarsgate was fairly abrupt. In September 2011 the restaurant announced that it was looking for new, larger premises – not a bad thing at all given the old Oscarsgate dining room was of a size that even the slickest of estate agents would euphemistically call 'cosy.' It was indeed minuscule, and you were forever being bumped by passing waiters and moving your chair to allow someone at the neighbouring table to go to the loo. But the food; oh the food! Svensson's cooking combined an eclectic mix of Norwegian produce that was reconstructed in a vibrant, modern way, clearly drawing on his experience from stints at El Bulli and Gordon Ramsay's Royal Hospital Road.

The search for a new location went on. But it was to no avail and, after eight years of operation, the restaurant closed for good in December 2012. However, after over a year of searching, Svensson's luck turned when in early 2013 he finally found a suitable location in the genteel Oslo neighbourhood of Frogner in a building that's seen a number of restaurants come and go over the years.

After a four-month refurbishment, Fauna finally opened in June 2013. In came young chef and co-owner Jo Bøe Klakegg, with experience from Noma, Bagatelle, and Sydney's Marque, to run the kitchen with Svensson, while co-owner Anne Heggberget, former sommelier at Oscarsgate, runs the front of house.

With much anticipation, we arrived at the imposing corner location of Fauna. Behind its heavy wooden doors lies a simple, but elegantly modern interior. It's full of clean lines and neutral tones giving the place a Zen-like aura of calm. Blond hardwood flooring lightens the dimly lit room, while uncovered wooden tables give a nod to the relative informality of Fauna. The main dining room, seating around 45 guests, has direct views onto the busy, stone-clad open kitchen, and around the corner is a small private dining space for larger groups. It's a marked transformation from the last time I was here, when it was the 1960s London inspired cocktail bar, SW20.

There's no better way to start dinner than with a glass of Champagne, so that's where we began. Some nicely chilled Pierre Peters NV Blanc de Blancs was poured into impossibly fragile (and utterly covetable) Zalto glasses. A short while later we were served the first of two amuse bouches.


Amuse Bouche 1: A shard of crisp chicken skin had been smeared with a layer of watercress emulsion and topped with fried kale flecked with almond paste and grated egg yolk. That something so small and seemingly innocuous could pack such a wallop of flavour was astonishing, silencing the table in unison. It was an intense burst of salty, savoury chicken – a little freshness from the watercress, a little bitter kick from the kale, and a rich creamy texture from the egg yolk. An explosive combination of flavours and textures that was simply wonderful.

Amuse bouches are a chef's calling card, allowing them free reign to distil their talents into one small bite of food that sets the tone for the rest of meal. After one bite of this dish, I knew we were in good hands and couldn't wait to see what else was in store.

We're shown the menu next, and at Fauna your choice is fairly simple. Available is a 5-course menu priced at NKr.750 (€94) with matching wines for NKr.695 (€87). For NKr.150 (€19) you can add on a couple of extra dishes, and an additional NKr.150 will get you wines to go with them. A cheese course is offered as an optional extra (NKr.125 / €15.50) and, what with this being Frogner and all, there are various caviar options available for those of larger wallets.

It's a compact, yet very well thought out menu and in the end we decided to go for the 7-course option (with the 5-course wine pairing), as the lure of the two additional courses was just too much to resist.



Amuse Bouche 2: With our menu choice made, the second amuse arrived. A generous serving of perfectly cooked plump Norwegian mussels were served with thin slices of apple, wakame, and warm horseradish milk. It was another dish that punched well above its weight in terms of flavour. A burst of sweet ozone salinity from the shellfish, a hit of peppery spice from the horseradish, and crisp acidic apples to balance everything out. Another faultless dish. This was very impressive cooking indeed.



Course 1: A very finely chopped tartare of Charolais beef was topped with thin slices of fresh radish, crunchy grains of toasted barley, grated Västerbotten cheese (a Parmesan-like aged cheese from Sweden), and a few sprigs of tarragon. The hefty Charolais bull is prized for the quality of its meat, and this tartare was meltingly tender with a hint of nutty flavour and a juicy butteriness that wasn't at all fatty. This dish was all about the textures – the smooth, silky beef contrasting nicely with the crunch of the barley and radishes. The gentle scent of anise from the tarragon added a wonderful, yet subtle perfume to the whole thing.

Wine pairing: A 2012 Weißburgunder Papageno from Weingut Allram in Kamptal, Austria. A full-bodied Pinot Blanc with a fruity complexity and robust acidity that was a good match with the richly flavoured beef.



Course 2: Raw Norwegian scallops (the best way to eat the best scallops in the world in my opinion) were served with new potatoes, celery, dill 'snow,' milk foam, and an onion and potato crumble. This was a cool and refreshing dish reminding you of the crystal clear air and waters of these northern climes. Impossibly sweet scallops were a great match with the nutty earthiness of the potatoes, lactic tang of milk, and herbal perfume of dill. The crumble added a bit of textural contrast and a little umami lift to an already great combination of flavours. If I were splitting hairs I'd say that the metallic note of celery was probably not needed, but that's a minor quibble.



