travel: sui generis…

Buried.

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At its highest, the Bergen Rail Line climbs 1,300 meters above sea level, making it the highest elevated rail line in Europe.  Running over 480 meters (300 miles), the line anchors at both ends on the coast of Norway.

When I last left this blog, I had boarded the train on the west coast in Bergen, and was headed to the eastern terminus in Oslo.   In between those two cities, fjords and forests, mountains and valleys rushed by my big, picture window in a blur of grey and white.  It was the tail of winter, but most of the Norwegian highlands remained shrouded in clouds and blanketed with snow.

The train stopped about a half a dozen times, just long enough for passengers, bundled in snow and ski gear, to offload.  Outside, skimobiles, piled with people and packs, motored off towards silhouettes of cabins beyond, half-buried in snow.

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Parking lot.

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Oslo was rainy.

Conveniently, the main train station is right next to the Oslo Opera House, where my friend Sjøgren works.  I went straight from the station to meet her for a tour.  Sjøgren had been a graduate student in the theater department at my university.  As a part of a scholarship for costume design that I was awarded by the department, I was assigned to assist her on a production that she was designing.  I later shared a class with her, before being assigned to design a show of my own, which I could not have done without her help.  The last time the two of us saw each other was on my first and last visit to Norway in 2005.

The Oslo Opera House is magnificent.  The building merges classical and modern opera house design concepts, drawing inspiration from famous theaters from around the world (visit the website for more).  It houses the Norwegian state opera, the ballet, and a black box theater for more experimental performance art.

The building is immense.  The square footage devoted to the costume shop, alone, was unbelievable, not to mention the miles of corridors lined with dance studios, changing rooms, and offices.  The number of productions and the amount of traffic that this venue sees on any given week is mind-blowing.  The day Sjøgren walked me through the building, the opera was opening a production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, although I also found wigs and costumes in the shop tagged with La Bohême, and at least a half dozen other shows.

Sitting at the water’s edge, the Norwegian Opera House is built entirely on landfill, and with public funds.  The vast majority of its productions and operations are supported with public funds as well.  It stands as a testament to the Norwegian commitment to the performing arts.  To an American, whose government nickel-and-dimes its way each year to an embarrassingly small budget for its already starved National Endowment for the Arts, the Norwegian Opera House is an enviable and inspiring sight.  Whereas the Norwegians collectively agree to support and sustain the arts, in America, we rely on the generosity of wealthy philanthropists.

Then again, owing to the vast fields of oil in the Norwegian North Sea, Norway boasts the second highest GDP in Europe (second only to the small Grand Duchy of Luxembourg), and is the second wealthiest country in the world, in terms of monetary value.  So they can afford it.

[The Norwegian Opera House cost a little over $700 million to build (this does not include its annual operating budget).  The 2014 budget for the United States National Endowment for the Arts was $146 million.]

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Maaemo

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I had three dinners in Oslo.  I’d like to tell you about two of them.

The first dinner I had was at Maaemo, located in an unexpected corner of a building that was tucked on a side street near the tracks of the central train station.  The restaurant is small, and, to the credit of its designers, takes advantage of its awkwardly shaped space.  Spotlights trained on the generously spaced tables made them the center of attention, throwing an ambient glow onto the walls, hung with art, which was strangely alluring.  It was an eclectic, but well-curated lot.  (Young and upcoming artists are encouraged to submit their work for consideration here.)

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Maaemo

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Overlooking part of the dining room from the floor above, is the kitchen.  A narrow, spiral staircase, is the only means by which food and service items are shuttled between the kitchen and the dining room.

Next to the kitchen, divided by a wall of glass, was the “Test Kitchen Table,” so named because, in addition to being a private dining room, with a stunning, black marble hightop that seats four (six if you don’t mind being cozy), it is also equipped to double as a kitchen.  Also, diners seated in this room may receive some off-menu dishes that are still in development.  Encased in glass on all four sides, Maaemo’s Test Kitchen Table is the ultimate skybox.  It affords diners a view of the kitchen, the dining room below, and the glittering expanse of Oslo beyond.  The room had just been completed and had only been made available for reservations the week before. To my great surprise, my friend and I were one of the first ones to be seated there.

(The photo above was taken from the small landing at the top of the spiral staircase, which you can see through the glare in the glass on the lower right, that circles it’s way down to the dining room below.  The Test Kitchen Table is in the room to the left.)

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<Steeping.

