18 September 2013

Smalhans, Oslo – Restaurant Review

Smalhans has been on my radar since they opened in late 2012. The thought of a small neighbourhood restaurant serving a weekly-changing menu of no-nonsense dishes at a very agreeable price should have been enough to immediately pique anyone's interest. I kept on hearing good things about this restaurant and I kept meaning to go but, you know, stuff got in the way. And after my first meal there recently, I'm kicking myself for not going sooner. Better late than never, I guess, because Smalhans is utterly fantastic!

The Smalhans story started when three friends Stian Floer, Anders Braathen, and Bocuse d'Or silver medalist, Tom Victor Gausdal got together to create a restaurant serving good, healthy, homemade food at great value. The name Smalhans is German in origin, but is now associated in Norway with the term "frugal." And that is the overriding theme here – sourcing high quality produce and making effective use of them to create homely food in a relaxed, yet buzzy restaurant setting.

The restaurant is located at a busy intersection in Oslo's St. Hanshaugen neighbourhood – a fashionable, but not too polished area of town with picturesque old wooden houses and magnificent views of the city from the nearby park. Inside it's a fairly cosy affair of exposed brickwork, unfinished timber, and small, minimally adorned tables made of plywood and sterling board. One end of the room is dominated by a stunning wall-to-wall Edward Hopper-esque painting by Norwegian artist Lene Ørnhoft, while at the other end sits a glass encased wine room. Smalhans only serves organic, biodynamic, or natural wines, which isn't to everyone's taste, but given the extensive wine list, there's sure to be something you'll enjoy. If you don't fancy wine then there's also a huge selection of Norwegian ales on offer.

Off the main dining room is a small area that can be booked for private dinners. Looking more like a living room, complete with record player and TV, it makes for a quirky place to enjoy a special celebration. There's definitely a sort of 70's vibe going with the design of the restaurant, but it's not overdone at all, and it makes for a classic, warm and casual place to while away the evening.
Smalhans is open for lunch and dinner, with the lunch menu focusing on simpler fare such as soups, burgers, and salads priced around the NKr. 135 (€17) mark. In that quiet period between lunch and dinner the restaurant serves a special "Husmannskost" (roughly translates as simple traditional home-cooked food) menu of comfort food for sharing. However, it is in the evening that Smalhans really shines with its dinner menu. You get a choice of a 5-course menu – which at NKr. 385 (€49) represents fantastic value for Oslo, one of the world's most expensive cities – or an 8-course "Krøsus" menu for NKr. 585 (€74), with all dishes designed to be shared.

The menu at Smalhans is a weekly-changing affair of local ingredients put together by head chef Karla Siverts, a young chef with experience from Oslo's famed Michelin-starred Bagatelle restaurant. There's no specific Nordic dogma here, and you're as likely to find Italian, Spanish or Indian influences as you are Norwegian classics. This is just clever use of ingredients that results in no-frills food you actually want to eat. Having said that, the 5-course dinner we were served was very accomplished indeed, and nothing like the "homemade" cooking I was expecting.

We began with a dish of lightly smoked Arctic char, impeccably fresh and wonderfully soft. It was served with sunflower seeds and crisp shavings of fennel.

Next was a beautiful plate of lightly pickled carrots with mild pesto, pumpkin seeds, and dollops of creamy mayonnaise. This was simple, yet very good indeed. The carrots having just the right amount of acidic bite to go with their natural sweetness, while the pumpkin seeds added a nice textural contrast.

Then came a dish of Urfe chuck steak from Snåsa in Nord-Trøndelag. Urfe is an old Norwegian breed of dairy cattle that is small and stocky. Its meat has a richer taste than regular beef and is well-marbled with short muscle fibres, making it particularly suitable for slow cooking. Here, the beef had been grilled on a fiercely hot josper grill, before being dusted with coffee (yes, really) and slowly cooked for hours. I needn't say just how ridiculously tender the finished meat was – meltingly rich and full of flavour, it was heavenly! The surprising addition of ground coffee was hardly noticeable, and served instead to enhance the deep savouriness of the meat. The beef was served with sautéed chanterelles and green beans coated with mustard vinaigrette, while the cooking juices of the beef acted as sauce.

Alongside the beef was a dish of gnocchi, soft and oozing beneath its crisp crust.

To finish our meal, some mugs of hot black filter coffee and a wickedly good warm apple and cinnamon cake with homemade vanilla ice cream. The warm sponge with lightly spiced apples and sticky caramel was wickedly good. Apples, cinnamon, and cream are such a comforting classic and when done well, as it most certainly was here, is a dessert I will never tire of.

I think to sum up the Smalhans experience you need only look at the magnificent beef dish we were served. For me, this dish is Smalhans in a nutshell: take a cheaper cut of good quality meat and bring out every milligram of its flavour by grilling and slow cooking. Serve with in-season mushrooms to add to that meatiness and balance all that fatty goodness with a simple but vibrant acidic green bean salad. This is intelligent cooking with spectacular results that are often more than the sum of their constituent parts.

The end result is a sort of 'simple luxury.' The presentation of the food, its taste, the classically modern dining room all suggest the sort of experience you'd expect at a higher price point. Even the bathrooms have those individual cotton hand towel things that you throw in a basket (rather than hand-driers or paper towels), which is usually a hallmark of higher-end restaurants. It's a great concept and bravo to Smalhans' creativity for realising that style of dining in Oslo. For in Smalhans you have that rare Oslo beast – a friendly neighbourhood restaurant open for lunch and dinner serving unpretentious dishes made from impeccable local produce at a wallet-friendly price. And that, my friends, is cause for celebration indeed.

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

Waldemar Thranesgate 10
0171 Oslo, Norway
Tel: +47 22 69 60 00

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review, and i have to concur!
    I ate the "husmannskost" with my girlfriend two days ago.
    In this meal it was "angus beef with pepper-root and root-vegetables".

    What did you think of the atmosphere? I loved the buzz and the fact that the waiters where so calm....