Monday, September 21, 2009

Oaxen Skärgårdskrog - 09/05/2009

SE-153 93 Mörkö
+46 (0) 8 551 531 05

On my way to Finland for my field study, I had a one day stopover in Stockholm. Naturally anytime visiting a new location my first priority is to check out the best restaurants, but with only one day the challenge was picking one. The early front runner was Mathias Dahlgren's Matsalen with its two Michelin Stars and constantly changing menu, that incorporates the best seasonal ingredients. I even booked a hotel in walking distance but at the last minute I learned about Oaxen Skärgårdskrog which while lacking the etoiles, had a higher ranking on the World's 50 Best Restaurants, 32 vs 50 for Matsalen. Moreover, locals tended to consider it the best restaurant in Sweden and as a kicker, it had the longest menu weighing in at 18 courses.

The restaurant is located on the island of Oaxen amidst green fields and forests about 60km outside the city. Not an unmanageable distance with a car, but without one it required a train/bus ride there and another train/taxi ride back. A good 5 hours of my brief time in Stockholm was taken up just getting to and from the restaurant. Regardless of how one travels, the last leg of the trip is a 10 minute ferry ride to the island. Once there I was fortunate to get a ride from the ferryman as the restaurant is on the other side of the island.

Like El Bulli Oaxen Skärgårdskrog is only open half the year, from May to mid-October and again from November to December serving Christmas Smorgasbord. Unlike El Bulli this is less by design and more a result of demand; seems people don't enjoy fine dining in the blistering cold perpetual twilight of Scandinavian winters. Still Chef Magnus Ek and his staff make the most of this enforced downtime to revamp the menu for the coming year.

I've been told the best time to visit is during Summer when one can sit out on the terrace and enjoy the tranquil views the entire night. By the time I arrived it was a bit too cold though I still had a view of the lakeshore and the SS Prince Van Orangien a 1935 Steamer-cum-hotel where diners can stay the night after a long meal.

The restaurant offers an a la carte menu, 5-course and 8-course options, and the Oaxen Tabberas, their 18-course behemoth. Given the rarity of such a trip, I would be remiss if I didn't order the Tabberas and try everything the restaurant had to offer. If you do opt for the Tabberas, it is only offered until 6:30 so be ready for an early dinner. There is a sense of flair and showmanship with the Tabberas, the menu is kept hidden, with the diner learning about the course only as it arrives.

Crispy pigs ear with acetic acid dip - Deep fried Rye bread with caraway spiced potato cream, herring cured coal fish & brown butter vinaigrette
Instead of a traditional meal, the Oaxen Tabberas starts with a few snacks to excite the palate. The crispy pigs ear was incredibly salty and hard, think of a pork rind on steroids. I was quite intimidated by the "Acetic Acid Dip" though acetic acid is simply the ingredient in vinegar that provides the characteristic smell and taste. Still it didn't help matters, caustic and sour were not the flavors to use to balance the overly salty pigs ear. The cured herring and fried rye bread had a bit more textural balance but the fish was still a bit too salty. A rather large and jarring start to the meal, they don't do anything gently in the land of the Vikings.

Cep purée & mushroom jelly - Swedish duck liver rolled in puffed spelt, raisin jelly and purée. Distilled Island (forest) walkabout
The second snack was much more balanced, combining a slight sweet Cep (Porcini) puree with a savory jellied component delicious alone or as a compliment to the "Swedish Foie Gras," a leaner duck liver with a pronounced iron tang. The course comes with a chaser the waiter dubbed "A walk around the island." The restaurant takes leaves, moss, and grass from throughout Oaxen and soaks the mix in water. Eventually the vegetation colors the water a murky brown and it is distilled leaving only a grassy-sweet shot of clear water, quite refreshing if you don't think too much about that intermediate phase.

Bread - with house-made bay leaf butter and lightly salted cow's milk butter
Brioche with pigs blood and raisins - Similar to a pound cake in texture, with a slightly tough crust and spongy inside. The bread has a strong savory-sweetness and is best enjoyed on its own. Easily the most distinctive and best tasting of the four bread options.
Pancake bread - The hard top has a slightly bitter toasty flavor to it but not much else, plain but satisfying.
Sourdough with malt syrup - Very mild for a sourdough, this great with the flavor of the bay leaf
Original house-made bread - The restaurant has been making this bread since it opened 50 years ago. A dense more rustic style, this bread was also quite good with either of the butters.

Cold smoked heart of beef - wild oregano marinated cockles & rock weed chips
The snacks ended on a high note with small slivers of beef heart stuffed in cockles and smoked. When the waiter brought this dish to the table, he neglected to mention the beef heart which ironically is the focus of this course. Imbued with the flavors of woody smoke and oregano, the heart still maintained a rich meaty character and a texture reminiscent of beef tongue, slightly chewy and thoroughly satisfying.

