Some time back, I had the opportunity to eat at the Best Restaurant in the World — and was introduced to foraged cooking. To someone living in India where produce is plentiful all year round, limiting yourself to cooking with ingredients that you can harvest from your immediate vicinity is hardly a challenge. But not everyone is as lucky as we are.
Last week I visited Stockholm, a city even closer to the North Pole than Copenhagen. I was there on work but was determined to eat Sweden’s finest. For reasons not entirely clear to me, Stockholm has somewhat less of a global reputation for fine food, even though Sweden has as many restaurants in the The List as Denmark. I was keen to eat at Restaurant Frantzen — particularly after the first thing I saw at Arlanda Airport was Bjorn Frantzen’s portrait in Stockholm’s Hall of Fame. But as it happens, you can’t just show up and expect to get a table at Frantzen. Thankfully my hosts had made reservations at a restaurant that was not (yet) on The List but whose name is already being whispered in local foodie circles.
Let the Produce Decide
The menu at Gastrologik is simple. It’s a single sheet of white paper folded in half. Inside is printed a single line of text — “Let Today’s Produce Decide”. The only choice you have to make is whether you want to pair your meal with wine or not. Beyond that, dinner is entirely in the hands of the producers — you get to eat whatever it is that they offered to the kitchen that morning. Not only does the restaurant refrain from promising the same menu from one day to the next it doesn’t guarantee the same menu for every table.
When the food starts coming out it is quite evident that this is going to be a Scandanavian service. The appetizers fly out of the kitchen at a fast clip and are both various and abundant. Each course is a well designed bite-sized portion, with care taken to ensure that flavours, textures and temperatures are all balanced in a single mouthful.
Gastrologik strives for a rustic chic ambience and sets that tone with the very first plate. We get a bowl filled with blackened twigs. Around each is wrapped a piece of bread that has (and I can’t imagine how) been baked over a fire. This is our first appetizer and it’s called Campfire Bread.
The texture of the bread is soft and spongy like a cake but with a salty hit that comes from the generous dose of butter that binds the dough. It’s a country dish — one that you need to eat with your hands and I particularly enjoyed unravelling the bread from the stick. It was delicious and left us wanting more.
The appetizers kept coming at a steady pace. The next two dishes were served on crackers — one made from crispy chicken skin and the other a meringue. Both mouthfuls were topped off with a range of tastes and textures — from the cool mouthfeel of fresh herbs to the crunch of dessicated apple slivers. I wouldn’t have thought that chicken liver pate, would go so well with wafer thin apple crisps but it really worked.
But not all appetisers hit the same high standard. Or maybe my expectations were high after the initial few. For instance, the marinated quail egg flattered to decieve.
On the plus side they aced the presentation. We each got two speckled eggs apiece and perched gingerly atop a hollow glass bowl laid on its side and filled with broken quail eggshells. It was all quite exotic and we oohed and aahed as expected.
But when I put it in my mouth, the taste was a bit of a let down. The eggs were supposed to have been marinated in a home made pea soy sauce but I couldn’t taste enough of the marinade and since they were served with no accompaniments — no sauce, herbs or chives — the taste of egg was strong. Given the flashy display I felt the dish was a bit of a let down.
There were other starters — tiny, tender yet crunchy baby carrots from Ugglarp served with a goat cream sauce added just a hint of saltiness to the vegetables and a portion of goat’s cheese served with green herbs on toasted spelt wheat bread — but the one that really stood out for me was the porridge.
When they put it in front of us, it looked like vegetable soup but we were told that it was a white asparagus porridge. Now I am partial to asparagus and have eaten it many different ways but this was both unique and flavourful. What made it really special was the way it had been cooked to the texture of a porridge rather a more familiar puree. A really tasty dish that presented a classic flavour in a (for me) new and unusual way.
It was difficult to sense when we moved from the starters to the mains because the food was coming to the table so fast, but somewhere along the way we started to get more substantial proteins. And this is where we got some of the really standout dishes.
One such dish looked like a bowl of salad filled with green leafy vegetables. Hidden under the canopy of greens was delicately cooked mackerel, soft, moist and delicious and probably the most delicate thing we ate all day. To emphasise the flavour the fish was seated on a delicious cream of mackerel roe.