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Maaemo is Finnish for “mother earth,” and it is suggestive of chef Esben Holmboe Bang’s terroir-driven cuisine.  Aligned with the current wave of haute, pan-Nordic cookery, Bang’s cooking focuses on indigenous ingredients, most of which are hearty and humble: root vegetables, dairy, grains, cold-water seafood, and game.  But what makes many of these Nordic chefs – like Bang – stand out is the quality of their ingredients, and the simplicity and precision with which they are presented.  Very rarely outside of the Scandinavian countries have I found such a high level of ingredient quality, confidence in simplicity, and precision in execution to co-exist.  (Japan is an obvious exception.  But, there are many cultural similarities between Scandivania and Japan.)

Bang seems particularly talented at concentrating flavor in stocks and sauces.  With a crisp oyster, he served a creamy emulsion of mussels and dill that tasted intensely of both.  To highlight the sweetness in a meaty mignon of scallop, which was presented on its shell before being divided between my friend and me, he spooned a reduction of celeriac juice, infused with apples.  And to help punch up a simple salad of charred onions and a coddled quail egg, there was a rich onion vinaigrette, woodsy with thyme.

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17th Course: Duck Breast

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My favorite dishes included a gorgeous breast of duck, roasted with birch wood and presented whole under a thick rind of fat and crackling.  We were each served a strip of the breast meat, rosy and juicy, with preserved pear, kale, and a jus made from the duck legs.

Scandinavians are excellent bread bakers, so, unsurprisingly, the bread at Maaemo was stellar.  It was served (and deserved to be served) as its own course, on traditional Norwegian matpapir – parchment wrapping paper – with whipped butter.  I’ve noticed that some Nordic restaurants are baking bread in small, bite-sized molds.  I like this because there is a higher crust-to-crumb ratio.  On the flip side, these little nuggets cool quickly, and as they do, the dense interior stiffens.  I suspect this is one of the reasons why this type of bread is typically served as its own course, and not let to sit and linger at the table over multiple courses like traditional bread service.

At Maaemo, the bread looked like it had been baked in mini muffin molds.  They were cylindrical, but too short to have crowned a muffin top.   The bread at Ylajali the next night was very similar. The molds there were, perhaps, slightly smaller, and the bread was allowed to crown.  At Rasmus Kofoed’s Geranium in Copenhagen, where I first encountered bread service in this fashion, they were shaped like oval financiers.  In all three cases, the bread was made of milled grains and encrusted with seeds and grains.

At the end of dinner, there was a wonderfully silky brown butter ice cream, plated with hazelnut crumbles and molasses, and drizzled with a syrup of brown butter.  That was terrific.

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21st Course: Brown Butter Ice Cream

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I can’t say that I loved all of the dishes at Maaemo.  My least favorite ones were the porridges, like rømmegrøt, described as sour cream topped with shaved reindeer heart.  These dishes, which also included a thick mushroom cream topped with “savory muesli” and a porridge of spelt and buckwheat with cheese, were extremely rich and, even though they were served in small portions, cloying.  I do, however, recall Bang saying that at least one of these dishes was still being tweaked, and that ours was just a preview in progress.

Nevertheless, based on the meal I had, Maaemo undoubtedly deserves both of the Michelin stars it has earned (it is the highest, Michelin-ranked restaurant in Norway).  Bang’s cooking has the sort of flawless consistency for which Scandinavian chefs are celebrated.  (I note, however, that his staff was fairly international. At the time I ate there, there was not one Norwegian in the kitchen. Bang is Danish, and his partner and sommelier, Pontus Dahlgren, who served my friend and me most of the night, is Finnish, by way of Sweden. We were also presented dishes by cooks from the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and Asia.)  The ingredients were great, the flavors were clean, and the message was clear, relatively free of superfluous shills for terroir and unnecessary theatrics (although, a fat langoustine perched on boughs of evergreen above a misting sea of dry ice was pretty dramatic).  The quality of the experience, which included a magical setting and excellent service, spoke for itself.  Maaemo is impressive.  I look forward to experiencing Bang’s collaboration dinner with Christopher Kostow later this year at the Twelve Days of Christmas at Meadowood Napa Valley.

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Ylajali

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On my way to Oslo, I read “Sult” (translated as “Hunger” in English).  The book, written in 1890 by Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, has since become a modern classic.  Considered one of the first psychology-drive books, it follows a tortured, young, starving artist in his daily life in Kristiana (the former name of Oslo).  His encounters with the heroine, Ylajali (to the best of my knowledge, it is pronounced ee-LY-ah-lee), are brief, but notable.  And it is because of her that I read the book.

On my second night in Oslo, I had dinner at St. Olavs Plass 2, the heroine’s home address in Hamsun’s novel, now occupied by a restaurant named after her.  Owing to this literary birth, the restaurant’s menu is presented as a book, with the sections of the meals broken down into “chapters.”

