Today we’ll start a new feature covering some of the world’s great food cities called, “Greetings from…!” The concept follows one of my favorite pastimes, the lost art of postcards written by hand in actual handwriting with real pens and sent my non electronic, old fashioned mail. No, we’re not in Stockholm at the moment, that was over a month ago, but with so many lessons learned and memories from recent meals in our extensive travels, it would be impossible to fully cover every restaurant with the attention to detail that a full review gives.
Without further ado, greetings from Stockholm, Sweden!
A European capital city that may not quite be on the same prestigious level as its counterparts in Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam, Stockholm is far, far more than the stereotypes of beautiful blondes who never smile and that every meal is a smorgasbord. In fact, only two restaurants I’m aware of, with the Grand Hotel’s Veranda Restaurant being the most prominent of the pair, even serve full on, blow out, sixty plus piece smorgasbords in the city. A smorgasbord is essentially a glorified buffet, three meals in one. If you’re so inclined for a buffet, then there is no shortage of them for breakfast at any hotel.
It would be a shame anyways in this beautiful city to sacrifice the chance to sample its eclectic and exciting restaurant scene by just pigging out at the smorgasbord buffet.
As a capital, Stockholm may not have a museum the level of the Louvre or the Prado nor a standout monument like the Colosseum, and it does not have the sheer quantity of high caliber restaurants and markets that those cities possess. Stockholm does have eight Michelin stars spread over six restaurants (two with two stars, four with one star), a bonafide national celebrity chef (Mathias Dahlgren), the most expensive restaurant in Scandinavia (Frantzén-Lindeberg, yes far pricier than a meal at Noma or any equivalent even in Oslo), and Sweden even has its own food guide that is far superior and reliable to the Michelin guide. The White Guide easily trumps that Michelin Red Guide and is essential for any visit to the country.
Speaking of essential, of the many necessary activities in Stockholm (going on a boat ride, walking around the Parliament and Palace, seeing the Opera House, visiting the open air amusement park, Skansen), there is no more necessary thing to do than to try real, quality herring and real, quality Swedish meatballs. The two are the symbols of eating in Sweden and are given unfair reputations because most people imagine canned herring and Ikea’s cuisine as the real deal. The meatballs at Tranan and the herring plate at Lisa Elmqvist will change any opinion of these two dishes that are actually stalwarts.
Water is everywhere in Stockholm, a city that is actually a series of islands and referred to as an archipelago. With several ferries, one of the cleanest and most efficient subway systems in the world, and some of the most sparkling clean sidewalks this side of Monte Carlo, it is very easy to go island hopping around Stockholm. That is perfect for diners to explore all corners of the city.
Visiting in mid Summer and over a Sunday-Monday period meant most of the marquee restaurants were closed. Thanks to the likes of Franzén-Lindberg, Dahlgren’s two restaurants at the Grand Hotel, F12, Gastrologik, Mistral, Esperanto, and many more “New Nordic” cuisine followers, Stockholm has been receiving much praise recently as the next big food city of Europe. That would of course be food writer code terms for “The Next Copenhagen.”
Most of those headliner restaurants of course have fixed price menus (beware in Scandinavia that prices are just plain high…you will have to get used to it…then Oslo makes everywhere else seem like a bargain). Following in the footsteps of Paris ambitious little gastro-bistros, Stockholm has many similar types crafting one menu each evening. A leader among them is 19 Glas, on Gamla Stan (the mostly tourist run Old Town). It’s impossible not to fall in love with a restaurant with so much heart that cares so deeply about good food, good wine, and good times. The problem, though with the single menu is if there is a dud, everyone gets the dud. Sea crayfish served New Nordic style on a rock with an El Bulli style yogurt-dill foam was luscious. Then a braised lamb tongue dish was intriguing, though ended up somewhat boring with no stand outs. The main plate followed with an unexciting, gluttonous ballotine of chicken and foie gras, wrapped in bacon for good measure. The downhill slide hit the bottom at the end with a dessert of three tiny strawberries in a wan rosé wine jelly that had less flavor than clear jello. How this dish ever made it out of the initial planning stages is still a good question.
Yet, with so much care put into the meal, you truly appreciate a place like 19 Glas, especially with its outstanding wine collection.
But the real special meals took place over Swedish meatballs, steak tartare, and ethereal salted gravlax at the cramped, traditional bistro Tranan, fascinating lamb “picatta” and chili crab at Rolf’s Kok, pristine fish and herring plates at Lisa Elmqvist (the fishmonger to the royal family, located in the city’s premier food hall, Östermalms Saluhall), the most vivid of gazpachos and beef carpaccio salad with a smorgasbord of vegetables from its own garden that would be the envy of Alice Waters at the ultimate foodie garden oasis Rosendals Tradgard, in the Djurgarden.
