Drab dining—think dreary monochromatic plates of smoked herring, potatoes, and meatballs—once defined Stockholm’s restaurant scene. But in the last five or so years the cobblestoned city has morphed into a very desirable destination for highly innovative cooking. Today’s chefs are creating a new Swedish cuisine, combining local ingredients and traditional recipes with global sensibilities and avant-garde techniques first finessed in the kitchens of Spain, France, and Britain. Like the best haute restaurants in those countries, the top tables in the Swedish capital don’t come cheap (although with the krona now falling against the dollar, dining out here is less pricey than it’s been in recent years). Nonetheless, the latest culinary innovators make eating one’s way through the city well worth the cost of admission.
Pontus Frithiof is the boy wonder of the Stockholm food scene. He opened his first restaurant here—the French-influenced haute-Swedish hot spot Pontus in the Green House—back in 1999, when he was just 26 years old. He closed that place two years ago and has gone in a more casual direction ever since, launching a seafood brasserie and a catering company, and running the culinary side of a small country hotel. The jewel in his crown, though, is the year-old Pontus! (exclamation point included), Stockholm’s most eccentric new restaurant. It occupies three sprawling floors near Stureplan, the plaza that serves as the city’s nightlife center, and it reflects its baby-faced owner’s, shall we say, rather catholic tastes.
On the ground level Frithiof has a takeout oyster and caviar bar as well as a cocktail lounge that doubles as a dim sum parlor. But it’s on the lower level, under a surprisingly soaring ceiling, that he has hidden his high-design haven for new Swedish cuisine. The whole place feels like a hip Scandinavian gastropub. The main dining room’s clubby soundtrack, provided by DJs on the weekends, mixes only somewhat incongruously with the faux library setting. (Photographic murals of book-lined shelves—Albert Camus, Graham Greene—serve as wallpaper.) And the menu is basically just a list of ingredients, so the food sounds simple and earthy, but it’s actually plenty complicated. That roster of seasonal ingredients changes weekly, and the dishes come in different portions, so you can control the size and length of the meal. Confusing? Maybe a bit, but there is a unifying principle here, and that’s the kitchen’s commitment to creating smart mash-ups of old-fashioned Swedish flavors and mod techniques. Take Frithiof’s spin on classic blood pudding. It’s made with the traditional sweetbreads and pig’s blood, but it’s also topped with a tasty apple-cabbage-flavored sphere that could have been created in a chemistry laboratory—a signature trick from the molecular gastronomy playbook. The chef’s vegetable tasting menu has had a more international bent, taking intrepid eaters from melon gazpacho to mojito sorbet to a carrot terrine with yuzu mayo, raw shrimp, and ginger. Note that it’s a vegetable, not vegetarian menu—there might well be veal sausage in that apple–and–white bean tart or bacon crumbs atop those white asparagus. Dinner, $90. At 1 Brunnsgatan; 46-8/5452-7300; pontusfrithiof.com.
Just say no to local! That’s the stand Björn Frantzén and his pastry chef, Daniel Lindeberg, seem to have taken against the locavore hegemony of new Swedish cuisine. These guys spent six years cruising through kitchens abroad and have no qualms about sourcing ingredients from outside Scandinavia. In the 18 months since it opened, this provocative 25-seat debut has become a rare gastronomic pilgrimage site in the otherwise touristy Old Town. The pair serves Nebraska beef with glazed bone marrow, foie gras, and licorice; butter from a small producer in Brittany, the same one used by the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris; and grilled cheese sandwiches made with aged Vacche Rosse Parmigiano-Reggiano, 100-year-old balsamic vinegar from Italy, and Périgord truffles—as opposed to, say, the Swedish variety from Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea.
To opt for the ten-course menu here (there are also somewhat less intensive—and less expensive—six- and eight-course versions) is to spend three or four hours veering from deconstructed Swedish classics to luxurious tableaux of offbeat ingredients, the food becoming increasingly playful as the evening unfolds. For the cheese plate (course six), the chefs arrange tiny morsels on a Plexiglas map illustrating the Tour de France’s route, and a mini iPod broadcasts hammy narration by actor Stellan Skarsgård leading you from one fromage to the next. Following that? The Cheeseburger 2.0, a sweet slider made with a tiny chocolate patty on a macaroon bun. It’s accompanied by raspberry sauce instead of ketchup, fresh mint instead of lettuce, and mango sauce instead of mustard. Tasting menus, from $110. At 21 Lilla Nygatan; 46-8/208-580; frantzen-lindeberg.com.