This was a standout dish, if nothing else for the manner in which the mackerel had been cooked and the technique that had been applied to the roe sauce.
Sticking to the seafood theme, the next dish was served in a large scallop shell — once again full marks for presentation.
The concept behind this was the pairing of cubed scallops with a similar dice of pork. Both of them were cooked to nearly the same texture so that with every bite you got both pork and scallop which confused the hell out of my mouth. Who would have thought that scallops would go so well with pork.
And then we got to eat yet another catch from the bountiful Scandanavian seas.
The Perch was served on a bed of baby potato slices and topped with the now customary flowers, dill and chives. The fish was warm, moist all the way through and really well seasoned. The dill and chives sprinkled over the top had been fried to a crisp and added a completely unexpected crunch to the dish.
Which brought us to the most unusual dish of the day — clearly the best thing on the menu.
The server described this dish as Grilled Asparagus from Gotland with the Cream of an Old Cow. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Apart from the uncomfortably ageist description, the little puddle of white cream looked as far from animal fat as anything I have seen.
So I asked him to explain it all again. He said that they use fat from between the shoulder blades of a cow and render it down till it gets to a creamy white texture. For this, (and I can only imagine that they came to this realisation after a lot of trial and error) the fat from an old dairy cow well past her prime, works best.
It takes only a drop of that white sauce to get the unmistakeable flavours of meat. It was creamy, smooth, richly bovine and — who would have thought it — went perfectly with char grilled asparagus.
They followed this with a portion of suckling pig served with smoked shallots and a wilted brocolli leaf. The pork was cooked perfectly as one would imagine — all the fat had been rendered down and we were left with a succulent medallion of meat that you could eat with a fork.
And so, as is always the case when you get two great dishes back to back, we spent some time trying to decide which we liked the best. Most people on the table liked the pork better — it was more familiar, the flavours were traditional and it clearly marked the end of the entrees. But to me, as good as the suckling pig was, the asparagus dish won out simply because of the completely upside down way in which they made the sauce the centrepiece of the dish — a creamy protein to which the asparagus was merely an accompaniament.
We eventually got to dessert and even though I still had no idea what we were going to eat, the one thing I could be sure of (more’s the pity) was that there was going to be no chocolate. The strict rules of foraged food, puts cocoa beans (that are not indigenous to the frigid northern latitudes of Sweden) out of the pantry.
The first dessert had, as its central flavour component — green sorrel and was served in a couple of different frozen variations. This is not the flavour I’d have thought to put in an ice cream (all the sorrel I have ever had has been savoury), but it was pleasantly refreshing in the way green tea ice cream is the first time you taste it.
This was followed by a delicious pairing of lovage and rhubarb — neither of which are my favourite fruits but it brought a tart acidity that sort of works at the end of a meal like this. Fruity and fresh and certainly unusual.
I usually don’t take the time to go into the petit-fours but I feel I should. For some reason (possibly because I knew I was not going to get any) I’d been longing for a hit of chocolate all evening. That wasn’t to be, but they did produce the next best thing.
Take a look at the picture on the left. Nestled in amongst the pebbles are little disks of malt fudge, dark, like chocolate and even though it was entirely lacking in cocoa, the malt quite adequately mimicked the bitterness of dark chocolate. A very clever workaround that let a chocoholic like me go home conent that evening.
It’s probably time I answered the question I started this story with, even though for some, it might be blasphemous to even attempt to make the comparison. There are many similarities in the cooking concepts used at Gastrologik and Noma. They both limit themselves to absolutely fresh ingredients, which necessarily mean those that are foraged from the immediate neighbourhood. This puts a similar constraint on their menus and as a result compels the kitchen to utilise creativity in presentation and technique that is a joy to experience.
And I have to say that the dining experience at Gastrologik was thoroughly enjoyable. They had some absolutely standout dishes that I keep going back to in my mind. I loved the white asparagus porridge and still cannot wrap my head around the concept of the Cream of an Old Cow.
But there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Noma is streets ahead in terms of sophistication of concept and execution. To eat at Noma is to experience a kitchen in complete control of all aspects of the dining experience. While Gastrologik is on its way there with some really innovative techniques and flavours, they still have a way to go before they present the complete package.
There is a good reason why Noma has occupied a position in the top row of The List for so long. But I will not be surprised if Gastrologik finds itself on that ladder fairly soon.