And yes, you do have to go to the cafes and bars from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” because it’s so cool to pretend to be Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.
The Chalkboard Menu:
The 5 Dishes of Stockholm:
Salt Cured Salmon with Dilled Cream Potatoes, Tranan
They’re not lying when they say that this is “salt cured,” cold salmon tartare. No, it is not smoked. It is brilliant, just salty enough to make that glass of Chablis go down a little quicker. And wow, is this a mammoth serving of cold salmon. You’ll end up finishing it.
Skagen Toast, Tranan
Wonderfully executed traditional Swedish appetizer of shrimp tossed with mayonnaise, crême fraîche, and a hefty dose of dill, then served open faced or as a sandwich between grilled slices of high quality bread, often brioche. It’s pretty much the perfect starter.
Swedish Meatballs with Lingonberries, Mashed Potatoes, and Cream Gravy, Tranan
Doesn’t the description sound so nutritious and light for the heart of summer? Robust veal meatballs, a not too heavy handed gravy oozing with mushroom and meat flavor, and it all goes perfectly with a dab of lingonberries. Those mashed potatoes are no afterthought. This is no Ikea cuisine, folks.
SOS Herring Plate, Lisa Elmqvist
No, this is not a call for help. It is a smorgasbord of herrings, in various cured, marinated, and pickled guises. There is some hard boiled egg and cheese with brown bread for a change-up.
Picatta of Lamb with Eggplant, Zucchini, and Garlic, Rolf’s Kok
Perfectly pink and as tender as a Peter Luger porterhouse, with a brioche crust wrapped on the outside. The very generous serving reminds you of a beef wellington that vacationed in Nice and discovered ratatouille.
The Concept of Stockholm:
That would of course be the trend of New Nordic cuisine. Started in Copenhagen a few years ago, it is alive and well now to the north. I’d love to see more restaurants follow the trail blazing path of exotic flavors that the chili crab at Rolf’s Kok boasts. It’s a dish that would be right at home in the U.S. at Pok Pok or Fatty Crab.
The Cocktail of Stockholm:
Not exactly a strong point of Stockholm. Drinks at the much praised Bar le Rouge were imbalanced, often very absinthe heavy or far too weak. 1900’s bar was empty, but they do make a quality drink called the “London Calling” with Plymouth gin, sherry, citron, and whatever “socker” is. Strangely, almost all of 1900’s drinks are fruity and gin based.
The winner here in a runaway is the “Strawberry Smash” at the ultra sleek and luxurious “Goldmember” inspired bar, the Gold Bar in the Nobis Hotel. The clientele are even more beautiful than the drinks. It’s a close call though with this refreshing, fascinating mix of gin, strawberry, agave syrup, and some serious basil. A close second: “Orchid Royalty,” with Guatamalan rum, sweet vermouth, just the right amount of Pedro Ximenez sherry, and yes, some gold dust that tastes like air. Dress your best here and do check out the spectacular lounge area of the lobby. The most fun part: taking a picture of yourself on the gold mirrored ceiling.
Beer or Wine?
Tough call, but go for beer. One of the best bars in the city was under renovation during our visit. Nils Oscar’s IPA was the premiere beer by a landslide sampled. Really, it’s more about the atmosphere here for enjoying the beer. The view from Erick’s Gondola is unmatched and so is the warm, wood paneled, candlelit room at Pelikan. You can pretend to be Daniel Craig at the historic Kvarnen Bar, but the beer menu is hopeless. You know it’s bad news when Brooklyn Lager is the best beer on draught…in Sweden.
For a glass of wine, grab a seat at 19 Glas or PA & Co. Just don’t drink the Swedish wine, according to 19 Glas. It’s not meant for drinking and rips apart your wallet.
Shall we Grab Coffee?
Absolutely. Scandinavia knows and loves its coffee. Luckily for you, the three best cups of coffee in Stockholm are right by each other on Södermalm. Drop Coffee makes the premier espresso, but it’s neck and neck with the country’s leading roaster Johan Nyström. The latter wins for its innovative slow pour coffees. Flip a coin really between these two. Both are world class destinations. Drop is tiny and cozy, while Johan Nyström is a laboratory by way of sunny Provence, with baristas who actually talk and smile…a lesson seemingly every barista in the U.S. could learn.
And yes, pretend to be Daniel Craig discussing your next project over terrific espresso at Mellqvist Kaffe Bar. Stick with coffee, don’t try the tepid, flavorless “cocoa drink.”
Restaurant of Stockholm: Tranan
Perfect renditions of the classics that are far from tired, plus a mostly local audience, and as a bonus, addicting “chocolate bread” with salted butter. Lisa Elmqvist is a very close runner-up.
Symbol of Stockholm: Water, Parliament, and the Royal Palace
And in closing…
What was in those Easter jelly beans?