Another look at Maaemo, you say? I know, I've already written plenty about this, the most glittering of Oslo's Michelin-starred restaurants, so what's left to be said, right? Well, having first eaten at Maaemo just after they opened almost three years ago I've simply been amazed at how each and every meal there has moved the game forward – an interpretation of Norwegian terroir unlike anything I've seen before.
Certainly there's no sign of Maaemo resting on the laurels of the two Michelin stars they were awarded just 15 months after opening. It's full steam ahead and the pace of development in the kitchen is breathtaking. It's therefore perhaps interesting to reflect on how the trajectory of head chef and co-owner Esben Holmboe Bang's cooking has progressed since three guys got together with the idea of opening Norway's first fine-dining restaurant based solely on organic or bio-dynamic produce.
One thing that stands out is just how big a progression Esben has made in refining his brand of ultra-clean Nordic flavours. Flavours that focus on letting the quality of the produce shine combined with Esben's characteristic use of acidic and sweet undertones that seem to intensify these flavours further. The humble potato or carrot at Maaemo will taste like no other potato or carrot you've had before.
My very first meal at Maaemo blew me away, but looking back it could be compared to the mere early doodlings of an Old Master. All the components of what we think of as a classic dinner were there – some small amuse bouche, a fish course, a meat dish, followed by cheese, dessert and even chocolate (which at the time I remarked stuck out like a sore thumb among this array of seasonal Norwegian produce). All were sublime, but little did I know just how far Esben and the Maaemo team could take this particular brand of new Nordic cooking.
Very Good Food and Starve Food), not once was there a dish that you'd recognise as a main course, a fact that I only really thought about afterwards. For at Maaemo there's no piece of fish, fowl or meat that sits on the plate saying "behold the main course." And that's just it – we're often prewired (certainly in Norway) to expect a great big slab of protein to make up the main part of a restaurant meal. But why? As much as I enjoy those sorts of dishes, when a chef is able to harness flavours like this you realise how narrow that way of thinking really is.
Take for instance an onion dish I was served recently, with small dots of caramelised onion purée that were so thick and intense that they might as well have been meat. Not to mention the rich, heady fenalår and tapioca sauce served with it that would have satisfied the most ardent of meat lovers.
No, far from being missed in its absence, this lack of an obvious 'big crescendo' in a meal means the chef is forced to focus on making sure every single dish is able to stand up in its own right as well as play its part in a larger story. There are no filler courses here; no 'big-ticket' dishes to hide behind. This is Norwegian food stripped back to its bare essentials and recomposed in a narrative you'd never dream possible.
There's also a more liberal and confident use of wild herbs, not just for decoration, but as a seasoning agent in their own right. Take for instance the minute buds of elderberry served with the potato dish that make you wonder how something so small could be so potent, or the powerfully pungent leaves of wild oregano that complete the onion dish. Over the summer Maaemo have purchased a new van solely for the purpose of collecting wild ingredients, and now all wild ingredients used at Maaemo are foraged daily by the chefs.
Maaemo has perhaps the most imaginative wine tasting menu I've come across, and it forms an integral part of the meal, complementing and even enhancing the balance of flavours of the food. So much so that I'd say the wine pairing at Maaemo really is a must-have (just make sure your schedule isn't too busy the next morning though as there's a lot of booze to get through).
So here is a peek at what all 26(!) courses of a meal at Maaemo in August 2013 looked like (note: some photos are from the same dishes I had during July for no other reason than they look better):
Amuse Bouche 1: Frozen nýr (a fresh, acidic cream cheese) from Grøndalen farm with vendace (a freshwater whitefish) roe.
Amuse Bouche 2: Salted duck breast from Holte farm cured for six months.
Amuse Bouche 3: Lightly pickled salad leaves from Korsvold farm with elderflower gel.
Amuse Bouche 4: "1-hour-young" fresh cheese made from Røros milk served with a sweet and acidic fermented blackcurrant stem infusion.
Amuse Bouche 5: Grilled spring onions served with a warm cream made from pullet eggs.
Amuse Bouche 6: Rømmegrøt (a traditional Norwegian sour cream porridge) served with cured reindeer heart and brown butter.
Amuse Bouche 7: Pastry cones filled with chicken liver parfait and pickled juniper gel.
Amuse Bouche 8: Oysters from Bømlo served as an emulsion with blue mussel gel and a mussel and dill cream sauce. I've written odes about this dish, and it's quite possibly one the finest seafood dishes I've ever had – a homage to the sea with a lovely contrast of temperatures between the cool creamy emulsion and warm sauce.
