New New Nordic Cuisine Takes Hold in Oslo

Fyr Bistronomi & Cocktail Bar is one of the Oslo restaurants redefining the city's culinary scene.

Oslo first registered with many people as a possibly alluring new gastronomic destination in 2016 when the excellent restaurant Maaemo won three Michelin stars. For me, though, the growing culinary appeal of the Norwegian capital isn’t best defined by Michelin — where the dominant DNA is Gallic gastronomic refinement — but rather a delectable local food culture that’s based on the country’s spectacular seafood and produce, amped up by the brevity of its growing season.

The best cooking in Oslo is often found at the growing number of friendly, casual and, for this expensive country, relatively affordable gastro pubs and modern bistro-style tables that serve food inspired by an edgier contemporary idiom of French cooking, la bistronomie.

Much of this cuisine is thrillingly primal, even a little bit blunt, as seen in a funky local love of smoked and fermented foods, the acidulated dairy flavors of brown butter, brown cheese (made from caramelized whey), buttermilk and soured cream. Scandinavian herbs and seasonings like wild wood sorrel, sea buckthorn berries and “Nordic capers” (pickled elderflower berries), punctuate this umami-rich food with their bracing acidity.

There may also be an element of underdog complex at work in the current vivacity of the Norwegian capital’s restaurant scene. “Oslo is a bit like the little brother of Copenhagen and Stockholm,” said Anders Husa, and Oslo native and food blogger, over coffee at Tim Wendelboe, a renowned Oslo coffee shop, “but the dining scene here has been evolving really quickly during the past 10 years, and it’s super focused on quality.”

That’s partly thanks to an abundance of small independent farms, and, Mr. Husa said, “a new generation of farmers returning to traditional ways of farming that respect the environment and produce food that’s healthier and more delicious than what comes from industrialized agriculture. This excellence is giving birth to a culture of terroir. So we’re probably prouder of our food than we’ve ever been before.”

After four days of excellent eating in Oslo last summer, I have come to agree: There’s still sort of a dewy excitement around the idea of trying a new restaurant in the city, and the true north of most Oslo chefs remains the winsome desire to please his or her customers, not guidebook critics. Egalitarian and sincere, Norway’s version of New Nordic cooking is frisky, witty and unpretentious.

Domestic wine production in Norway is almost nil (very small amounts of apple and rhubarb wine are made, along with a tiny quantity of grape-based quaffs), but the country has evolved into one of the most sophisticated wine markets in the world (despite the stringent regulations of the Vinmonopolet, the country’s state-run liquor board). Prices may be high, but many Oslo restaurants have wine lists that rival those in the major cities of wine-producing countries like France, Italy and Spain, and occasionally even better them in terms of the cosmopolitan variety of wines offered.

An ardent new local love of organic, natural and unfiltered wines in Oslo has also led to the birth of a handful of distinctly Norwegian wine-oriented bistros, where a casual meal spins on the axis of often brilliant if occasionally odd wine-and-food pairings. These small-plate eats are a great expression of the off-the-cuff creativity of Oslo chefs, because they allow for so much spontaneity and creativity.

One such spot is Bass Oslo, in the hip Grunerlokka neighborhood. Amid a low-key dining room with exposed cement walls, a plywood bar and black-painted furniture, the menu has no national allegiances other than great seasonal produce and full-bore deliciousness, and so it changes regularly, which makes almost every meal here a one-off event.

During a visit with two Swedish friends, perched on bar stools, we grazed through almost the entire menu; certain dishes immediately registered as the kind of food I knew I would be craving the next day. What the kitchen does really well here are yin-yang miniatures — small dishes with perfectly balanced flavors, like grilled mackerel whose oily richness was buffered by the differing tones of acidity in two garnishes, pickled cucumber and verjus-marinated mustard seeds.

We also scarfed down two orders of their juicy fried free-range chicken with black-bean mayonnaise, and liked the ribs with rhubarb compote so much we ordered them twice. A juicy natural red wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon in France was the perfect pour with these two dishes. This is an easygoing good-times kind of place, which is why it’s packed nightly.

Thorvald Meyers gate 26 C; 47-482-41-489; An average dinner for two, without wine, is 1,000 kroner, about $125. Open for dinner only.

This excellent year-old wine bar with a small-plates menu in the up-and-coming Toyen district, attracts a young, sometimes tattooed clientele — and manages to be polite and friendly in a way that similarly modish places rarely are in, say, New York or London.

Sitting at a high communal table, I started off with a glass of Solhoi, an excellent Norwegian hard apple cider that paired beautifully with roasted red beets with seaweed and nyr (a soft acidic fresh cheese produced at Grondalen Gard, an organic farm 40 minutes outside of Oslo) on a round of flatkokur, a charred rye flatbread from Iceland, which is where the restaurant’s chef, Arnar Jakob Gudmundsson, was born.

Much of the restaurant’s team, in fact, is international, because wealthy Oslo has become a talent magnet for ambitious young Scandinavian chefs and food-and-wine professionals.

Ordering à la carte — there’s also a six-course tasting menu for 595 kroner — I next sampled a brilliant composition of exceptionally succulent mussels hidden in a foamy pool of dulse seaweed mayonnaise with an edible bouquet of pickled angelica and cucumber with mint leaves and flowers. Like many Japanese chefs, Mr. Gudmundsson’s cooking showcases the purity and frank flavors of exceptional local seasonal produce.

