Oaxen Krog is quite possibly the most romantic restaurant on the planet. Set on the small island of Oaxen (meaning “unpleasant island”) southwest of Stockholm, it is not a restaurant that is particularly easy to get to nor is it one that one should try to leave from after dinner. Though not really all that far from Stockholm, the drive takes one through relatively remote areas including some that anyone familiar with the novels of Stieg Larsen will certainly recognize – at least by name anyway.
There is only one way to arrive on the island – by boat. There are no bridges, but fortunately, there is a ferry.Once the ferry comes, it only takes a couple of minutes to cross the narrow channel to Oaxen. Once there, there are not many options for driving. A quick drive to the other side of the island brings one to the restaurant and its associated maritime hotel.
One of the things that makes Oaxen Krog so romantic is its hotel, the Prince van Oranjiën, an old Dutch ship built in 1935 with no apparent restraint on expense. Spending the night in the luxuriously anachronistic cabins is literally half the fun of dining at Oaxen Krog. The boat isn’t necessary for the restaurant to be a great experience, but it does help to make it that much more special.
Another romantic element is the surrounding scenery of the Swedish island coast and the lazy activity passing by. The most romantic element though is the restaurant itself, which features the New Nordic cuisine of Magnus Ek. Ek’s cooking, which uses pristine local ingredients, both grown and foraged, is creative and beautiful, though a familiarity with French technique is apparent as well. Oaxen Krog’s cuisine is not as rustic as Rene Redzepi’s. Ek focuses a bit more on luxury and refinement with a bit more embellishment than Redzepi’s sparer Danish stylings.
We arrived on an overcast day at the end of August and encountered a bit of rain as we checked into the glorious Prince. Fortunately, the light rain stopped and we had a chance to explore a little of the island before dinner. An interlude to play bocce on a deserted court allowed the time to slip by without notice. A change of clothes and a short walk brought us to the restaurant set on a small bluff overlooking the water. We were greeted and seated by Agneta Green, Ek’s lovely wife and the restaurant’s wine guru.
Starting with a glass of Champagne, a crisp, clean and mineral rich Blanc de Noirs from Inflorescence, this was a very pleasant way to sit down. When it came to the menu, we were presented with a few different options, a full tasting menu, four courses or five courses. With the four course option, one selects three dishes from the menu and either a cheese or a dessert course. With the five course menu, one still chooses three savory courses and adds cheese and dessert. While we were deciding on our options we were brought our first amuse, a selection of crisps with two different dips. They included an oniony “sude” crisp, potato crisps with mustard seeds, forest mushroom crisps and crispy pig ears.The 2 dips included one of roasted garlic and another of lavender and sage. All were appropriately crisp and tasty. Of course, we opted for the full tasting menu with wine pairings.
Our next set of amuses came as a group. A salad of local mushroms and lichen, a brisket of veal with cream of artichoke, a radish raviolo with halibut and a mustard cream in between and a drink called “our swim around trhe island.” I’m not typically a big fan of radishes, but the combination with the halibut and mustard was very good – subtle but with a bit of pepperiness from the radish and a little zing from the mustard. The lichen salad was informed with a bit of crispness from some small fried items, the Swedish name of which I didn’t catch. The veal brisket, served on a stick was enhanced nicely by the artichoke cream. An additional “taste from the kitchen” was served, a basted quail egg with crispy pork. The combination of elements on the table really served to highlight Ek’s delight in local ingredients as well as his pleasure with textural contrasts.
Bread service was quite satisfying with some lovely sourdough and brown breads with two types of butter, one from a nearby dairy on the mainland and another, housemade with sunflower seeds.
Paired with a nice Chenin Blanc, the 2007 Vouvray Sec Domaine du Clos Naudin Loire, our first course was raw shrimp from the west coast of Sweden served with an apple terrine, mayonnaise flavored with roasted bread, edible flowers and herbs from Oaxen, an oyster jelly and a “snow” of tarragon that had been sea salt-marinated in lemon juice. This was unlike any combination of anything I’d ever had before with the “snow” being particularly unusual. Pickling is characteristic of Nordic cooking both old and new, but pickled herbs, tarragon or otherwise was previously beyond my experience other than when part of a pickling brine for other things such as dill used for pickling cucumbers. Never before had I had herbs pickled for their own sake and offered as a significant part of a dish rather than used as a flavoring element when pickling other, more substantial things. Perhaps this is simply a testament to my relative lack of experience with Nordic cooking, but I found this refreshing.
Tarragon was not the only herb or vegetable to be pickled for our meal. Our next dish contained minced pickled fennel. It was served as part of a dish that featured venison tartare that was smoked over fire-lit juniper twigs and also came with chanterelle mayonnaise and bleak roe. The plate was finished with some slices of beet as well as some greens and flowers. The smoky aroma of the juniper twigs as the dish came to the table was immensely appetizing. A bit surprising both in the choice of wine as well as its success with the dish was the pairing with a white, an oaky Xarello, the 2007 Nun Vinya del Taus Call Raspallet from the Penedés area of Spain.
More Spanish white wine followed in the form of the 1987 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva from the Rioja. Another theme was continued as well. This time, birch twigs were used a flavor vehicle. They were part of the baking process for cod cheeks, which were cooked for a short time at high temperature. The cheeks were served with a Swedish specialty of salt cured herring using fish from Sweden’s Baltic coast. Nestled amongst the slices of herring was a dollop of pike roe. The cod cheek, herring and roe were all swimming in a delicious broad bean soup while a thin crisp bread and “egg butter” perched along the side of the bowl.
