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This is the most visually perfect thing: a deep bowl full of velvet-crimson rose petals, on top of which is what turns out to be onion fermented into unexpected sweetness, studded with fresh cow’s milk yogurt and dusted with dehydrated, crystallised rose powder that glitters like mica. This is the curtain-raiser for an unforgettable meal, 21 courses of innovative food from Esben Holmboe Bang’s team in Oslo’s Maaemo – just awarded the full three stars from Messieurs Michelin.
The accolades are unsurprising: Maaemo’s food defines the word stellar. Whether it’s a tiny snack of chicken skin topped with langoustines’ claws and brain meat (honestly, delicious) dotted with delicate dried flowers, or northern reindeer scattered with lichen in a moody pool of juniper berries, it’s a thrilling distillation of Norway on the plate. There are more staff than customers in this extraordinary Bjørvika restaurant – also home to the eye-popping Opera House: walk up it, right onto the roof, to build up an appetite. This is a meal I’ll remember for years to come.
“The one name on every insider’s lips is Pjoltergeist, a dark, loud space in a former Hells Angels bar in Fredensborg.”
Maaemo may be the most luminous star in town, but Oslo is heaving with exciting places to eat. From the glittering, fjord-facing promontory of Aker Brygge, where every second striking building houses restaurants, art galleries or chic design hotels, to ancient Gamlebyen and grungy Grønland, it’s impossible to go hungry. There are restaurants and cafés at every turn. The one name on every insider’s lips is Pjoltergeist, a dark, loud space in a former Hells Angels bar in Fredensborg. We turn up with Oslo foodie celebrity Andreas Viestad, who orders up a meal shimmering with Nordic produce, Icelandic traditions (chef Atli Mar Yngvason is from Iceland), Japanese flavours, Korean spicing and recherché wines, natural and biodynamic.
Apparently, this rackety little joint is a favourite hangout for chefs post-service, and I can see why: the creativity is feverish. Takoyaki – gooey, Japanese streetfood-style octopus balls – arrive with shavings of katsuobushi (bonito flakes) trembling in the heat; whalemeat sashimi (don’t panic, it’s sustainable minke whale, its purple meat in a pungent, sesame-rich dressing; the fluffiest homemade bao buns with langoustine claws – all astonishing). There’s tartare of just-charred horsemeat, cloaked in a creamy sauce of bleak fish roe. One outrageous dish – richest butter and cream-laced potato purée soaked in truffley chicken jus, studded with potato crisps, crisped chicken skin and vast amounts of black Périgord truffle – is something I would happily die eating. Pjoltergeist is a rock-and-roll roller coaster of a restaurant, and I love it.
“The air is perfumed by the signature dish, a huge shoulder of lamb served family-style under a bush of burning rosemary.”
In addition to being a food evangelist, both on TV and in print (his book Kitchen of Light is essential reading for fans of Nordic cuisine), Andreas co-owns what he describes with supreme understatement as ‘a little bistro’ in pretty Bislett. Why is the restaurant called St Lars? The bustling, atmospheric room delivers the answer: St Lawrence was martyred over flaming coals, and the house motto is: ‘If it can be grilled, it will be grilled.’ The air is perfumed by the signature dish, a huge shoulder of lamb served family-style under a bush of burning rosemary. From the ‘snouts and ears’ – crisp puffs of piggy extremities – through a tartare of rich horsemeat with lichen (again!), the meal is butch, uncompromising and delicious. And, dear lord, the chips that arrive with a massive, fire-crusted entrecôte steak and Béarnaise: triple-fried Norwegian almond potatoes laced with whole, unpeeled cloves of garlic for squeezing on top –bliss. St Lars is wonderfully Norwegian, an edgy adventure.
Oslo excels at cutting-edge cocktails. At Himkok, they distil their own spirits – vodka, aquavit, seemingly a gazillion iterations of gin in beautiful, vintage-style bottles. And Fuglen, just behind the National Gallery, where old and new – adventurous Scandinavian cocktail ingredients served in a perfectly preserved Modernist interior – meet so successfully that they now have a branch in Tokyo. (And you can buy the 20th-century Modern furnishings.) They also sell their own coffee, and coffee is big in Oslo: Tim Wendelboe is world famous, but the smart money is on Java, in St Hanshaugen. This is a wonderful little foodie strip: neighbours include a lavishly stocked deli Gutta på Haugen: truffle fries, yes please; and Smalhans (smalhans.no), the nearest democratic Oslo gets to hipsterdom. Brick walls, funky artwork, organic, local food. I love the beetroot hummus, a wonderful cultural mash-up of eggs with kimchi, tortilla chips and broccoli guacamole; and cinnamon buns with lemon curd ice cream. Yes, there are beards and tattoos, but there’s none of the attitude.
Another newly dynamic neighbourhood is Vulkan, in the heart of the city’s super-cool, formerly industrial Grünerløkka district. The street art here alone makes it worth the trip, but for the avid foodie there’s treasure upon treasure. Bang in the middle is the Mathallen food hall, rammed with stalls: Basque pintxos to French duck confit to Norwegian seafood. Anni’s Pølsemakeri is where to come to fill suitcases with pungent Norwegian sausages and cured meats. Like me, Norwegians love sausages.
Our only slight failure is when we attempt to do a ‘lunch crawl’ around Torggata, to explore Oslo’s new wave of ‘trash gourmet’ outfits, dealing in designer versions of burgers and tacos made with fine, frequently organic ingredients. The city doesn’t have much of a lunching culture and most don’t open until late afternoon, so we cool our heels in Crowbar, with its dizzying collection of house-brewed beers, and Culina, a Tardis of a kitchen shop rammed with professional cheffy kit – not exactly a hardship. And we retrace our steps to Youngstorget, a square lined with cafés and food trucks to find Fiskeriet, where counters heave with the Norwegian waters’ bounty: fat, shocking-pink langoustines, mountains of rosy prawns, slabs of cod, both salted and fresh, rows of oysters. The lunch counter offers us mussels and a ‘Taste of Norway’: smoked eel and hot-smoked salmon, dill-cured and sweet herrings with dark rye bread and crispbread.
To check out the likes of Arakataka and Piscoteket and Kontrast, we’re just going to have to go back. Back to further explore this intriguing marriage of fjord, mountain, forest and thrilling urbanity. Sure, my wallet may take a battering – Oslo’s reputation for expense isn’t unfounded. But you know what? It’s worth it.