Many of the most creative chefs working in Stockholm today got their start at this spot, which opened in 1994 and was among the first to jazz up Swedish plats du jour. Chef-owners Melker Andersson and Danyel Couet have come a long way from the carp-roe tacos and reindeer mole they once served here. Today the duo oversees six restaurants around the city, and at this flagship property, which everyone calls F12 (pronounced “ef-tolv”), they mix classic French cuisine with more modern innovations and local ingredients. Inspired by excursions to molecular gastronomy strongholds the world over, the chefs take a playfully theatrical approach to new Swedish cuisine, creating dishes that engage all the senses. Reindeer fillets are topped with fragrant Ingrid Marie apples—a varietal native to northern Europe—and served flambé. Organic salmon farmed just outside Stockholm, in Vaxholm, is smoked at the table, over apple-wood chips that smolder under a tiny glass dome. Organic hen’s eggs from Gotland and mushrooms (chanterelles or black trumpets, among others, depending on the season) arrive at the table as a sort of soup, accompanied by a small bowl of truffle and pine oils, and, believe it or not, dirt. The stuff’s not meant to be eaten, though; it’s a purely olfactory accessory, intended to evoke the aroma of a damp Swedish forest. Perhaps not quite everyone’s cup of tea. Or, more accurately, bowl of peat moss.
The bustling dining room here, which received an elegant makeover in January, is always booked up, with people sticking around particularly late come summer. The terrace takes full advantage of the restaurant’s downtown waterfront location and serves as an alfresco nightclub, opening around 7 p.m. and not closing till 3 a.m. Dinner, $120. At 12 Fredsgatan; 46-8/248-052; f12.se.
In 2005, when Mathias Dahlgren shuttered Bon Lloc, his Nuevo Euro-Latino specialty spot, people thought he was crazy. Who closes a Michelin-starred restaurant? But Dahlgren wanted to refocus his talents entirely on new Swedish cuisine, and that’s just what he’s done at this highly ambitious two-year-old location, which last spring became the first restaurant in Stockholm to earn two Michelin stars. (The only other one nearby is Edsbacka Krog, in the suburb of Sollentuna, about ten miles north of the city.) Top British designer Ilse Crawford did the elegant wood-paneled gray-on-gray dining room, combining modern minimalism with old-fashioned opulence, and it’s become the culinary heart of the newly restored Grand Hôtel Stockholm in the city center’s Norrmalm neighborhood.
As for Dahlgren himself, he grew up on a small family farm and brings a particular rural sensibility to the food—not to mention an almost evangelical commitment to sourcing from within Sweden’s 173,860 square miles. He claims his tasting menu is just six courses, but it includes so many extras—a cocktail snack of truffled popcorn, an intermezzo of arctic angelica sorbet served on a frozen slab of granite—that you actually end up eating more like a dozen.
The flavors here are mostly traditional, while the presentations are quite modern. A classic pickled herring, for example, comes with beet foam. Oddly enough, it’s the bread—Dahlgren’s riff on the classic northern Swedish flatbread, or tunnbröd—that really stands out. The chef goes so far as to give it its own course, sending the tunnbröd to the table underneath a glass cloche, a fragrant cloud of birch-wood smoke swirling around it. Dahlgren’s penchant for the local, by the way, extends to the tableware, too; his wineglasses are from Orrefors, and the steak knives from Mora of Sweden, the company that makes the knives carried by every Swedish Boy Scout. Dinner, $100. At Grand Hôtel Stockholm, 6 Södra Blasieholmshamnen; 46-8/679-3584; mathiasdahlgren.com.
We know, it’s an unfortunate name. But boy is it popular. On Sunday nights, when many restaurants here are closed, the wraparound bar at Rolfs Kök (translation: Rolf’s Kitchen) is elbow-to-elbow with off-duty chefs. The place has the je ne sais quoi of a cross between New York’s Balthazar and the Spotted Pig—a cozy bistro with café tables, simple wooden chairs, and a newspaper rack near the door, where complete strangers have a way of striking up conversations with one other. The exceptional wine list has some 500 bottles from around the world, many priced barely above retail. In 2003 founder Rolf Nilsson sold his then 14-year-old spot to his protégé chef, Johan Jureskog, and the restaurant’s manager, Klas Ljungqvist, and since then it’s become as much of a draw for the food as it once was just for the scene. Jureskog splits his gently priced menu in two: There’s the sort of simple-but-luxurious, hardly tampered-with food that chefs can’t resist—French escargot, jamón ibérico, a good Swedish steak—and then more ambitious stuff like elk–and–foie gras Wellington or ox cheeks cooked sous vide for 12 hours, served with a red-wine sauce and the city’s most buttery truffled potato purée. Dinner, $50. At 41 Tegnérgatan; 46-8/101-696; rolfskok.se.