Norwegian Even Ramsvik is chef at Ylajali.  And his food falls squarely on the Nordic track, so much so that I recognized a number of his dishes based on ones I’ve seen elsewhere.

A crispy tangle of fried angel hair potato, encasing chicken liver and dusted with lingonberry powder, was awfully similar to the potato and duck liver course I had at Noma in Copenhagen.  Likewise, Ramsvik’s charred leek – a stalk tied at both ends and unseamed lengthwise to reveal a re-stuffed heart of melted leeks with löjrom (roe) and hazelnuts – was nearly identical to the one I had at Noma (and strangely similar to this other version at Eric Frechon’s three Michelin-starred Le Bristol in Paris).  And how about this sack of bread, which I had mentioned above?

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13th Course: Turbot Baked in Hay

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I don’t mean to pick on Ramsvik, or accuse him of copying others.

With the internet age in full swing, the borders of originality are becoming fuzzier. Indeed, there seems to be such a great exchange of information and dialogue about food these days that the international culinary playbook has become communal, and only loosely codified.  Furthermore, much of what modern chefs are doing now is revising age-old dishes that have existed for centuries. What troubles me, however, is that diners – including journalists – seem less and less interested in originality, and more and more focused on trends and personalities.

In some cases, a unique style of plating, or presentation, or pairing of ingredients has an established provenance (Michel Bras’s famous “Gargouillou,” for example, or Ferran Adria’s “Caviar Cream and Hazelnut Caviar,” or Alain Passard’s “egg” at l’Arpege).

Other times, an idea evolves until it becomes something different, but with a recognizable pedigree.  Ramsvik’s “wild cow” tartare might fall into this category (note: I am not saying that it does, I am saying that it might).  A few years ago, Rene Redzepi of Noma was serving a plaque of musk ox tartare covered with sorrel (I found this article about the dish from 2009; in later photos, the tartare appears to be completely papered over with sorrel).  In 2013, I had a wild beef tartare dish at Rodolfo Guzman’s Boragó in Chile, where the chopped meat was formed into a ball and then covered in oxalis petals.   I was told that the dish was inspired by Redzepi’s, but referred to the terroir of Quintay, in Chile.  At Ylajali, Ramsvik served the wild cow chopped, formed into a ball, and covered with nasturtium.

And, with enough passage of time and facsimiles, some dishes surpass being merely a trend and become a part of popular, culinary lexicon, thereby entering the “public domain.”  The molten chocolate cake – which I have heard attributed to both Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Michel Bras, although certainly countless bakers before them have accidentally half-baked a chocolate cake before  –  is a good example.  It can now be found on dessert menus from here to the moon.

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17th Course: Apple, Sorrel, Tarragon

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Since I have seen a wide spectrum of international cooking over a rather long period time, it’s hard to avoid connecting dots that seem to be related.  Take, for example, a rash of edible sea shells that has spread across fine dining tables recently.

Is the “razor clam,” that I had at Matthew Lightner’s Atera in New York a copy of Rasmus Kofoed’s version at Geranium, which I assume is the original version?

Redzepi served a smoked mussel on an edible mussel shell at Noma, pointing to the shellfish-rich waters not 100 yards from the restaurant’s front door. Sang Hoon Degeimbre served me something very similar at his farmhouse restaurant l’Air du Temps.  The shell of Degeimbre’s was made of fried potato, a clever reference to the fries that are served with mussels in his native Belgium (moules frites).  Certainly, both chefs had a great storyline for their edible mussel shells.  But one had to come before the other.  It would be awfully hard to believe that both came up with the idea independent of each other, sui generis.

Coffee siphons, liquid nitrogen, ash-coating: I could continue connecting dots, but it’s probably better if I save them for a rumination.  Suffice it to say, my opinion on the matter is simple: if your diners might know the origin of your copy or inspiration – and here, I’m not talking about the 99%, who probably will not know, but rather that 1% that will – it’s better to clarify and disclose.  You’d rather the 1% leave your restaurant admiring you for acknowledging and crediting those who have inspired you, rather than thinking that you’ve tried to fool them.

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18th Course: "Orskog Svele"

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As for Ylajali, Ramsvik’s cooking was technically sound, and his flavors were bold and clear, which likely accounts for the Michelin star that he was awarded just a couple of weeks after I ate there.  Among my favorite dishes was a warm mushroom broth poured into a bowl of tender duck hearts and a gently cooked duck egg, still runny inside.  And I was surprises by how much I liked the subsequent course, which presented a hearty slice of reindeer on a splatter of blood and truffles.  I expected the dish to be extremely heavy (especially with a melting knob of butter to one side).  But the meat was surprisingly tender, and the flavor of the sauce was not nearly as messy as it appeared on the plate.

