For different reasons me and the wife had the opportunity to try out both of Sweden´s two star Michelin restaurants on two consecutive weekends, a few months ago. Since situated in Stockholm they have been subject to fierce competition from several other remarkable establishments, with or without stars. Three of these restaurants have been awarded one Michelin star, 1997, 2004 and 2007 respectively. Through the years, I´ve visited them on several occasions and have had the possibility to develop an informed opinion.
Fredsgatan 12 (F12) is in my mind the least special of the group. Despite not ever being a disappointment it´s still not exciting enough to feel really remarkable. Catering to a younger and more hip audience, I feel that it sacrifices originality and dedication on the altar of popularity. A beautiful and central location is a plus, but can´t compensate for the other disadvantages.
Lux Stockholm was the first high-end restaurant in Sweden that I ever visited, and as such has held a special place in my heart ever since. Located on the island of Lilla Essingen, in the old staff cantine of the Electrolux company, it has carved out a very special niche for itself in the Swedish gastronomical landscape. Extremely high quality of both food and service has made it famous, and the possibility of waterside seating in summertime is an added plus. This establishment has a long history of excellence and I´ve made a point of going there at least once a year, without ever having been disappointed. On the contrary, this has been the location of many a truly remarkable exhibition of the culinary arts. After being on sale for a while, the restaurant has downscaled to a slightly simpler format while still keeping its philosophy of locally produced ingredients of the highest class.
Esperanto is situated in the upper parts of the fashionable Östermalm-district, and through the years has been an almost perfect experience. Beautiful ambience in an old theatre building. Friendly and attentive staff that remembers you from your earlier visits (of course aided by computers but still charming). Cutting-edge cuisine with quality and innovation that´s truly remarkable. It doesn´t get much better than this. One of my absolute favourite restaurants and together with Lux the place where I take prominent visitors coming to Stockholm for the first time.
So, what does the two star establishments have to offer that´s better than this? Let´s begin with Restaurant Frantzén.
Frantzén/Lindeberg was the name of the first incarnation of this exceptional place. After working together at the famous Edsbacka Krog, Björn Frantzén and Daniel Lindeberg decided to start a restaurant together, chronicling it´s birth in a highly entertaining blog. My first visit upon their opening 2008 involved the celebration of my brother´s 50th birthday in their chambre separée. Cutting edge cuisine presented by attentive staff catering only to our group, consisting of my closest family, was certainly an unforgettable experience. Classics like “aniseed air” and the inventive dessert “cheeseburger 2.0” dazzled and entertained. A later visit by me and the wife was similarly awe-inspiring, with the clay-baked potatoes being their hitherto single false note.
The first Michelin star arrived as early as 2009, followed by a second one in 2010. May 2013 saw the departure of Daniel Lindeberg, and the name was changed to just Frantzén. The extremely high level of ambition didn´t change however, and since it can accommodate only a limited amount of guests, a visit needs careful planning. Online bookings are accepted one month in advance, and you need to be exactly a month ahead if you want a Friday or Saturday evening spot. That said, let me tell you how our recent night at this establishment turned out. Upon arriving at the restaurant we were greeted by the doorman, an elderly gentleman in a bowler hat ( and umbrella in hand on this particular rainy evening), who not only knew our names but quickly whisked us inside as well as seeing about our coats. The attentive staff quickly presented the menu, which constantly changes based on the best seasonal ingredients available. If there´s something that Frantzén has spent energy and effort on it´s locating the best suppliers of everything that´s used in the restaurant. Mostly small providers based locally, carefully chosen for their quality and sparing no efforts to get the best.
The menu is built around a number of different types of dishes, with the exact formulation depending on the day-to-day availability of ingredients. There´s quite a lot of finishing the dish right at the table going on, with several really nice ideas. A competent wine pairing is available which further elevates the experience. Some of the wines are used for more than one course, which could be interpreted as an interesting way of comparing how the same wine blends with different foods, or as a way to economize. Upon booking you are told how long it will take to enjoy the tasting menu, which could be seen as consumer information, or as a way of telling you when you´re expected to leave your table. The former is of course ok, but the latter represents a really boring current trend amongst Stockholm high-end restaurants. The experience as a whole was extremely nice, with food of extraordinary quality and flawless service. A night at Frantzén is a perfectly choreographed performance of the best gastronomy that Sweden has to offer. The wish to keep everything flowing along easily and seemingly without effort will of course have to be balanced with a menu deserving all the time in the world. When it comes to ambition, knowledge, attention to detail and actual achievement this establishment is second to none.
