We didn’t plan on having a blow out meal at Matbaren, in Stockholm. It just sort of happened.
Matbaren translates to ‘the food bar’ in English. It’s the more casual sibling of Mathias Dahlgren’s eponymous restaurant in the Grand Hotel, Stockholm.
We hadn’t made a booking, but hoped if we sidled in close to 6 pm we’d be able to snare a seat at the bar. We’d intended to have a couple of drinks and pick at some good looking things on platters, before wandering around in Stockholm’s late evening light.
Here’s where the trouble starts.
The room is far more charming than we expected. It’s focused around a curved ‘U’ of a central bar that’s topped with brushed stainless steel. Beneath it are accents of dark wood. At each place there are sweet movable wooden desk sets, dressed with napery and menus.The menus are printed on brown paper placemats- one side in Swedish, the other in English. Then there’s the floorstaff- dressed in jeans, crisp white shirts and striped aprons they are beautiful in the way only Scandinavians and Abercrombie and Fitch models can be. They are droll and friendly, with sly smiles and an easy way about them.
Nestling in our placemats we find envelopes, stamped with the date. Inside are three varieties of Swedish crispbreads, imprinted with patterns like you end up with on your thighs after sitting on wicker chairs. They’re savoury and make a fantastic noise when you snap them. They provide pretty good distraction while The Hungry One secures himself a Hankverksbyrggeriet Bonden Folking Ale (try saying that three times fast). While the neat wine list has a focus on chardonnay and pinot noirs, meandering from Italy, to Spain, California then France, the beer selection is decidedly local. This pleases The Hungry One. Give him a good place to have coffee, a walk by a harbour, something sturdy to eat and a local beer to discover and he’s the happiest of campers.
The menu is taut; divided into five neat sections. The first focuses on ‘produce and products from our country’. Among other good looking options there’s a tartar of Swedish beef with blue cheese and steamed coalfish from Bohuslän. ‘From other countries’ has Matjes herring with whitefish roe, beets, capers and potatoes. Then there’s ‘From the plant world’ , which includes a combination of leaves, sprouts, herbs from Ugglarp and white asparagus and morels and spring onions. Bringing up the rear are desserts, cheeses and the cold cut of pressed pigs head. The menu also has scrawled notes across it, highlighting what is new and where some dishes come from.
The pressed pigs head was our first choice, driven by financial prudence. (Prudence being a relative term in Sweden). On the menu it’s got (BILLY’s) scrawled next to it. It turns out it’s a recipe that comes from Billy, via St John in London. It’s a dish we know pretty well, so we move to deeper waters and find some we don’t. And this is where the trouble starts.
There are two classics we’re told we should try. The first is a sashimi platter of Norwegian salmon and Swedish reindeer. It’s served on a cold marble slab and slopes like a coastline. There are strips of salmon and just seared reindeer nudging fat bits of avocado and spheres of roe. It’s like the splayed innards of a meaty, luxurious California roll.
Under the salmon and roe the reindeer is reminiscent of venison; it’s gamey and lean. What makes the dish sterling is the cut of ginger in the dressing and bite of horseradish that deckles the plate. It’s a wake up call for your mouth.
We’re playing tactical battles with our forks trying to get the last bits. Competing for attention is a warm salad of beetroots and jerusalem artichoke puree. What shunts this into special territory is a glutton’s shaving of truffles.
There’s chew and crunch from the tangle of leaves and roots, there’s a comforting squish of puree, but it’s the smell of the truffles that gets you. It’s the edible equivalent of a romantic walk in the woods.
We could stop there, but we don’t. Instead soon we’re sharing a serving of langoustine from Bohuslän- one of the provinces of Sweden on the west coast.
It’s a jumble of bodies and claws. They shells are soft enough so you can use your hands to crack the centre of and pluck out the sweet flesh. Some cases still have tiny eggs clinging to their bellies, like a pile of beads waiting to be strung. To be honest, it feels a bit wrong to methodically pick them out, but they way they burst on your teeth like little balls of tapioca keeps drawing me back in.
The dipping sauce is flavoured with dill, shellfish stock and lemon. We’ve had a similar dish at St John Bread and Wine, but here the gentle flavour of the sea and aromatics in the mayonnaise produce a much sexier version. It’s the kind of dish that makes you wish you were sitting somewhere by the ocean with sand haphazardly crusted to your cheek.
With it we’re sipping two of the house distilled ‘snaps’- the first is infused with juniperberry and lemon. It’s like a pale gin martini. The second, is breathtaking. It’s vodka infused with horseradish. It’s clean and clear and hot and cold. It’s perfect with the shellfish. It was suggested by the floorstaff and an absolute winner. This is something we’re vow to try to recreate at home soon.
We could have stopped there. Except there’s a sneaky piece of paper that’s been dropped down in front of us. It seems there are benefits of being early birds.
On a ‘first come, first served’ basis, there are three portions of the first wagyu reared in Sweden. It’s a special piece of meat and it comes with a price tag that makes me swallow hard.
