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Eating Oslo

Mitchell Davis

March 28, 2017

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If you’re anything like us, the first thing you do when planning a trip—perhaps even before booking a plane ticket—is figure out where you’re going to eat while you’re there. Museums, sightseeing, and shopping are all well and good, but food is often the main attraction. To make trip planning a little easier, we’re compiling lists of our can’t-miss pit stops in some of our favorite places. Below, our executive vice president (and resident globe-trotting gourmand) Mitchell Davis shares his absolute must-eats in Oslo for this special international installment.

While chefs and diners the world over have embraced the New Nordic cuisine emanating out of Denmark, ironically the nearby Nordic country of Norway (just reported as the happiest place on earth by the BBC) was slow to join in the wood-sorrel-and-sea-buckthorn-flavored fun. Despite an oil-rich economy and a robust social democracy that is the envy of countries everywhere, historically the dining scene in Oslo could be summed up as “overpriced rotting fish.” Before I left for a recent trip, I asked several journalists—including a few who live in Scandinavia—where I should eat and more than a couple of them wrote back, “Sweden.” Only one, Bon Appétit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton, who is married to a Norwegian and who spends several weeks a year there, provided an enthusiastic list of new restaurants to try. 

Thanks to this visit I now share Knowlton’s enthusiasm for the city’s burgeoning food scene. It is creative and exciting—and perhaps the reason Norwegians are so happy. My dining companion Bonnie Stern and I met enthusiastic young bakers who taught themselves how to work with sourdough from YouTube videos. We stood in the middle of a busy intersection in the midst of a massive new development where I was moved by an art project-cum-urban-farm-cum-social-experiment about ecology and public space called Losærter that has excited citizens about soil, farming, and community and that provides chefs with the most local of local produce. Recognizing the value of the project, the city has made the temporary installation permanent. Despite long, dark nights, Oslo’s food scene feels bright and fresh and earnest in the way Williamsburg and Portland felt 10 or 15 years ago. 

Of course, at the center of much of the excitement is Maaemo, a modern, glass gem of a restaurant that last year became one of only two Michelin three-star restaurants in all of Scandinavia. And you can see why. Chef Esbon Holmboe-Bang uses local ingredients (some from that urban farm art project) and riffs on traditional dishes. We heard that one dish on our 20-course Maaemo menu, an elevated version of a sour cream porridge known as rømmegrøt that is a staple in Norwegian homes, was so resonant with nostalgia, it brought someone we met to tears. Covered with fine shavings of cured and dried reindeer heart, we thought it was simply delicious, even without the tradition to draw on. The service is carefully orchestrated and friendly. But Maaemo is only the beginning, or perhaps the end. And it is certainly the most expensive. But there is a growing range of food businesses at every level, the supply and demand of which are growing weekly as Norwegians wake up to the pleasures of the new Nordic table.

Oslo is a city that is bursting with development. The current population of 650,000 is expected to reach 1 million by 2034. In some neighborhoods there seem to be more cranes than people, and they are moving around the clock, light or dark, rain or shine. In the last few years entire neighborhoods have been created from nothing and there are some massive public projects underway, including a new Edward Munch Museum and a new National Gallery. And all of it is done with the bold, sleek, elegance of Scandinavian design and the open, honest, and forthright character of the Scandinavian people. Several of the most interesting food places we visited had literally opened “yesterday” or “the week before.” It became a joke that if we had come just a couple of days earlier, we would have starved, or worse, we would have been eating overpriced rotten fish. 

Before I get to my restaurant recommendations from my recent visit, I want to dispel a myth and expound on a few themes about the food scene in Oslo: first, the myth that it is exorbitantly expensive. Granted I say this as someone who lives and eats in Manhattan and who was traveling with a favorable exchange rate in the off-season. But most restaurants we tried seemed in line with New York City dining, many of them offering better value for the quality and sophistication of food we enjoyed. We stayed at the Thief, a stylish new boutique hotel in a sleek new neighborhood on the island called Tjuvholmen, just a stone’s through and a pedestrian bridge from Oslo’s city hall. It has a fine fish-focused restaurant and a hot cocktail bar. A comparable hotel at the same price would be impossible to find in the Big Apple. 

As for the themes, here’s what you should expect to eat. Butter. Lots of butter. Served in generous portions to spread on freshly baked sourdough bread, melted and browned to pour on seafood and meats and even desserts. Dairy is pervasive. Brunost, or brown cheese, made from caramelized goat’s or cow’s whey, is as common as Kraft singles and is similarly not truly “cheese.” It’s a staple at home for breakfast and lunch and a recurring meme in contemporary restaurants for it’s cultural resonance. On the other end of the cheese spectrum, while we were in Oslo, a Norwegian cheese, Kraftkar (which means “powerful guy”), by Tingvollost won the top prize at the World Cheese Awards administered by the Fine Food Guild in San Sebastián, Spain. We managed to get one of the last slivers available at a cheese monger in the Vulkan food market. There was, of course, an immediate rush and the city was sold out in hours. The blue-veined cheese had a complex flavor, creamy and strong but without the bitter edge that some blue cheeses can acquire.  