Raw shrimp & lobster with cold smoke - beetroot crudité, sorbet of buttermilk, wild chive juice & pea crust
2007 Côtes du Rhône Blanc Domaine du Trapadis France
The first true course of the dinner was a serving of fresh raw shellfish lightly seasoned with dill, bey leaves, and chives. The waiter took the cold smoke from the previous course and chilled it further, when poured over the bowl it sank into the depression giving a slightly cooked feel to the shrimp and lobster without changing the crisp texture. I am normally not a fan of beets but these were fantastic, having a bright crunchy texture and a pickled marinade masking the typical cloying sweetness. The heaviest part of this course was the buttermilk sorbet which added heft to an otherwise very light dish. The wine is a blend of grenache and clairette with a nose of honeysuckle and white flower though the fragrance belies the dry minerality on the palate.

Herb steamed tartar of wild salmon & cockle - wild herbs, shrimp snow, fennel salad & horseradish foam, served with warm cream cheese
2001 Corton Charlemagne Vincent Girardin Bourgogne France
For the second course the waiter proceeded to pour boiling water on top of a covered plate. The excess runoff falling into groves in the serving table allowing the mystery dish to cook further in the steam. The mystery was revealed to be a tartar of salmon and cockle. Classic pairings of dill, fennel, and horseradish are elegantly presented and make for a delicious combination. The shrimp snow is a bit fishy as are the shrimp crackers served on the sides both of which reminded me of the shrimp chips I used to eat as a kid. The shrimp snow and warm tartar played off one another nicely as did the disparate textural components. Exhibiting good balance, the wine had some stone notes and light citrus character that balanced the oak and nuttiness.

Oyster & perch with lemon verbena & horseradish jelly - broad bean purée & blue clay baked parsley root
2007 Le Sillage La Réserve de Malartic Bordeaux France
In keeping with the presentations, this course was brought out in parchment paper wrapped in hard clay. The clay is broken off with a small wooden pestle revealing the lemon verbena marinated parsley root. The focus of the dish is actually the oyster and perch, with the fish being the standout, absorbing the brine of the oyster and lemon, and possessing an almost jelly like tenderness. The wine paired with this is a white Bordeaux surprisingly sweet on the nose with honey, peaches immediately apparent, very refreshing and easy drinking.

The natural sphere - truffled egg
Easily the simplest course of the night yet one of the most satisfying. The aptly name natural sphere is a truffled egg yolk topped with lobster roe. One bite and the sphere explodes releasing a rush of silken yolk that coats the tongue in a blanket of truffle essence and egg a simple yet incredible pairing. The roe makes itself known on the mid-palate with welcome darts of salinity punctuating the richness of the truffle and egg.

Thin slices of raw deer - marinated with Oaxen juniper berry served with a purée of Jerusalem artichoke, rye bread & coald/warm bleak roe butter sauce
2004 Grattamacco Bianco Bolgheri Toscana Italy eko.
As with the other main courses, this course was finished tableside with the server mixing a spoonful of warm roe into a smooth butter sauce then ladling it over slices of deer. The thinly sliced raw deer was one of the best preparations I've tasted, tender with a primal flavor complimented by the subtle ocean flavors of the roe. Adding the bread gave a bit of roughness and the greens provided a cool refreshing bitterness. A white Super-Tuscan, the Grattamacco possesses a slightly gamy element, well-suited to the deer.

Carbonated tomato from Skilleby
I didn't really get the carbonation from this course but the chilled tartness of the tomato and granite was a welcome relief at this point in the meal.

Baltic cod marinated in seawater - charcoal baked with reed, crab in oat porridge, bouillon of roasted fish bones & rooster, carrot & cucumber
1998 Francoise Bedel L Áme de la Terre Crouttes-Sur-Marne Champagne France
On its own the fish was quite nice, the texture is something between Chilean sea bass and black cod, supple and tender. The light flavor of the fish is accented naturally and imperceptably by the seawater. The bouillon has a wonderful umami essence reminiscent of Japanese Dashi broth. The king crab was marred by the nuttiness of the oat porridge and cooked vegetables only further emphasized the sweetness. Another old full-bodied champagne on the nose, loads of yeast and caramel, yet surprisingly dry and clean on the palate. The wine is stirred in the glass to dispel some of the carbonation which tempers the acidity of the wine.

Puree of pepper from Skilleby - with elder berries capers, Swedish cuttlefish & Norwegian lobster
The langoustine came almost raw but was surprisingly dull in texture. The combination of the red pepper purée and capers provided pungent sweet and sour element. I'm not sure why this didn't come with its own wine but it paired quite nicely with the remnants of the champagne from the last course.

