Matsalen: “Swedish coolness”
If the BIG asteroid was on it’s way and Bruce Willis wasn’t there to stop it, then I’d want my last meal on earth to be at Matsalen, located at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. One of only two Scandinavian restaurants with a 2-star Michelin rating, it is as the guidebook says, “excellent cuisine, worth a detour.” And just so you know, to get 3-stars is extremely rare. Only 81 restaurants in the world have one, (26 of those are in France).
Photo courtesy of Grand Hotel
For 2-stars, here’s what you can expect at Matsalen: a mind-blowing 4-hour dining extravaganza, more staff to wait on you than a Tudor king, food beyond your wildest imaginations…in short, Matsalen takes “exquisite” to the moon and back.
There are two set menus to choose from, The Water—a 5-course dining excursion, or what we chose, The Natural—a 7-course dining journey that turned into 11-courses by nights end, with the addition of “surprises” from the kitchen.
Now I realize, four hours is a long time to be dining, but not when you’re busy painting raw Nordic seafood, resting on a block of ice, with your horseradish caviar. Really. We painted our food with the sauce using long-handled wooden brushes. The taste was unbelievably decadent. And that was just the first course, “Swedish coolness,” or the third if you count the two “surprises” we gobbled up first: halibut donut holes (they had a fancier name), served with paper-thin chips made from squid ink. After that, a half-cooked hens egg served inside a porcelain egg-shaped bowl resting on what looked like a nest. Now I’m squeamish when it comes to runny yolks but this thing was amazing, smothered in crème fresh, chives and bits of ham.
The second course, fourth if your counting was “Pointy head cabbage & oysters & caviar.” I only remember that because they gave us a copy of the menu as a keepsake to take home, (along with a small loaf of bread for breakfast). To clarify, it didn’t look like cabbage or oysters. It looked like something you see on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with caviar. Delicious.
The fifth course, “Cabbage & smoked pork belly,” was unreal. Sorry to keep using these elusive adjectives, but how do you describe cabbage that literally melts in your mouth and meat sliced so delicately you could read a newspaper through it? The wait staff showed us the cabbage so we could see for ourselves what it looked like before it was cooked whole in the oven for three hours. Our friend asked the waiter, “What cannon was that shot out of?” It looked black and ancient, but inside the vegetable we were eating was milky white.
If I had to choose my favorite course of the meal, it was the sixth, “Black truffle pizza.” I thought I knew pizza, I’ve eaten it my entire life, but this was something entirely out of this world. Shaved truffles piled high on top of a thin crusted round with melted goat cheese. OH MY GOODNESS! The wait staff encouraged us to eat this with our hands. No problem.
The seventh and eighth courses, “Crispy salt baked potatoes with bleak roe from Kalix” and “Wild duck & fried peppers with steamed levain bread,” both were visually stunning and tasty in the extreme. We finished with these and the table was swept clean for our main entrée, “Fried saddle of reindeer calf with yellow and red beets.” Hands down the best meat I have ever eaten (ever). Similar to venison, it was tender and sweet. Between bites I sipped on my rhubarb juice. My drink was perfectly suited to complement my meal. The sommeliers plan it this way, a different wine, or non-alcoholic beverage for each dish, designed to enhance the menu. I had at least 7 different beverages, along with my water that was being continually filled.
The genius of the meal, and I’d imagine all Michelin rated establishments, is that it takes what we think we know about food and transforms it into art. By that I mean employs the ideals of balance and composition, both in flavor and in presentation. By the end we should have felt like we’d swallowed a brick, but the portions were small enough and spaced so well we only felt it was a “light” brick.
Just before the dessert course, we were asked, “Would you like to add a cheese course?” Are you serious? I can only imagine what that would have been like but no, we couldn’t, there was no way possible to eat cheese and then have room for my “Ingrid Marie apple & vanilla ice cream.” The warm soft apples were covered in a crunchy and delicious flaxseed and fried rye crust. Why not? It almost felt healthy.
After that we thought we were done, but no, one last surprise, (bless chef Mathias’ gracious heart), a chocolate course. A white square block plate with a relief of Queen Anne’s lace flowers, was set before each of us. On top was an astounding presentation of chocolate morsels. There was a bite of chocolate cake, a spoonful of chocolate mousse, a smidgen of chocolate sorbet on top of a dusting of cocoa powder and a few other carefully placed dots of chocolaty fudgy stuff. It was the perfect ending to a perfect evening.
We glanced at our watches, 11:30, where had the time gone? The staff escorted us to the door, helped us with our coats (they knew which one was ours) they smiled and joked and waved us good-bye. They knew, and we knew, this was an evening we’d never forget. Really it was no different from watching a ballet, or seeing your favorite sports team execute a well-practiced maneuver; there is inspiration and beauty to be found in anything performed at its absolute peak. And maybe, some of that excellence rubs off. I might not be Mathias, but I could give my kids paint brushes and let them spread ketchup on their hamburgers…now wouldn’t that be fun?
Click here to watch a short movie about the restaurant.
Click here to learn more about chef Mathias Dahlgren.