This special meat is destined for an elaborate riff on a cheeseburger, topped with spring onion, gruyere, leaves and truffle. The Hungry One is hooked. ‘First special wagyu? Truffle burger? Only three portions and it’s a race to get them?’ It’s like someone went through a list of things that could persuade him to do something and methodically ticked each one.
What arrives is more like an open sandwich than a classic understanding of a burger; but considering we’re in Sweden, it seems culturally appropriate. At the bottom is a toasted circle of sourdough. On the sides are dots of mustard and ketchup.
The marbled fat which gives wagyu such a happy flavour is leaching out the side. The meat is stickily rich. It’s hedonism squared. It’s possibly the best burger I’ve ever tasted.
When I offer the last bite of my half to The Hungry One I say “you can have this. Take it as a token of how much I love you”. He better have believed every word of it.
At this point, I’m happy to move on.
But grazing like this is dangerous. It’s a choose your own adventure story; a DIY degustation. And if the story is good, you never want it to end.
So as I’m nursing a slightly chilled glass of Domain Montranet Thoden, which is essentially a bodice ripper of raspberries in a wine glass, The Hungry One is devoting himself to a serving of venison, with boar sausage.
The proteins wrestle between rustic and refined. Draped over the top are spring onion stems. The startling bit is a spicy cabbage puddled underneath. We’re told that not many locals like it. It’s too hot. It’s too foreign. It’s got hints of soy and garlic, chilli and the fermented twang like kimchi.
It’s reminiscent of the best sorts of dishes of Momofuku. Except instead of looking out at the chaos of Second Avenue and listening to The Clash played at a volume just beyond my comfort level, here I can look out and see the harbour, spangled by the late evening sun. And the sound track is gentle licks of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The only living boy in New York’ and Air’s Moon Safari. It’s like they’ve pulled the daggiest bits out of my ipod and put them to play, just for me.
All around us there are other people having a similarly relaxed and joyful time. There are couples dressed for date night, coyly playing footsie beneath the bar. There are two 30 year old male friends, joshing each other over beer and porter braised ox cheeks. And in the far corner, there’s even a bride. She’s in a simple white dress, with lace pulled tight over her shoulders and flowers in her hair. There’s her, her new husband, two friends and her child. They’re toasting with champagne. Like everyone else, they seem to be having the loveliest time.
To stretch our evening further we make our way through a cheese plate, of two Swiss, two Swedish. There’s a pot of rosehip marmalade and a wooden paddle.
And then, we fall into dessert.
Next to the baked wild chocolate from Bolivia with sour cream, toffee ice cream and nuts on the menu is scrawled ’39 478 and counting’.
That’s how many people have ordered it since they put it on the menu.
They’re going to have to change that to ’39 479′, because The Hungry One made short work of his.
The inside of the baked chocolate oozes like a slow Saturday. The toffee ice cream is a lesson in considered sweetness. And the sour cream adds acidity for interest. It’s a restrained and clever dish that’s made even more so by the suggested booze to match. There’s no standard suggestion of Pedro Ximenex sherry or Tokay to go with the chocolate. Instead, it’s a Hana Hato Sake from Hiroshima. It’s inspired.
The light caramel colour and smell of sherry suggest a trip to a candy store, but the sweetness fades to a dry, clearing neutral. It’s like someone suddenly opened a window.
And then there’s the highlight of my day, my weekend, my month. It’s written simply as ‘natural yoghurt and peach’. The Hungry One spies it and says knowingly-’That sounds like you’. Well yes, yes it does.
It’s a combination of white and pink peaches, in segments and sorbets. It’s a puddle of tart natural yogurt that’s been hung and thickened. Together they would be clean and refreshing. But then there are the bits that make it wild.
There’s a slick of extra virgin olive oil. A handful of hazelnuts, which have been candied so they shatter like christmas crackers. And a sprinkling of sea salt. It’s a dish so balanced it should teach yoga. It’s so good that I’m mute and wide eyed.
There are espressos to end, which come with complimentary madelines and slices of praline.
And then there’s the bill. It is certainly more than we’d initially planned to spend on dinner (though granted, in Sweden, not much is cheap), but I don’t regret a single cent of it.
We thought we’d come for an hour and we stayed for more than four. From the waitstaff we got grand suggestions on where to go for a drink (upstairs at the hidden terrace next door at the Lydmar Hotel) and where to go for decent coffee the next morning.
Matbaren called on memories of some of the places I love most in the world; Momofuku Ssam and St John, and bettered them. Yes it was more expensive, but it also had a generosity of spirit that I haven’t experienced at the other two in our last few visits.
There’s no pretension. There’s no fuss. You choose how much or how little you want. There’s just great things to eat, drink and see.
I’ve learned you can’t always plan when a great meal is going to happen.
So; that’s my confession. Apologies to the Amex.
At Matbaren we slipped into an accidental feast. It confounded expectations and left us smiling for days.
And I wouldn’t change a single thing about it.
Grand Hotel Stockholm,
Sodra Blasieholmshammnen 6,
+46 (0)8 679 35 84