THE NEW NORDIC food trend continues to make inroads from Midtown Manhattan to northeastern New South Wales. But these days it seems to be stirring the pot most vigorously right at home—in Norway. This is a mild surprise: While other Scandinavian countries have led the charge, until recently, sky-high prices and middling food quality in many of Norway’s restaurants could lead tourists to think of eating there as a necessary evil.
I’ve occasionally visited the country over the decades, chalking up memories of glorious fjords, marvelous museums, $5 gas-station apples, $40 meatloaf slices and fishcakes fit for a hockey match. But after hearing rumors of a Norwegian culinary revolution and mindful of the krone’s recent weakening, I returned to Oslo twice this past year, with an open mind and an open mouth.
The New Nordic movement is closely associated with Denmark, where chef René Redzepi, of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, began to see the vast and often forbidding Nordic region as a veritable hothouse of culinary ideas and overlooked ingredients. Norway, with its short, intense growing season and range in climates and terrains, was already itself awash in excellent and unusual produce—including seafood and butter bound for Noma’s own kitchens. But it finally took an expat Danish chef named Esben Holmboe Bang to airlift New Nordic mojo to Oslo.
In 2010, Mr. Bang opened Maaemo, the restaurant that has set the standard for upscale eating in the entire country. In 2012, it made its debut in Michelin’s Nordic guide with two stars, and last year he got his third star—the first Norway-based chef to win that honor. (Noma, now preparing for a relaunch on a new urban farm, never got beyond two.)
Maaemo’s fixed menu with wine parings tops out at over $550 these days—down from well over $700 a few years ago thanks to exchange rates, but still prohibitive. Instead of a full meal, I stopped by Mr. Bang’s office for a taste or two. I tried an alchemical petit four made from fermented Norwegian buckwheat, coaxed, through roasting, into tasting a lot like chocolate. This fall, Mr. Bang, a towering 35-year-old, is testing out crowberries, an Inuit favorite. “They’re extremely tannic,” he said, “but the high amount of pectin is interesting.”
Maaemo has turned fine dining into a prestige pastime in Oslo, spawning eateries that combine Norwegian ingredients, culinary innovation and moderate prices—a mix that would have been unimaginable five years ago.
Kontrast, opened in late 2013, is the brainchild of Swedish transplant Mikael Svensson. He likes to go intensely local, sourcing in and around Oslo’s own fjord, and he was rewarded last year with his first Michelin star. Early September is the tail end of Norway’s raspberry season, and Kontrast is serving its nearby berries now with a homemade, pale-green sorbet made of yogurt and tangy wood sorrel. The yogurt itself is also homemade, stressed Mr. Svensson, 34.
In contrast to Kontrast, where fixed-menu dinners cost about $180, Bass Oslo, in hipster neighborhood Grünerløkka, offers lower prices and a mix-and-match menu of small-plate possibilities. Gung-ho on natural wines, Bass added a pan-European funk to Nordic flavors. I had mackerel paired with flash-pickled cucumbers. The bartender slipped me an unfiltered Austrian Gewürztraminer to give the dish a lychee-like jolt.
Sentralen, a new restaurant and event complex, is also all-in on small plates. In what could be called a Franco-Nordic taco, Sentralen has found a new way to use lompe, Norway’s take on soft flatbread, by topping it with duck confit, pickled red cabbage, a brown-butter sauce and fresh dill. Earthy and light, it was too delicious for me to fret over whether the ducks were as Norwegian as the lompe.
Another young transplant, Swedish baker Pontus Blomberg, is leading a sourdough-centered rebellion at Handwerk, a new chain of bakeries that uses Norwegian grains and forgoes yeast. His sourdough versions of boller, a Norwegian riff on Scandinavian sweet buns, taste light and tangy, like citrusy brioche.
Norwegian dairy products get high marks throughout Scandinavia, but even the most partisan local foodies were flabbergasted last fall when Kraftkar—a cow’s-milk blue cheese from west Norway—came away with the top prize at the 2016 World Cheese Awards. I stopped by Fromagerie, the city’s leading cheese shop, to chat with owner Gunn Hege Nilsen, who gets her precious Kraftkar shipment once every other week. “It sells out the day it arrives,” she said.
‘I tried a petit four made from fermented Norwegian buckwheat that tasted a lot like chocolate.’
Fromagerie is also a place to find artisanal brunost, or brown cheese, a Norwegian staple made from caramelized whey. One of Norway’s signature products, brunost, with its leather color and sour-toffy taste, is a turnoff for many foreigners. Ms. Nilsen sources hers in a Norwegian fjord, where old-fashioned techniques, like using a preponderance of whey from goat’s milk, mean a spicier taste than the industrial, supermarket versions.
The city’s booming market hall, called Mathallen Oslo, presents a dark Nordic grandeur even on a summer day. I bought up some fine Norwegian produce—like floral strawberries and fruity carrots—and headed back to my Airbnb rental.
On Ms. Nilsen’s advice, I paired fresh strawberries—a summer, not spring, treat in Norway—with fenalår, a rich ham made from leg of lamb; together, they had a fresh intensity, more bracing and interesting than prosciutto and melon.
I wound down my Oslo tour on a rainy summer night at Brutus, a new wine bar in Tøyen, a gentrifying neighborhood in the eastern part of town. Launched last November by a group including John Sonnichsen, a Dane who put in three years as a sommelier at Noma, Brutus excels at small plates and unfiltered wines. Norwegians were complaining all summer about the rain, but it’s paid off, said Mr. Sonnichsen, 31. “The wet summer means it’s an extremely good year for mushrooms.” At Brutus this week, they are grilling duck legs outside and serving them with handpicked chanterelles.
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