Amuse Bouche 9: Butter-glazed beans with lightly pickled gooseberries and sweet cicely, served with juice made from broad beans pods and goat's milk butter. A fresh tasting late summer salad, crisp, green and grassy, with a silky smooth sauce.
Drink pairing: A 2011 Domaine Didier Dagueneau Blanc Fumé de Pouilly "Silex." A powerful wine with a concentration of fresh apples and herbs and a long finish, although the clue is in the name, with "Silex" meaning flint.
Amuse Bouche 10: Langoustines from Frøya sautéed in pine butter and brushed with a sweet rapeseed oil, pine and vinegar emulsion. A Maaemo classic and an utter thing of beauty.
Drink pairing: A wine that, in my mind at least, is essential to this dish, and one that is now always paired with these langoustines. It's what butter is to bread, or egg to bacon. This vibrant and acidic 2011 Nierstein Riesling Kabinett from the Schätzel winery was a good foil to the sweetness of the shellfish.
Course 1: Crab from Hitra Island served with succulent beach herbs and crown dill.
Drink pairing: A 2008 Domaine Hubert Lamy St. Aubin "Clos de la Chatenière" 1er Cru. A rich and full-bodied chardonnay with notes of ripe fruit and flowers and a stone minerality. In addition to the wine was a small glass of homemade crown dill schnapps, with a laser-like intensity and clean, crisp taste.
Course 2: Scallop grilled in the shell with smoked butter and celeriac juice served with oxalis and fermented celeriac. The real twist with this dish was that it wasn't so much a scallop dish as a celeriac dish garnished with scallop. The earthiness of the celeriac was intensified by it being lightly fermented in salt and whey. Very clever and a dream to eat. I especially loved the presentation and the way the oxalis leaves looked like little butterflies just resting.
Drink pairing: 2010 Domaines Landron Muscadet "Le Fief du Breil." A good balance between fruity grapefruit tones and flinty minerality that really seemed to bring out the sweetness of the scallops. Interestingly last time I had this dish it was also served with a 2008 Domaine Roulot Monthelie Blanc Les Champs Fulliots 1er Cru, a Burgundy whose hints of lemon and flowers served to highlight more the celeriac. A nice trick that allowed you to amplify each of the dishes different flavours depending on which wine you drank with it.
Course 3: Sourdough bread made from wheat and wild emmer flours from Holli mill, served with sour cream "churned until almost separated." Quite possibly the 'mother-of-all-bread-servings.'
Drink pairing: A refreshing wheat beer from the tiny Bøgedal microbrewery in Vejle, Denmark, which had spicy notes of orange and coriander seed.
Course 4: Bio-dynamic radishes marinated the same day in rosehip and served thinly sliced with horseradish cream. A surprisingly sweet dish, balanced by the peppery kick of radish.
Drink pairing: A 2011 Domaine Roland Schmitt Alsace Gewüztraminer "Glinzberg" with a complex nose of wild flowers, fruit, and caramel that was a good foil to the spice of the radishes.
Course 5: "The Local Forest 'Now & Then.'" A dish of pickled mushrooms from last year and fresh chanterelles served with an ambrosial mushroom and pine broth made, rather cleverly, with the use of a Hario Syphon coffee brewer. Topped with fresh herbs from the local forest, this was an ode to autumn; rich, heady and utterly soothing.
Drink pairing: A 2012 Domaine de la Tournelle Arbois Les Corvées Sous Curon from the little known Jura wine region of France. With dashi-like umami notes, this wine was a great pairing with the mushrooms.
Course 6: Tiny bio-dynamic potatoes from Oslo's Sagene neighbourhood grilled directly on charcoal and served with ramson gel, pickled elderberries and an apple-ramson sauce. Warm, comforting and a total joy to eat. I couldn't believe how much flavour was packed into those small tubers.
Drink pairing: A 2011 Weingut Wittmann Westhofen Morstein Riesling GG packed with juicy acidity and good minerality.
Course 7: Thinly sliced salt-baked beets from Korsvold Farm served with blackcurrant and lavender. A small, but powerful dish, this course was all about the perfumes of fragrant lavender, sweet blackcurrant and earthy beetroot.
Drink pairing: A 2011 Domain André Perret Condrieu Chery. This golden yellow 100% viognier was full of big of aromas of stone fruits and citrus. This wine is consistently rated as one of the top wines made in Condrieu and it shows. Wonderful.