New Norwegian food is seasonal, so in mid-November we ate a lot of brassicas, hazelnuts, mushrooms, game, and root vegetables. You will eat plenty of pickled onions and lots of berries of all different types. We didn’t mind. Also, as a lover and drinker of copious amounts of full-bodied black, filter coffee, Oslo is my paradise. That’s how they make it and drink it and Oslo boasts more than one roaster considered among the best in the world. 

I’d advise you to travel to Oslo soon so you can experience the excitement of a food scene coming into its own. The people involved are having fun and working very hard and they are proud of what they’re producing, as they should be. 

Where to eat:

Kafeteria Sentralen
Øvre Slottsgate 3
0157 Oslo
Tel.: +47 2233 3322
A college-dining-hall vibe gives Sentralen a workaday atmosphere, so when chef Even Ramsvik’s food arrived at the table dressed with complex sauces and other gastronomic flair we were surprised and delighted. According to our host, going out to a nice weekday lunch is not common, even in Oslo’s business district, though things are changing. (We learned that most Norwegians usually eat the same lunch every day, open-faced sandwiches of brown cheese and ham on brown bread.) And yet, if any place can convince people to leave their desks for some real food in a comfortable setting, I think Sentralen can do it. In fact, the restaurant is one piece of a larger cultural project in the site of a former bank building that includes a co-working space, a performance and culture hub, and a social enterprise incubator. Our favorite dishes in the kafeteria included cauliflower in hollandaise, sautéed redfish, and a beet tartare flavored with fresh horseradish and tarragon mayonnaise and garnished with egg yolk that was more than the sum of its parts.

Maaemo
Schweigaards Gate 15B
0191 Oslo
Tel.: +47 2217 9969
You could say I was in Oslo to eat at Maaemo. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a little restaurant. It didn’t disappoint. Located in the corner of the elevated lobby of a modern office building the restaurant is a glass box that felt as though we were eating inside a curio case, in a good way. A parade of servers in dark suits moved up and down the staircase from the mezzanine kitchen to the dining room floor with theatrical precision. The effect was impressive and entertaining. A lengthy tasting menu was well sized and timed so that the experience was energizing rather than excruciating, as it can sometimes be. And our first taste, a sip of warm cabbage and salted mutton broth made an immediate transition from the cold, dark, rainy outdoors to the warm, coddled indoors. That cozy, comforting feeling returned throughout, as when a potato lompe (like a latke) appeared topped with fermented trout, horseradish, and pickled onions—a taste of home. Of the many culinary highlights, the dishes that featured Norwegian ingredients and/or resonated with local traditions were the most interesting, from the shaved, cured reindeer heart that topped the sour cream porridge, served with plum vinegar and browned butter, to the razor clams with white currants and heather. Each course was small, elegant, beautiful, and delicious. It’s quite possible that we could have eaten only the freshly baked bread, made from heritage wheat, and homemade butter and been satisfied, but we didn’t turn away the other 20 courses. 

Bass Oslo
Thorvald Meyers Gate 26c
Tel.: +47 4824 1489
A photograph of Jerry Seinfeld hangs by the door of this casual bistro. Why? I ask one of the partners, and I’m told it’s because we grew up on 1990s television and it represents our foundation. It’s a leap from the babka and black-and-white cookies of Seinfeld to the contemporary dishes on the Bass menu. But sweet raw scallop under a blanket of thinly sliced white mushroom, roasted cauliflower, nuggets of fried chicken, and an elegantly presented carrot and yogurt salad make a case for leaving 1990s gastronomic inspirations behind. We also loved a frozen dessert for which a plug of ice cream was glazed with black licorice, topped with cherries, and served with caramelized white chocolate. 

Kolonialen 
Solfiesgate 16
0170 Oslo
Tel.” +47 9011 5098
This cozy, neighborhood restaurant is adjacent to a renowned home-design shop, which explains the pitch-perfect décor. The chalkboard menu is limited to a handful of dishes at lunch that are deceptively complex and delicious. A creamy caulifower soup is served with a roasted broccoli reduction, accented by a trio of herb oils, and garnished with textural contrasts from bits of dry bread and seeds. We licked the bowl. Salt-baked beets artfully composed into a salad were earthy and sweet. Even a simple gem lettuce salad with anchovy seemed new. The braised beef cheeks were so tender they barely held themselves together long enough to get them on a fork. 

Kontrast
Maridalsveien 15a
0175 Oslo
Tel.: +47 2160 0101
It’s possible this was our favorite meal in Oslo, if only because we had no expectations and the food was stunning and delicious. Kontrast has a Michelin star, so it isn’t undiscovered. But the tasting menu (available in two sizes, short and long), is sophisticated, modern, and totally yummy from the amuses bouches to the mignardises. The urban space, Scandi design touches, wooden tables, large open kitchen, and indoor herb-grow cabinet make it casual and comfortable. Everything we ate was delicious, meticulously presented, and resonant with the new Nordic celebration of local nature. Quail eggs with truffles in a nest of hay and tiny cheese tarts served on a bed of rocks opened the tasting menu. The care that the kitchen put into rolling paper-thin strips of kohlrabi into little tubes for a salad and then garnishing each with tiny fronds was indicative of the rest of the savory meal. 