An interim course was brought to the table for us to share. A celeriac root was baked with a salt dough crust for forty minutes at high temperature. The crust was cracked and opened at the table and the root removed. The celeriac was divided into equal portions and served with a house made butter that incorporated black Swedish truffles from the island of Gotland. This butter with enough but not-too-much truffle was served in a curved piece of birch bark and carried the delicious celeriac over the top, making it one of my favorite tastes of the evening.
Our next pouring was a biodynamically made white Burgundy , the 2008 Pouilly Vinzelles Les Quarts Domaine Le Soufrandiere. This complex wine complemented the main fish course, turbot roasted on the bone and lip and tongue of cod served with a dill-spiced ragout of chard and cockle with roasted carrot puree. Additional elements on the plate included a yogurt foam and a semolina crisp. The fish was all minimally cooked and consummately fresh.
Heading into the latter part of our meal, our server poured a red Burgundy, a 2007 Cote de Nuit-Villages Domaine Denis Bachelet. It was a quite serviceable wine to pair with a vegetarian dish of Zucchini from the nearby Skilleby garden confited in rapeseed oil and sage with cous-cous like cauliflower that had been fried in tiny pieces, cream of white beans, a gratine of Oviks cheese, green almonds and a vinegar “softened” with juniper tree. This was an imaginative and totally successful dish.
With the savory portion of our meal heading to a close we were poured a nice red wine, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon from the Languedoc, 2007 Domaine de la Grange des Péres Rouge. The wine, full of red berry fruit had been double decanted and served with the sous-vide (58ºC) cooked locally hunted wild boar steak with rye bread cream, lightly smoked ox marrow, deep-fried parsley, wild oregano and rhubarb. This was a a very rich and hearty dish that would have warmed the body as well in winter as it did on a dreary late summer day.
The cheese course was beautiful and incorporated two cheeses from a local dairy. The first cheese, was initially a hard cheese, but it had been shredded and flavored with their own house grown bay leaf and then reformed. The second cheese was a soft, creamy cheese inspired by Vacherin Mont D’Or. Accompanying the cheeses was a rye crisp, cress, cress flowers, deep fried rice flavored with spruce shoots and a cranberry jelly. The course was a textbook example of how to provide textural contrast within a dish with the soft and hard cheeses, the crispness of the rye cracker, the bounce of the cranberry jam and yet another kind of crisp with the deep-fried rice. The cress provided a softer snap and a bit of pepper as well. Paired with a Marsala Superiore Riserva 10 Anni Marco De Bartoli from Sicily, the overall effect was masterful.
We were served a refreshing pre-dessert of crumbles of a traditional Swedish sweet bread (not sweetbreads) with sea buckthorn, red currant, mint from their greenhouse and a buttermilk sorbet scooped out on top. Whether this is actually a sorbet considering it contains a milk product may be subject to debate, but regardless, it was a wonderful, fun and light dessert. The presence of sea buckthorn had become familiar to me only during this trip, but it’s tutti-frutti flavor was welcome along with its bright red-orange color and the crunch of the grape-nut like sweet-bread crumbles.
The principal dessert, while still quite good, was not as wonderful as the pre-dessert. A vanilla and chocolate marble cake flambeed in the restaurant’s own spiced Aquavit flavored with dill and fennel, was served with blueberry and raspberry jam with boiled yogurt and yogurt ice cream and a Brazil-nut meringue.
During our meal we encountered a very pleasant surprise. The food blogger and bon vivant known as Food Snob was dining at the restaurant as well and he came over to say hello. We had met once before during the noma dinner at Corton in NYC. I am a big fan of his blog. His noma experience last spring was a major inspiration for my own noma experience earlier on this trip, so it was a particular treat to spend some time chatting with him. At the end of the meal, we enjoyed another special treat – a visit with Chef Ek in his kitchen.
After a lovely meal and our chat with Food Snob and another with Chef Magnus Ek, my wife and I made our way back to our room on the Prince. Awakening to beautiful Nordic sunshine, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast on the foredeck just outside of our room. I had booked The Ship Owner’s Suite. Rich in mahogany and brass, it was a throwback to another era. Private and serene, the ship was an oasis of relaxation, a fitting finish to a marvelous, romantic meal. Had we not had more treats in store for us in Stockholm, we may not have left this not-at-all “unpleasant island.”
Quite delectable and totally intriguing, our dinner at Oaxen Krog was one of the most special and unique of our visit to Scandinavia. My wife commented that she really felt as if she were truly eating the forest there. Her sense was heightened by the fact that not only were we dining on many products, plant and animal, that came directly from the woods, but that we were essentially surrounded by the woods as well as the water and that each sensation was magnified by the natural sights, smells and sounds around us, however, subtle they may have been. It is that over-riding sense of place and nature, even in as elegant a dining room as Oaxen Krog, that helped to elevate this to a supremely romantic restaurant. With only one more season in its future with Magnus and Agneta at its helm, Oaxen Krog is that much more romantic, adding the ephemeral to the natural, the elegant and the wild sense of forest and sea. Go, if you can, while you can.