Course 8: Pickled onions were grilled and surrounded a soft quail egg that had been poached in bone marrow and covered with a clear disc of vinegar gel, while precise dots of a dark and rich onion purée surrounded the plate. Small, potent leaves of wild oregano and garlic mustard brought explosive bursts of flavour with each bite. The real star of this dish was a 'sauce' of tapioca cooked in onion broth and mixed with small cubes of fenalår (Norwegian cured leg of lamb) that was completely intoxicating. Dense, warming and surprisingly meaty, given how little meat the dish actually contained. One of the best dishes I've had at Maaemo.
Drink pairing: A 2007 Gevrey Chambertin Clos Prieur Domaine Trapet 1er cru. The only red wine of the night, but what a wine to serve! Big, masculine, and silky smooth. This was an elegant and classy Burgundy. A real treat.
Course 9: Meadowsweet ice served with sliced young carrots and pineappleweed, a herb often found growing alongside carrots, and one which many commercial producers try to eradicate.
Drink pairing: A 2007 Domain Huet Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu from one of the great makers of Chenin Blanc. This demi-sec vouvray was bright and vibrant with delicious honeyed elements.
Course 10: Grilled cucumber with cucumber and wood sorrel granita served with a horseradish-infused milk sorbet. Crisp and cooling.
Drink pairing: A 2012 G.D. Vajara Moscato D'Asti with aromas of sage and stone fruits and a good balance between sweetness and freshness. Moscato D'Asti is always a crowd pleaser and, alongside the acidity of the cucumber, the effect, as Pontus quite accurately said, was "a bit like sticking a 9-volt battery to your tongue."
Course 11: A very unusual dish of wheat beer vinegar ice cream served with mead gel, rye cream and dehydrated porridge made from rye and porter. I've had this dish a couple of times before, but it's been refined a touch and is better for it. Gone is the extra sweetness of the marzipan, giving the dish a better balance. And it seems the acidity level of the ice cream has been toned down a touch. It's a dessert that divides opinion, especially with the unusual drink pairing of gueuze beer, but I guess you know which side of that fence I'm on. If I had to nitpick, I think the dehydrated porridge was a little tough on the old gnashers and could have been more on the crunchy side. But that's just nitpicking really, and it remains an incredibly inventive and well-executed dessert.
Drink pairing: A 2011 Gueuze Tilquin, a sour lambic beer with a touch of sweetness and tart fruit flavours.
Course 12: "Butter from Røros." A crowd-pleasing dessert of basically butter and sugar. Need I say more? It remains one of my all-time favourite desserts. Incredible!
Drink pairing: A sweet 1995 La Chimera Vin Santo from Tuscan wine producer Castello di Monsanto that was full of aromas of tropical fruits, raisins, and vanilla. I gather this vintage of Vin Santo is now almost dry (mainly thanks to Maaemo serving it with this dish), so it will be interesting to see what will be served with this classic Maaemo dessert in the future.
We finish our meal with coffee and petit fours. At Maaemo, coffee from one of Norway's leading roasters, Tim Wendelboe, is served in the traditional kokekaffe (literally "boiled coffee") style over a gas camping stove so redolent of a trip in the mountains. This coffee came from the Gikanda cooperative in Nyeri, the source of some of the best coffee in Kenya, and was full of intense flavours of blackcurrants and blackberries.
Petit Fours 1: Redcurrants with brown cheese, whey and honey from Oslo's Grünerløkka neighbourhood. Creamy, sticky and sweet with tart bursts from the berries. Wonderful.
Petit Fours 2: Small wooden 'tur kopp' filled with sweet, fizzy organic strawberry soda. Organic strawberries are somewhat of a rarity in Norway as most strawberry farms here use pesticides of some sort, so this was a rare treat.
Petit Fours 3: "Liquid Waffle." A truffle-sized ball filled with "liquid waffle" and coated with waffle crumbs. We were advised to eat this in one go, as one bite of the truffle released its sweet liquid centre tasting exactly like the ubiquitous heart-shaped Norwegian snack.
Petit Fours 4: A little bite of frozen nýr, except this time it was sweetened with maple syrup and filled with a sweet and sour sea buckthorn gel. An echo of our first amuse bouche and a fitting way to end another great meal at Maaemo.
Food: 10 / 10
Service: 10 / 10
Ambiance: 10 / 10
Tel: +47 91 99 48 05