Copenhagen might be sweeping the ‘world’s best restaurant’ plaudits but Oslo is slowly creeping up as a Scandi-foodie Valhalla too. Bring on the birch wood ice cream…
It’s not often you’re forced to ponder “human existence through subjects such as love, life and death” while tucking into your Saturday night dinner. But at Oslo restaurant Bagatelle (bagatelle.no), such Ibsen-esque contemplation is inescapable. As you tear apart your Michelin-starred halibut, a Damien Hirst skull painting stares down, its eye cavities piercing your very soul. Expensive modern art brushworks hang everywhere (the afore-mentioned quote about Hirst’s painting is from a book about Bagatelle’s art), yet another indication that, in the frozen expanse that was Norway’s culinary scene, things are finally hotting up…
Blame Copenhagen’s Noma. Ever since it elbowed Heston and Ferran aside to win Restaurant magazine’s ‘Restaurant of the Year’ in 2010, the gaze of the world’s foodiegentsia has been edging ever-northwards. Oslo hasn’t had a look-in. Until now…
Maaemo (maaemo.no) is a sleek monochrome eatery garlanded with two Michelin stars since opening two years ago (its chef previously worked at Noma). Priding itself on serving 100 per cent organic food, Maaemo’s ten-course menu reads as if they’ve been foraging Oslo’s surrounding fjords and woodlands. Hence frugally-titled-but-amazing-tasting dishes such as, ‘Last Year’s Pine & Langoustine From Frøya’, ‘Our Own Honey With Cold Waffel [sic]’ and ‘The Local Forest’. One ice cream is even made from birch wood milk. It’s the banquet of Ray Mears’ dreams.
Art gallery-like Bagatelle (bagatelle.no) specialises in Norwegian-French cuisine (think halibut en croute with king crab and apple-løyrom butter) with sashimi served on bricks and 250-million year old Himalayan rock salt among the condiments. Dining at Maaemo and Bagatelle might be drool-inducingly memorable but prices - 3,650krone (£397) for 11 courses with wine pairings at Bagatelle (£147 for eight courses sans wine) - may leave you feeling like that angst-ridden ghoulish figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
However, you can eat inexpensively in Oslo. Lille B (Bagatelle’s sister brasserie) offers a ‘Bib Gourmand’ menu, where Metro dined on impossibly ostentatious food (burger with truffle cheese, foie gras and “sexy fries”) for around £20. Meanwhile, a tarragon fish soup at seafood restaurant Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin (sjomagasinet.no) costs 145nok (£15) and is belt-looseningly sating in a way you’d never expect the words “fish” and “soup” to be.
Financial ruin can also be avoided by frequenting hip, no-reservations tapas joint Delicatessen (delicatessen.no) or no-frills canteen Kaffistova (kaffistova.com), whose Nordic fare includes <Raspeballar> (boiled potato dumplings with salted lamb) and shrimp sandwiches for £9-16.
Seasonal food festivals are also worth a punt. In the centre of Oslo, Metro stumbled upon a massive marquee wherein locals sardined themselves around communal tables, gouging away at a meaty mess with plastic forks. This was Fårikål Feast Day ("sheep in cabbage" festival), Norwegian peasant food which makes terrific Nan-style comfort fare.
Oslo’s foodie scene is also being revitalised by Mathallen (mathallenoslo.no), a new food market intended to rival London’s Borough Market and Barcelona’s La Boqueria. Wander around Mathallen, and you’ll find butchers hawking elk and reindeer meat, bakeries selling Winter Olympic-strength coffee plus fishmongers stocking halibut, minke whale and king crab. An in-store ‘Culinary Academy’ offers lessons in everything from how to be a barista to teaching people how to prepare goose liver.
Given the expense of booze in Oslo (ordering a pint in a pub won’t leave you with much change from a tenner), it’s probably best to skip wine with meals and do what young Norwegians do instead. On weekend nights, they stay indoors engaging in ‘Vorspeil’ (“foreplay”, no sniggering). This involves guzzling as many beers as possible before tipsily hitting bars around midnight. <Metro> winds up at a party staged in a kindergarten, watching revellers play musical chairs while scoffing fried <torsketunger> (cod’s tongue). Some Sami (Laplander) crazies suggested we sample their “reindeer blood pancakes”. Needless to say, we opted out.
Cod’s tongue wasn’t the strangest thing Metro put in our mouth while visiting Oslo. That happened a few hours later in a Grønland beer garden. An acquaintance produced a shoe-polish-like tin from his pocket, containing what looked like tiny herb-stuffed teabags. Urged to put one inside my upper lip, within minutes Metro felt dizzy and violently nauseous, as if hordes of medieval Vikings were rampaging in my brain. This was Snus, a chewing tobacco illegal in the EU, but not Norway. With the power of Thor, we chundered. Expensive Michelin-starred vomit everywhere. So, to recap: go to Oslo, for some of the purest, forest-fresh food you’ll ever taste. Just avoid Snus as a digestif afterwards.