The Local Look
Swedes are rightfully proud of their ability to set a smart table using largely Swedish products—not least of all their crystal and linen. The country’s best-known glass brands, Orrefors and Kosta Boda, which date from 1898 and 1742, respectively, share a store in the heart of town (15 Birger Jarlsgatan; orrefors.se; kostaboda.com). Svensk Hemslöjd (44 Sveavägen; 46-8/232-115), meanwhile, specializes in all manner of traditional crafts: lace, wooden bowls, and linens from Klässbols, the company that outfits the annual Nobel Banquet. Clas Ohlson (Gallerian, 37 Hamngatan; clasohlson.se) stocks Mora of Sweden knives for the kitchen as well as for rural pursuits like fishing and hunting. And the huge kitchen department on the lower level of the Nordiska Kompaniet department store (18–20 Hamngatan; nk.se), better known as NK, is stuffed with Scandinavian brands, from brightly colored plastic mixing bowls designed by the late Sigvard Bernadotte (a Swedish prince) to porcelain by Rörstrand, the country’s most admired chinamaker. For packable edibles, several stores at Stockholm-Arlanda Airport offer Swedish foodstuffs: giant wheels of crispbread, lingonberry and cloudberry preserves, cans of herring, and dried reindeer meat. (There are reindeer-skin blankets, too, in case it’s chilly on the plane.)—Stephen Whitlock
New Swedish cuisine may be the rage at Stockholm’s top restaurants, but at the traditional café-bakeries known as konditori, old Swedish cakes never went out of style. Not quite the chic coffee bars of Italy or the grand cafés of Austria, the best konditori are old-fashioned—if not downright frumpy—but the breads and cakes found within are splendid. Many are flavored with cardamom or cinnamon, and popular ones include semla (a sweet bun filled with whipped cream and almond paste and eaten during Lent), mazarin (a frosted almond-paste pastry), catalan (a mazarin with a layer of raspberry sauce), prinsesstårta (a sponge cake wrapped in green marzipan and filled with custard and whipped cream), and dammsugare (a marzipan cylinder, the name of which literally means “dust sucker,” since it resembles a vacuum cleaner). konditori can be found all over town, but some of the top places are Vete-Katten (55 Kungsgatan; 46-8/208-405) and Sturekatten (4 Riddargatan; 46-8/611-1612) in the city center, and Thelins (43 Sankt Eriksgatan; 46-8/651-1900) on Kungsholmen, the island just west of the main part of town. Really, though, if a place looks untrendy, with a stout woman of a certain age behind the counter, it’s probably worth stopping in.—S. W.Turning Tables
Many Stockholmers were alarmed when the ten-year-old Vassa Eggen, one of the city’s best restaurants and a perennial favorite with the expense-account crowd, closed in February, reemerging a week later as Vassa Eggen Steak House (dinner, $65; 29 Birger Jarlsgatan; 46-8/216-169; vassaeggen.com). They needn’t have worried, though. The place hasn’t so much gone down-market as it’s just gone democratic—and in socialist Sweden what, really, could be more appropriate? Co-owner Christian Olsson felt that after a decade in business, his restaurant was no longer the sort of place he and his friends would head to on a night off. So, taking inspiration from restaurants like Tom Colicchio’s Craft outposts and Laurent Tourondel’s BLT empire in his wife’s native New York, he did away with the elaborate tasting menus, which once set gourmands back more than $130, and replaced them with an à la carte menu of simpler dishes for a wider range of prices. The steak sandwich, for instance, is now $24, while a four-week-dry-aged entrecôte goes for $57. Most of the restaurant’s beef comes from just north of Stockholm (though there’s also a Dakota rib eye), and all the local meat is aged just outside the city. There are plenty of nonsteak dishes, too, however—using “Steak House” in the name was just Olsson’s way of subverting people’s expectations. “I added it to get a reaction,” says the chef, “since the term has a bit of a negative connotation here.”—S. W.