What a difference a year makes. Since I was last here the compass of gastronomy has swung its hungry needle north. Now it’s all lingonberries, smoked pig and crayfish. Terra vox, a word once copyrighted by French chateau owners as proof that no one else’s wine was as good as theirs, has become the smart appellation for the earth’s dinner. Localism, foraging, preserving and pickling, respect for heritage, seasons and climate are what the world is looking for, and they’re looking for it from Scandinavia. I understand that you may feel piqued at always being dumped in a Nordic smorgasbord – I’m a Scot, I know how you feel – but from the outside you do share more in common than you have differences, and the rest of us can’t remember whose flag is whose. It isn’t just the success of the northern table that’s made this Scandinavia’s year, it’s the failure of the southern one. You can’t disengage food from the culture it comes from. We all look south to the warmth, the olive oil of Catholic Europe for an alfresco lunch that represented a life we’d like to have been part of. Hedonistic, relaxed, garrulous, insincere and libidinous.
But this year the Latin lifestyle has been represented by burning tyres, boarded up shops, unemployment and tax evasion with state begging bowls. The national dish of Spain, Italy and Greece is the charity box and the Swiss bank account. Scandinavia looks safe, civilised, liberal, honest and grown up. That’s what we want to eat. We want a dinner we can sit down to without the guilt of knowing that others can’t, we want food that is ecologically concerned – sustainable as well as sustaining – and that doesn’t show off. That is honest and modest. We have come to the end of conspicuous consumption and applauding chefs’ vanities. As the rest of Europe has stumbled, it’s the north with its rigorous and self-denying collectivism that now seems not self-righteousness, but perspicacious – and the rest of us will have what you’re having.
This time I brought back my partner, Nicola, who is known as ‘the blonde’ in my Sunday Times column and our five year old twins Edith and Isaac. It was the first time they’ve really seen snow and they were overjoyed that anyone could leave so much fun just lying around in the street. It was also the first time they’ve stayed in a really grand hotel and now they can’t understand why we live in a mere home and pick up our own socks. I told them that we were here as secret critics and that we had to mark the meals we ate. They immediately told all the waiters they were secret critics. If you have young children who are capricious about food, I recommend you play secret critics. They tried everything and ate most of it. The bread baskets constantly got a hundred million thousand and ten marks. Bread is one of Stockholm’s great pleasures along with the butter. Here you remember that bread and butter are one of the greatest pleasures at the table, not just a spongy cud to chew without thought as you wait for the real food.
Ekstedt is a restaurant designed with a deceptive utilitarian modesty. Those of us with a decadent worn eye have to look twice to see how quietly pleasing it is. The point of this place is flames. Everything is cooked, smoked, proven over an open wood fire in a kitchen behind glass that looks distinctly hobbitish. Cooking over flame could imply the naffness and coarseness of the burnt and sweet blokey barbeque or it could be the companionship of a camp fire, but a flame is where all kitchens start and things here are carefully and properly roasted, which gives them a piquancy that you don’t get by baking in an oven. It is both fundamental and inventive. I particularly like the char in hey with smoked butter and the chimney-smoked lobster. Nicola was very keen on the smoked cabbage. Kitchens that get obsessed with one thing or technique can show off their limitations rather than their possibilities, but Ekstedt has a light hand with the smoke and the flame and a cleverly balanced menu.
I’m always wary of restaurants that boast of their heritage. It’s quite the opposite of what you want. Everything about the table from the fish to the waitress should be fresh; relying on the nostalgia of old lunches is not an encouragement. Gyldene Freden can’t quite get over the smell of its ancestors or its tourists. Onetime visitors are both a blessing and a curse for a restaurant. Although many locals did tell me how much they loved this pretty room that was warm on a cold day, if rather dark, our welcome was confused and the service friendly but forgetful. The menu promised authentic and timeless Scandinavian food but it did rely on our ability to enjoy recreating the past, something that plainly escaped the Japanese table next to us who regarded their ham hocks and meat balls as an invitation to eat a funeral. The waiter brought us apple juice in a cardboard carton which didn’t help the reverie, particularly as there is so much fantastic apple juice in Sweden. It’s the sort of expedient shortcut restaurants take when they know most of their customers aren’t coming back. Overall the Gyldene Freden is just too slipshod both in its kitchen and service and too hide-bound in its menu. There is better home cooking in Stockholm.
Gastrologik was my pick of restaurants last year so I was happy to return to eat in its new addition and the mark of its success, a less expensive unbookable dining room next door. The original epitomises all the things that are enviable edible about the new Nordic cuisine – a kitchen that is led by the availability of perfect ingredients and that is prepared to show them off to their best advantage, keeping the plate simple with elegant pairings rather than exotic orgies. Next door the intention is the same, the results are rather less. There are a handful of seats and they found us some space and we ate well. But it does feel like a cheaper less exacting version of the original. There’s still a welcome lunch with a pleasant welcome from the staff.
