When I’m invited to celebrate 7 years of Maaemo in Oslo, I wonder how seven whole years have passed since its inception (no mean feat for any restaurant), and yet I still haven’t fully explored the cuisine of chef Esben Holmboe Bang. It seems like the perfect excuse to discover more about this lauded chef’s cuisine – Maaemo holds three stars and sits at number 79 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 51-100 list. Despite tasting a smattering of dishes at a collaboration with two of my favorite chefs, Azurmendi’s Eneko Atxa and Geranium’s Rasmus Kofoed, I’m yet to taste what really makes this chef tick.
Cue a 7 hour flight to Oslo, freezing temperatures, cinematic landscapes, 25 km of pounding Oslo pavements and a curious appetite for Norwegian cuisine.
Strolling through the crisp autumn Oslo air (crisp is probably an understatement, though locals will tell you 2 degrees is positively balmy), you’d be forgiven for feeling a tad lost when Google maps announces you’ve arrived at your prestigious destination. Thankfully, a Maaemo staffer spots my wayward ambling around the courtyard below and rescues me from my confusion before I turn into an ice cube. For your reference, future diners, Maaemo is not at street level but perched on the first floor of a modern office building, betwixt a flight of stairs and a dramatic bridge that seems to disappear into the fog. Oslo doesn’t seem to like to announce it’s restaurants and bars, rather you just need to ‘know where to go’. I dare say being a signwriter in this town must be a lean profession.
Entering Maaemo, I’m immediately impressed – I cannot believe this venue is seven years old. It’s gorgeous – modern and architectural, with a moody monochrome aesthetic almost as cool as the Nordic breeze prevailing outside – yet the soft linens, animal furs, candlelight and tabletop fauna bring a countering warmth. It’s the perfect spot from which to gaze upon the ever changing Oslo weather – my view of the bridge and mountainscape outside changing from crystal clear to ominous and foggy in what seems like mere minutes.
A glass of brut nature is delivered to my table alongside a hand towel scented with the most beautiful rose fragrance, signaling the snacks will be more finger-food than cutlery-required (my only gripe – the cobalt blue hand towels felt totally out of place in such a monochromatic environment). Commencing with Chicken feet cooked with grains, chicken liver and fermented lingonberry juice. Yes, a chicken foot outside a Chinese kitchen sounds unusual, and yes, you’re supposed to eat it in its entirety – but don’t worry, the bones from the chicken feet have been painstakingly removed. Just don’t wait too long to eat this bite (or two), it needs to be eaten quickly to retain its crispiness. The feather-like plume of leaves on top covered in but a kiss of dew droplets had me racking my brain as to why I simply couldn’t capture a photo that portrays the beauty of this bite as it was in the flesh. A gorgeous start.
Snack number two, Crispy sourdough with mushrooms, is a ball of sourdough dough (this is truly an annoyingly repetitive description, but necessary) deep fried, topped with ceps puree and truffle – yes, it’s delicious. A pop of acidity arrives with the Cornet with caramelized yeast and pickled mustard seeds, followed by one of my favorite courses of the meal, “Lompe” with glazed cabbage and horseradish. Described as peasant food, this potato pancake with its beautiful red onion rings rises far above it’s humble introduction.
Fresh cheese made one hour ago from raw milk from a single cow, hazelnut and black currant proudly boasts of the single cow that produces Maaemo’s abundant dairy – and given all the butter used in this kitchen, she’s clearly quite a productive one. Oh, and it’s a lovely delicate dish too. Speaking of lovely and delicate, those are two adjectives that would do a good job of describing the Fjellmandel-potato from Telelmark, damson and cave aged cheese fry Hitra, in essence, a potato puree with cheese foam – decadent and delicious would feel right at home too.
White asparagus from last year, fermented white asparagus and chamomile showcases the product well, a note of acidity from the raw fermented asparagus juice cutting through the buttery sauce.
Baked celeriac with very salt butter, mushroom and fermented celeriac dash is indeed as salty as its description, but deliciously so, masterfully walking right up to the line of too salty without crossing it. What appears as a perfectly round disc of celeriac is in fact made up of many individual slices, just more of Maaemo’s attention to detail shining through. Celeriac should always be treated as well as this.
Much like Geranium, Maaemo’s bread course arrives late in the game. Bread and butter, freshly milled Norwegian heritage wheat and our very own butter is served alongside a rather lovely beer, apparently harking back to the days of mixing old bread and beer together as a beer porridge of sorts. Thankfully, however, these were served separate (and the bread was definitely fresh). We were again offered hand towels before the bread – an excellent detail that backs up their three-star rating.
“Rømmegrøt” – a porridge of very sour cream, smoke reindeer heart and salted butter with plum vinegar is quintessentially Nordic – you simply can’t visit Norway without a taste of reindeer heart. Personally, I found this dish too – just a spoon was enough for me, but it was interesting nonetheless. The next dish, Quail egg gently cooked in roast bone marrow, cured mutton and charred onions was another hearty dish that packs a whopping amount of richness into a tiny package.
Aged pigeon from the girl, our miso, salted plums and theme is gorgeously tender, swimming in a puddle of rich yet light miso tinged sauce – another superb plate that visually echoes the delicately topped chicken foot that commenced the meal.
I can’t say I’ve been a fan of blue cheese since I spent a year overdosing on it circa 2005, but Maaemo’s Frozen blue cheese with pickled black trumped mushroom, a very young cheese turned into a fine powder atop the mushroom gel, won me over enough to finish the delicate portion.
The palate cleanser sorbet, Fermented blueberries, caramelized goats milk and fragrant rhubarb root is admittedly really not my cup of tea, given my distaste for all things goat related. On the other hand, Brown butter ice-cream with molasses and roasted hazelnuts, was dessert perfection for my palate. It wouldn’t be Maaemo without a good dose of butter – rather humorous to see it even popping up as an ice cream topping!
Warm Norwegian waffles made with beef fat and koi grains, brown cheese, pressured berries and whipped rømme is Maaemo’s signature finale, and quite a refreshing take on petit fours. The beef fat adds a certain umami to these waffles, rather delicious just by themselves. They’re also served with a brown cheese, cream and jams – I avoid all, as the jams and cream are not anywhere near as sweet kind as most of us are used to, and well, the brown cheese is of course goat-derived. It’s not usually served with butter, but the staff remembered my comment from my lunch the day prior and made sure butter was there before I could ask when I again had this dish at the anniversary dinner the next day. Just one of the many reasons why Maaemo has three stars.
After my visit, it’s easy to see why Maaemo has made it to the seven year mark. The combination of a wonderful tasting menu experience – one that pleases the palate, and warms the soul in a uniquely Norwegian fashion – with fantastic staff and some great wines, is one that’s sure to take them to the ten year milestone and then some.