Seared herb spiced top round steak of veal - with deep-fried brisket of veal & molasses bread, cauliflower & loam lichen, sweetbread fried in garlic ash & red wine jus.
1999 Château Gruaud Larose Saint-Julien Bordeaux France
This is my first experience with deep-fried veal, and the result is a juicy slightly tender cut of meat, simply seasoned with herbs, for a very straightforward pepper-steak experience. The rich offal-y flavor of the sweetbread is cut by a strong bitter char from the garlic ash. The wine initially had a slight barnyard funk which blew off to reveal wet leaves and tobacco as well as layers of opulent dark cherry and cassis.

Confit pig's head - terrine of salt baked celeriac, black pudding cream with port wine, figs & walnut cooked in white wine & black pepper
2001 Vacqueyras Château De Tours Rhône Frankrike
When half a pigs head was presented on the serving table I knew good things were about to happen. The waiter said the head is cooked slowly over the course of a week giving the meat a superbly soft texture. I was served only the cheek and I wonder what the restaurant does with the rest of the head. As expected, the lean meat was wonderfully even and tender perfectly flavored with the decadence of melted pig fat. The skin is perfect, crispy throughout with the perfect amount of nearly liquefied fat hanging off it. Reminiscent of the Chinese roast pork I ate as a child but with orders of magnitude more care and effort going into the preparation. A well balanced wine with elements of leather and red berries, quite easy drinking though not necessarily a great combination with the pork.

Cheese truffle - with warm marmalade of arctic raspberries & blackened goat cheese
2009 Oaxen Kir Royal eko.
The "truffle" is a cow's milk cheese from a farm just off the mainland, slightly sweet and creamy, the cheese is rolled in some crumbs that give it a pronounced nuttiness. The truffle rests in a bed of ash blackened goat cheese that tastes almost like black sesame rather than cheese. The cocktail paired with the cheese course is a kir royale made from arctic raspberries (things sound so much cooler with arctic in front of them) The dispenser uses a CO2 cartridge to carbonate the liquid and eject it into the glass. A bit fruitier than the typical Kir Royale but appropriate for the raspberry marmalade paired with the cheese.

Homemade cream cheese - semolina porridge with apple, Swedish sour milk sorbet
An interesting palate cleanser, exhibiting a horrid medicinal sapor, odd given the combination of sour milk, cream cheese and apple porridge.

Mint & cherry flambéed plums - Svarin soaked in Oaxen cherry lemonade, milk chocolate mousse with nut sugar
2004 Arboise Vin de Paille Domaine Tissot Jura France
This meal couldn't end without one more grandiose display, muddled mint and cherry are added to rum then lit to create a bright blue flame. The burning rum is poured over a decadent chocolate mousse and allowed to burn out, giving the mousse a glossy molten top.. I've never been a huge fan of flambée, even though most of the alcohol is burned off, but the remnants give a strong heat that compromises the decadence of the chocolate. The paired wine was surprisingly fruit forward exhibiting a spicy heat and signs of candied citrus and stone fruit.

Blue-berry ice cream - with blue-berry & chervil granité, vanilla macaron, black currant cream & liquorice
1995 Vouvray Moelleux Domaine du Clos Naudin Loire Frankrike
The dessert courses at Oaxen Skärgårdskrog are reversed with chocolate preceding fruit. The macaron was quite one-dimensional, overly hard and lacking the chewy bite one would expect while the blue-berry and chervil had an almost savory flavor. Not a terribly well balanced dessert but still extremely satisfying. The wine was Sauternes-like on the nose but had a pronounced yeastiness on the palate that I found a bit disconcerting.

No meal would be complete without some petit fours and Oaxen Skärgårdskrog certainly does not skimp here. The final course consited of four separate plates with an eclectic mix of cookies, truffles, pralines, and other assorted sweets.
Wooden Box: Shortbread, Panforte, Marmelade, Punch Chocolate
Pralines: Gooseberries, Caramel
Truffles: Mint, Salt Acetic Acid, Cherry
Silver Tray: Oaxen Shots, Honey Comb, Almond Tuile.

In my one dinner in Sweden my goal was to get as wide a sample of Swedish food as possible and I don't think I could have picked any better than Oaxen Skärgårdskrog . When I spoke with Chef Ek, the topic turned to Michelin stars and he explained the restaurant wasn't eligible since it wasn't reachable from Stockholm within 20 minutes. Without this limitation, I have no doubt that Ek and Oaxen Skärgårdskrog would have a star or two.