My abiding memory of Flippin’ Burgers was standing in the queue outside as the snow settled on our heads watching the staff on the inside watch us while we all waited for the clock to meander to the prescribed moment when they could open the door. There was something very properly Swedish about the rigour of waiting for the precise and correct time, and also something fundamentally inhospitable. The men ahead of us were the sort of gleeful arrested development geeks who you would probably want to keep out for as long as possible. Almost immediately the restaurant was packed with grinning, greasy-haired men who plainly spent a lot of time in their bedrooms hunched over computers inventing superhero names for themselves, and killing other strange self-abusing man-boys with virtual guns. Everybody knew about this burger bar. Our taxi driver told us it had been paid for by online micro finance and that the owners had done exhaustive research in America for the very best most typical burger, which they brought back like the newly discovered potato – and there have been queues ever since. So how are the burgers? Well, they’re authentically American. If you’ve eaten in mid-western gas station diners then the cheeseburger will return with a gorge-rising familiarity. It’s like eating zombies. These are quite as slack-jawed monoglot, physically unstable and childishly basic as anything you’ll find in America. The question it provokes is not how did they manage this but why? Why replicate something this dull and unpleasant in Sweden? And why queue up for it when no American would dream of doing so? If hamburgers originated in Saudi Arabia or Hamburg you wouldn’t be eating them here. It is the embarrassing cultural cringe for American youthfulness rebellion; baseball caps and pop music that makes customers override the evidence of their palate to imagine that this has some hip or chic value. Wanting to eat this sorry greasy-grey mince in a vile bun in a level-headed country that produces the best meatballs and bread in Europe is beyond explanation or credibility. A sort of cultural self-harm masochism.
Sturehof was such a welcome surprise for lunch. First of all I liked the look of the menus and the relaxed, amused decor and then the relaxed and amused clientéle; although we were patently outsiders I recognise this atmosphere. I know restaurants like this in London, New York, Paris and Rome, fashionable, eclectic, full of folk who are pleased just to be included in the room. Again, I had very good char, which is a fish we do get in England, but only from a very few very deep northern lakes. Poached, salted cod with a hen’s egg, brown butter hollandaise shrimps and horseradish is an almost ideal lunch dish. I also like the liquorish meringue on a caramel pie. Liquorish is another northern habit and it made the sunny Italian meringue taste like Viking breath.
Nicola particularly adored the Dahlgren restaurant in the Grand Hotel whose medium and small dishes might have been annoying as they’re too much for one and too little to share, but they are made with a flare and flashy combinations like blind dates in a model agency. Here we ate first for appetite, then for expectation and finally with greed. Restaurants in formal hotels are generally awkward and soulless. This one manages to be both inclusive and exclusive, and I can’t think of another in Europe that is as laissez faire and has food this invigoratingly good.
Finally, Frantzén/Lindeberg. In many ways this restaurant contradicts that list of things I wrote at the top of the page. It isn’t particularly local, the ingredients are obsessively hunted down from around the world like edible terrorists, and there’s not a little chef’s ego involved. This is a dining room that marches to the drum of the kitchen not the customer. I watched a course being slid into a bin by a thin-lipped cook because its recipient had had the temerity to go to the toilet at the moment critique. This kitchen has already been licked all over by international foodie bloggers and those men who like to make league tables, but despite this it is still a very Swedish restaurant. Its atmosphere is not stiff or obsequious but bibulous and excited. We sat at the bar with the chefs. This is a dining room that is all about the food – theatrical, magical and demanding your attention. It’s not a place to come to discuss business or propose marriage, but it really is spectacular. From the bespoke bread made just for you and the butter churned at your table, it is a series of dishes that make you gasp and smile and cheer, but it never stops being dinner. It’s not a card trick or a circus act, always honestly peerless grub: bone marrow with smoked parsley and caviar; tartare of reindeer; a forty-five minute oyster with Jersey cream; seaweed and sea buckthorne, a pudding of beetroot with vinegar and dried lavender. It all moves at a pace that has the precision of a ballet, not rushed but neither are there blank longueurs. The rhythm of a meal is so often overlooked by chefs. Frantzeén/Lindeberg undoubtedly serve some of the most imaginatively created food in the world. But more important and rarer, also some of the most enjoyable and it is this year’s winner.
PS You live in a country that grows preserves and cares about a limited palate of peerless ingredients and Stockholm is a city that enjoys eating out. Both Nicola and I noticed how good people are at being customers. The noise levels in restaurants are bubbling and jolly but rarely boorish or intrusive. Customers aren’t intimidated but neither do they show off or bully waiters. There is a very civilised and balanced, polite and appreciative attitude to lunch and dinner and you all deserve, if not a prize, then a self-depreciating nod of thanks.