Course 3: Pan-fried lobster was served with pickled fennel, chanterelle duxelles, parsley sauce and lovage oil. An intensely green and vibrant looking dish, the sweetness of the lobster was offset by the vegetal sauce and creamy savouriness of the mushrooms. This was another fantastic dish.

Wine pairing: A 2011 Cuvée Marguerite from Domaine Matassa. A blend of 50% Viognier and 50% Muscat Petit-Grain grapes, this wine had quite marked acidity with nice floral aromas but could probably have done with a few more years in the bottle.



Bread: Next came a bowl of warm, crumbly buckwheat bread that was to be slathered with smooth whipped butter.



Course 4: A dish of skate served with grilled leeks and cucumbers with a verbena and spinach sauce followed. The skate was silky soft and beautifully cooked, while the verbena sauce had a nice lemony taste. While delicious, it just seemed to be missing that little something extra. Not that it wasn't good, as it most certainly was, but whereas the previous dishes positively shouted their flavours from the rooftops, this one whispered them in a much more subtle way, and its place in the meal was perhaps too understated as a result.

Wine pairing: A 2009 La Grande Côte Sancerre from Domaine Pascal Cotat. Fermented in oak barrels this was a fairly unusual Sancerre, being dense and plush with a touch of sweetness to go with its mineralic edge.



Course 5: Since moving to Norway I've been amazed at the quality of lamb here. It's a sweeter, milder and less fatty taste than I'd been used to, often with notes of the wild herbs the sheep would eat. Here, breast of lamb from Jæren had been sous-vided to melting perfection, yet with a glass like layer of crisp skin intact. It was served with Jerusalem artichoke purée, grilled onions and Jerusalem artichoke crisps. It was dressed with a simple sauce of the rich lamb cooking juices. This was a great dish, full of the flavour of tender autumnal lamb, cut by the sweet acidity of the onions, while a bass line of earthy artichokes underpinned everything.

Wine pairing: A 2012 Arianna Occhipinti SP68. A Sicilian blend of Frappato and Nero D’Avola grapes fermented with indigenous yeasts. A medium-bodied natural red wine full of flavours of black and red fruits and spot-on acidity.



Course 6: A simple dessert of pear slivers served with elderflower and creamy custard-like blobs. Cool, floral, and light and with not too much sweetness, this was a fresh tasting combination of simple flavours.

Wine pairing: A sweet 2012 Schilcher Spätlese from Austrian producer Weingut Langman that was elegant and soft with notes of raspberries and subtle citrus flavours.



Course 7: The final course was a dessert of balls of lingonberry sorbet and chocolate mousse rolled in freeze dried lingonberries served with jagged fragments of milk chips. As I've probably mentioned before, I'm not a huge fan of chocolate desserts (I'm weird, I know). But here the tart, dry zip of the lingonberries was a good foil to the rich chocolate, taming chocolate's tendency to coat your entire mouth with its heavy taste.



We finished with petit fours of thin biscuits topped with hazelnut cream and cloudberries as well as cups of Tim Wendelboe coffee from the Finca Tamana estate in Colombia. No fancy Italian espressos here, just good black coffee brewed in a cafetière.


And so ended what was a truly great meal. The highlights were many, from the relaxed ambiance to the exemplary cooking. Service throughout was very knowledgeable and genuinely enthusiastic. One negative was the pace of the first half of the meal. The first few dishes were simply served too quickly, giving us barely enough time to catch our breath before the next course was upon us. The pace thankfully slowed down for the second half of the dinner, but it was a small slip-up in an otherwise impressive display from the front-of-house team.

It's so good to see the talented Svensson and his old Oscarsgate team back in the kitchen and I was happily surprised at just how different the Fauna experience was compared to his former restaurant. It seems bringing on board Jo Bøe Klakegg has made a dramatic difference to the food, and if you're expecting Oscarsgate v2.0 then you're in for a very pleasant surprise.

Fauna is more accessible and more pared back than Oscarsgate, and gone are much of the formalities that come with high-end dining. The food here has a focus that the old restaurant in Pilestredet didn't always have. Where complex dishes of nine, ten, or more components were common at Oscarsgate, here the focus is on letting just a few flavours really shine on the plate. Cooking of this level for NKr.750 for five courses represents tremendous value in a city as eye-wateringly expensive as Oslo, and it's sure to make Fauna very popular indeed, if the packed dining room wasn't enough to tell me that already.

But regardless of price, Fauna is serving up some truly great food. Clean Nordic flavours from predominantly Nordic produce composed in an elegantly minimal way, served in a stylish, yet relaxed setting. It's a winning combination, and my guess is that Oslo could soon be welcoming another much-needed Michelin-starred restaurant to its fold.

Food:             9 / 10
Service:         8 / 10
Ambiance:   10 / 10

Fauna
Solligata 2
0254 Oslo
Norway
Tel: +47 41 67 45 43