Swedish food as presented by Oaxen Krog definitely emphasizes salt, herbaceous flavors (dill, fennel, bay leaves), and runs much leaner than classic French. On the whole, the food was quite good and while I wasn't always wowed by the flavor there were a number of exceptional dishes. Combined with the elaborate presentation, exotic location, and diligent service for an unforgettable experience.
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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bottomless Brunch - 07/26/2009

Susan Feniger's Street
742 N. Highland Ave
Los Angeles CA 90038
(323) 203-0500

After 4 days of 10+ hour class sessions I was on a quest to find a bottomless brunch to scrub my brains with alcohol. My first stop was Susan Feniger's Street, but sadly bottomless brunch was no more, still the eclectic international fare was worth a try.

Singapore Kaya Toast - thick coconut jam on Malaysian white toast with soft fried eggs drizzled in dark soy and dusted with white pepper
The sweet nutty jam and soft toast was enjoyable on it's own if a bit one dimensional. The addition of the egg and soy remedied this; giving the dish a complimentary savory component.

Turkish Doughnuts - small spiced pastries fried and then simmered in cardamom rose syrup; served with sour cream, rose hip jam and a side of homemade lamb sausage
Known as Lokma, this is a popular dessert served throughout the Mediterranean, typically sweetened with syrup or honey. Street's preparation uses rose water syrup for sweetness and cardamom to provide a hint of exotic spice. The addition of sour cream provides an interesting contrast, as does the lightly gamy flavor of the lamb sausage.

I heard mixed reviews about Street, with one of my friends referring to it as a "crash course in foreign food for white people." Certainly Street takes some liberties with traditional ethnic dishes, making them more appropriate for the mass market. The concept is interesting enough and the food enjoyable, but without unlimited alcohol there isn't enough here to bring me back.

Ivan Kane's Cafe Was
1521 N. Vine St.
Hollywood, CA 90028
(323) 466-5400

Our second stop was at Ivan Kane's Cafe Was, a traditional French bistro housed in an eccentric Bohemian setting. Happily the restaurant was still offering its bottomless brunch; $15 for all you can drink champagne, mimosas, screwdrivers, or bloody mary's.

Croque Monsieur Sandwich - warm black forest ham/ gruyere gratinée / chips
Make it a Madame - add an egg
Croque Monsieur is the most basic of dishes, basically a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Was' presentation tries an interesting play on this dish, smothering the ham and bread in a layer of gooey cheese granitée. Not bad but the cheese doesn't actually make this sandwich stand out from the norm.

Bistro Burger - 9 oz. house-ground tenderloin / prosciutto / brie / quail egg / herb fries
One of my guilty pleasures is a Fatburger Kingburger with everything including a fried egg, so I always have high hopes for burgers topped with runny eggs. Too bad the saltiness of the prosciutto ruined what would have otherwise been an enjoyable burger.

Like Street, Cafe Was's food alone isn't enough of a draw, but the addition of bottomless champagne and distinctive decor make it a fun place to grab brunch with a group of friends once in a while.
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Monday, September 14, 2009

Wolfgang's Steakhouse - 07/25/2009

445 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210-4819
(310) 385-0640

Back before dinners were multi-course affairs, nothing used to to please me more than a nice rare steak. There was a time that a trip to Morton's or Ruth's Chris would have been the highlight of the month for me. Things have changed a bit since then but from time to time I still enjoy a slab of red meat served with a matching wine.

Crafted in the image of the legendary Peter Luger's, Wolfgang's is a classic steakhouse emphasizing the simple purity of the beef without all the glitz and glamor of restaurants like CUT or STK. The restaurant has long been on my list, even lackluster DineLA reviews couldn't dissuade me from trying the place myself. I finally got the opportunity while entertaining guests for a school project.

2005 Araujo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Eisele Vineyard, Napa Valley, CA
I brought this as a gift for the visiting executives hoping that it would pair well with the steak. The wine is a bold example of California cab, with intense aromas of sweet currant complimented by notes of white flowers, and minerality. The wine ended up being a bit too fruit forward especially with the strong char of the beef but was quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Porterhouse for Four - with German Potatoes, Steamed Spinach, and Sauteed Mushrooms
Wolfgang's specialty like Luger's is the Porterhouse for two or more. Out of our group of 7 four people opted for the restaurant's signature steak. One problem with the group preparation is agreement on doneness. In our group, three of the diners liked their steak rare but one preferred medium-well, we finally settled on medium rare as a compromise. The steak comes out in a pool of butter on a sizzling pan. The beef itself was initially quite good, very tender, though the heavy layer of char gave the meat a pronounced bitterness. During the course of the meal, the steak continued to cook rendering the rest of the meat overly tough. The sides were pretty typical, with the sauteed mushrooms being the best of the bunch.

Overall I was disappointed by the food at Wolfgang's. I understand the restaurant offers an old-fashioned steakhouse experience but with the unbalanced steak and tired sides, the restaurant just feels old.

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