Mathias Dahlgren is a legendary Swedish chef famous for winning the Bocuse D´Or in 2007. Born and raised in the northern district of Västerbotten, he has been a vocal proponent of a kitchen based on natural and regional ingredients, with a vision focused on quality and tradition. After taking part in the start-up of above mentioned Fredsgatan 12, he indulged in his own obsessions as the mastermind behind the formidable Bon Lloc. Existing for about 10 years and acquiring a Michelin star in the process, this was one of the truly great Stockholm restaurants. I only managed to go there once, which is something I regret profoundly, since this was a remarkable establishment delivering levels of quality unheard of by anyone at the time. The next project by this extraordinary chef was in co-operation with Sweden´s foremost luxury hotel, the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. Two restaurants were developed, the slightly more basic “Matbaren” and the high-end “Matsalen”. Matbaren is available on a day-to-day basis while Matsalen needs to be booked well in advance. Both establishments managed to charm the inspectors of the Guide Michelin, resulting in one star for Matbaren and two stars for Matsalen. Our first visit to Matsalen a few years ago turned out great when it came to the quality of food and service. Eventual complaints were based solely on the presence on the actual night of a large group of people badly suited to this kind of venue. Drinking coffee as a starter and exiting the restaurant to smoke cigarettes between every course is not something that will give you a reputation as a gourmet. The attentive staff handled this in a great way, offering us to move to an unoccupied table by the windows, putting some distance between us and this rather noisy group. After this, everything was flawless.
Our next visit to this great restaurant was planned a month in advance, respecting the booking policy imposed by it´s popularity. Since we of course needed somewhere to stay in Stockholm, I´d also booked a nice room at the Grand Hotel, which was promptly upgraded to a lavish suite with sea view. The restaurant is easily reached by a short walk through the hotel, and we soon found ourselves being shown to our table by the friendly staff. A beautiful presentation on an iPad showed the two menus on offer this particular night, one being chef Dahlgren´s signature “The natural kitchen” and the other one a theme menu built around birds. A pretty tough decision, but we ended up choosing “The natural kitchen”, but with the dessert from the other menu (the staff making the switch without so much as batting an eyelid). A glass of exclusive Champagne accompanied the splendid amuse bouches – fresh radish with reduction of oysters, beetroot with smoked ox marrow, double-baked egg with purée of Jerusalem artichoke along with crispy chicken skin, and finally my personal favourite – rye bread straight from the oven served with smoked butter and smoked cod roe. Simply sublime.
This wonderful beginning was followed by an 8-course menu of nothing less than world-class quality and inventiveness. “Swedish coolness” consisting of scallops with reduction of horseradish and whitefish roe, Swedish squid cooked over open fire, mildly smoked arctic char, variations on celery, pizza with goat cheese and truffle from Gotland, fried breast of tonight´s wild bird, grilled lamb and the special dessert made with arctic raspberry (“åkerbär”). This is a very exclusive berry only growing on select locations in the very north of Sweden. Attempts have been made to cultivate a genetically modified variety of this rare treat, resulting in a commercially available berry with at least some of the aromatic taste of the wild one. “Åkerbär” is something that everyone interested in fine foods should try at least once in their lives.
All in all, this was a night of the best Swedish cuisine imaginable, accompanied by the best service you could ask for. When the wife expressed concerns about the amount of wine included in the wine pairing, she was immediately offered the same package with reduced quantities (the same thing was done at Frantzén, and very appreciated). No-one seemed the least interested in how long we were going to occupy the table, making you feel welcome all the way – just like it should be. Anybody interested in top-quality cuisine should try this restaurant as soon as possible if you haven´t already. Mathias Dahlgren Matsalen is a dream come true.