The couple sitting next to me, from Trondheim, in the middle of Norway’s long coastline, insisted I try the tempura cod tongue with cod roe fried in butter and celeriac shavings — a rich Nordic comfort-food home run of a dish that paired perfectly with a glass of Côtes du Jura Les Gaudrettes chardonnay. The wine also sang in tune with the barley risotto with oyster mushrooms in cheese sauce that I sampled next.

I finished up with a glass of Colombaia, a Tuscan red, with chewy but full-flavored roast mutton and braised salsify. Brutus is the kind of restaurant where I could happily become a regular.

Eiriks gate 2; 47-22-38-00-88; An average dinner for two, without wine, is 800 kroner. Only open for dinner.

When I arrived at Sebastian Myhre’s bistro, which opened last June, it was still so light out at 9 p.m. that the fireflies in the garden were almost invisible. Stepping through the door, a subtle whiff of charcoal was not a shock: with the Norwegian word for fire in its name, the restaurant would be making major use of a Spanish-made Josper grill, that most essential piece of cooking equipment for a young chef striking out on his or her own in Oslo today.

Why? The city is in the midst of a serious cave-man moment, with a passion for smoke and char that’s so pervasive it shows up in some unlikely places — in the case of Fyr, a smoked potato-and-leek soup and a dessert with smoked cream ice cream.

Though he shares an affinity for grilling with other young Oslo chefs, the base for Mr. Myhre’s creativity is a rigorous classical culinary background. He honed his steely technique at several of the best restaurants in Norway and also did a stint at Per Se in New York, an experience he describes as “invaluable for the experience of working in a professional kitchen with such a relentless goal of excellence.”

Upon my visit, I settled into the dining room, decorated with exposed brick walls, Edison bulbs and an open kitchen — which is to say, all of the recurring visual idioms of the modern Oslo bistro. I chose the six-course tasting menu, an economical way of discovering Mr. Myhre’s style, which is more subtle and sensitive than the hypermasculine cooking that’s so modish in Oslo right now.

An amuse bouche of smoked pork-rind chips with loyrom (vendace roe) and sour cream previewed Mr. Myhre’s palate, which is at once sophisticated and proudly Norwegian. The meal that followed transcended a traditional Norwegian preference for plainness and simplicity with bashfully elegant dishes like a tartare of marinated trout with watercress mayonnaise and an elderflower bouillon that was the essence of the fragile, fleeting Norwegian summer.

Those were followed by a plump, succulent, grilled langoustine from Froya, an island off the middle of Norway’s almost 1,600-mile coastline. Like the Japanese, the Norwegians are ardent seafood lovers, and Froya is renowned for these crustaceans, among other seafood.

White and green asparagus, cooked sous-vide in milk, were garnished with a poached egg, ramson oil, bonito flakes and ramps, the last adding some pleasant astringency to a soothing umami-rich dish. After two pleasantly sinewy meat courses — ox with corn and Trondheim beef grilled on a chunk of Himalayan salt — came the most memorable dish of the meal: Brennende Kjaerlighet (Burning Love), grilled lamb sausage, beets, onions and pancetta with potato purée. It was deeply satisfying, but also poignant: a homage to the chef’s mother, who died when he was a child.

Underhaugsveien 28; 47-459-16-392; The six-course tasting menu, without wine, is 550 kroner; there’s also a nine-course tasting menu for 695 kroner, and an à la carte menu.

I was studying the tiny bubbles rising in a superb flute of De Sousa Grand Cru Reserve Brut Blanc de Blanc when the show began. A delightful Scottish waitress lowered a black metal branch anchored in a round of cement on to my table. She paused for a few seconds to let me take it all in, and then she explained that the garnet-colored slices of meat dangling on hooks were duck breast cured in coffee and juniper. They came accompanied by two canapés of duck liver mousse on phyllo pastry crisps with onion powder.

The pool of golden light from the deep black-enameled suspension lamp overhead turned my table into a sort of intimate stage, which became the venue for the drama of an intriguingly creative, if sometimes eccentric, six-course tasting menu that was rather miraculously perfect from one course to the next.

Mackerel pickled in rhubarb juice and presented on a bed of potato with an herb emulsion and crispy barley was bracingly good, the fruity acidity brightening the oceanic tones of the fish. Another miniature of wild salmon filet with cloudberry vinegar and nettle leaves that created a pleasantly felted feeling on the tongue worked similarly and as the meal became subtler, I learned more about Kontrast’s Swedish-born chef, Mikael Svensson, from the chatty waitress.

Mr. Svensson began cooking when he was 16. After working at a couple of acclaimed restaurants in Spain, he moved back to Scandinavia and settled in Oslo in 2008. He opened Kontrast, his first restaurant as chef-owner, in 2013. In 2015, he moved it to the sleek new setting — floor-to-ceiling windows, polished concrete floors, an open kitchen, bare wooden tables — that it occupies today, and, in 2016, won the Michelin star he still holds.

The meal was beautifully orchestrated, by turns serene (scallops with fresh baby peas and shaved fresh horseradish and a cozy crumb-crusted “pudding” of brown crab) and intense. An example of the latter category: Chicken baked in salted bread dough and then heated in butter with grilled cabbage, topped with dried toasted chicken skin. The different tones of savory flavor stunned. A dessert of cream infused with buckthorn berries with almond crumble and white asparagus ice cream was a flirtatiously suave miniature of a Scandinavian summer — skinny-dipping after a beach picnic.

Mr. Svensson’s cooking refines the wildness of New Nordic cooking without losing its naturalness and occasional naïveté. Out of all of these talents, he may be the best chef working in Oslo right now.

Maridalsveien 15a; 47-21-60-01-01; The six-course tasting menu for two, without wine, is 1,900 kroner.

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