Pjoltergeist
Rostedsgate 15b
0178 Oslo
Tel.: +47 4023 7788
There’s a reason that the popular restaurant Pjoltergeist feels like a biker bar. That’s because it was one. And rather than change the décor in any substantial way, chef Atly Mar Yngvason just expanded the kitchen from which issues unexpectedly creative food with global inspirations made from Nordic ingredients—think Momfuku, Oslo edition. It’s no wonder the restaurant is popular with local chefs, hipsters, and everyone else. Potsticker dumplings, tacos, ribs, kimchi, lobster, langoustines, broths, and vegetables, the tasting menu affords dish after dish of delicious folly. A list of natural wines and fine cocktails make it a good place for late-night merriment. 

Mathallen Oslo
Vulkan 5
0178 Oslo
Tel.: +47 4000 1209
The centerpiece of a large, mixed-use residential development called Vulkan (where Kontraste is also located), Mathallen Oslo is a bustling terminal food market and a good place for lunch. There’s cheese, charcuterie, smoked fish, baked goods, natural foods, kitchenware, coffee, tea, chocolate, and more available in the open-concept building. A nice touch is that you can sit at one of the tables in the center of the market and order a tasting meal of food from the various stalls around you, all without having to get up and wait on lines. (I wish other markets would implement something like this.) Also in the development is Oslo’s only sourdough bakery, Handwerk, which is worth seeking out. 

Fru K at the Thief
Landgangen 1
0252 Oslo
Tel.: +47 2400 4040
I am not normally a fan of boutique hotel dining rooms that are not run by outside operators, but Fru K at the Thief (that’s “Mrs. K,” named for a native of Tjuvholmen island whose cows grazed on the barren land where the hotel now stands) is a special place worth passing through the lobby and riding the elevator to the second floor, and strolling through the hotel’s café and food bar concept to get to. Head chef Johan Laursen, a Maaemo alum, recently switched to a fish-only menu that locals are still getting used to. It made sense to us. Our tasting menu featured the freshest oysters, turbot, lemon sole, lobster, and other ingredients in elegant, naturalist presentations. Agriculture is as important as aquaculture to Laursen, who in addition to the impressive seafood compositions, served us a memorable roasted Jerusalem artichoke dish with broccoli purée, smoked yogurt, and lovage. 

Lofthus Samvirkelag
Multiple Locations
Tel.: +47 2260 0666
I can’t say the pizzas at this small, local chain are going to be a revelation, but in Naples you’d be hard-pressed to find a reindeer carpaccio–topped pie with pomegranate and red onion, so you may want to stop in. We visited the spacious, loungey new Kunstnernes Hus location (at Wergelandsveien 17) and for a quick bite among locals, I would recommend it.

Tim Wendelboe
Grünersgate 1
0552 Oslo
Tel.: +47 4000 4062
Tim Wendelboe is a legend in the coffee world, crafting the impeccably sourced, perfectly roasted coffee beans that have come to symbolize Scandinavia’s, rich, full-bodied, filter coffee culture. His beans are used at Maaemo and Noma, making his the defacto coffee of new Nordic connoisseurs the world over. The shop is minimalist, or “focused,” you might say, but the coffee is superb and the beans make lovely gifts. 

Stortorvets Gjæstiveri
Grensen 1
0159 Oslo
Tel.: +47 2335 6360
After all of that new Norwegian cooking, we wanted a taste of something old. So in the middle of a multiple-lunch-and-dinner day, we asked our host to lead us to a more traditional table. Specifically, we wanted to try the Christmas specialty we had spotted in a local grocery store, pinnekjøtt or “stick meat,” a dish of dried, smoked lamb ribs that are reconstituted and braised on spruce sticks, that is eaten on Christmas Eve. Into this 19th century beer hall we did go to sample pinnekjøtt, served with sausages and mashed roots, and while we were at it, a couple of other traditional Norwegian Christmas dishes: lutefisk, dried cod treated with lye; and riskrem, rice pudding enriched with whipped cream and toasted almonds. Our host swooned over the deep muttony flavor of the lamb and the rotted taste of fish that was the flavor of Christmases past, while we began to understand why our friends maligned Norwegian food. (I now also know why Garrison Keillor made lutefisk jokes for decades on A Prairie Home Companion.) Of the three, it’s the rice pudding we’d order again. But the Old World environment of this pub and its homey cooking offered a nice respite from the ambitions of the city’s contemporary cooks. 

Want more travel inspiration? Check out the rest of our JBF Trip Planners.

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Mitchell Davis is executive vice president at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.