The ørskog svele at the end was, perhaps, the highlight of the meal for me.  These little pancakes, made from a fragrant, yeasty batter, were griddled table side, and served with hazelnut ice cream and toasted hazelnuts.  It was terrific.

Ylajali is a lovely restaurant.  The interior is elegant in its spartan simplicity, with well-worn floors, and high ceilings trimmed in crown molding.  The space might have seemed a bit cold and empty, if it had not been filled with the warmth of a hospitable staff.

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A Norwegian breakfast.

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On my last morning in Oslo, my friend Sjøgren invited me to a traditional Norwegian breakfast at her place.  She joked that everything was from a package.  The Norwegians love their tubed meat and tinned mackerel with tomato sauce.  And they love butter too.

That night, we attended an experimental dance performance mounted by a Swedish dance troupe.  It involved about a dozen dancers interacting with a giant curtain of stretchable fabric.  Parts of it were really engaging, but most of it was too experimental for me, especially after the curtain was dropped to the stage and the dancers began bundling it up with cords while crawling on the floor in slow motion.

Afterwards, we took a walk along the docks of Tjuvholm, with the old Arkshus fortress glowing across the water.  We found an Italian restaurant there on the pier – Olivia – and ducked in for a simple dinner of pizza and tiramisu.

Oslo is far from the most cosmopolitan city in Europe.  Despite its high net worth, Norway still lags behind its peers in pop culture and fashion, as my friend Sjøgren laments.  But the culinary scene there seems to be awakening, if not burgeoning.  When I last visited nine years ago, only the storied Bagatelle (opened since the 1930s) passed for fine dining. Now, chefs like Esben Holmboe Bang and Even Ramsvik are putting Oslo on the culinary map, and hopefully, mentoring young chefs who will grow the Oslo dining culture in the near future.  The rise of the hipster culture has even brought great, third-wave coffee roasters and brewers, like Tim Wendelboe, to the fore (you’ll find his micro roasterie and café a couple of blocks off the Olaf Ryes plass).  And there were so many other exciting new restaurants, coffee shops, and bars, recommended to me by friends and locals alike, that I didn’t have time to explore on this trip. I look forward to doing so next time.

Here are the restaurants that I visited in Oslo.  They are hyperlinked to photos that I took at each meal.

Maaëmo
Olivia Tjuvholmen

Ylajali

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Akershus Festning

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Photos: A cabin half-buried in snow near Finse, Norway; a giant leg and sneaker as installation art in an underground parking lot in Tjuvholm, Oslo; the dark and elegant dining room of Maaemo in Oslo; Maaemo from the second-floor landing; Pontus Dahlgren steeping mushroom broth with a coffee siphon at Maaemo; Esben Holmboe Bang presents a gorgeous roasted duck breast at Maaemo; brown butter ice cream with molasses at Maaemo; the dining room at Ylajali in Oslo; Even Ramsvik presenting turbot baked in hay at Ylajali; an aromafusion of apple, tea, an tarragon at Ylajali; griddling ørskog svele (mini pancakes) at Ylajali; the Arkshus fortress at night, from the docks at Tjuvohlm.

~ by ulterior epicure on August 25, 2014.

2 Responses to “travel: sui generis…”

  1. What about gastronomy like jazz, where the greats play each other’s theme, the same but always different, never to be actually heard again, a recording only a facsimile of the actual ephemeral experience. In this context, originality, tribute, mastery and creativity are partners, not mutually exclusive. I wouldn’t expect each chef to always footnote dishes inspired by others explicitly, as I don’t expect musicians to attribute each song they did not come up with entirely themselves (except in liner notes, but then, are there actual dishes that have been copywritten? Copywritten?), except if it was a clear tribute (many a resto I have seen ‘Robuchon purée). But pretending it’s wholly your own invention even when asked is of course another thing.

  2. The idea of the edible mussel shell belongs to Chef Carlo Cracco.
    He first presented this idea in 2009, in Identita Golosa in Milan http://www.identitagolose.com/sito/en/6/2456/chef/carlocracco.html
    Just like in every form of Art, i.e. music, theatre etc, the same applies to cooking : inspiration and influence has no boundaries. As long as something is not copied exactly as it was originally, then to be inspired from something or someone and express it in one’s own way and feelings, then this is the very essence of Art and therefore of cooking.

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