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Matsalen by Mathias Dahlgren in Stockholm - 2 Michelin stars

Rating: 93.
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In 1997 Mathias Dahlgren won the gold medal in the Bocuse d'Or championship, making him the first Swedish chef to win this competition and the second Scandinavian chef to do so. At the time Mathias Dahlgren was head-chef and owner of the one-star Bon Lloc restaurant in Stockholm. In 2007, two years after he had closed Bon Lloc, Dahlgren opened two new restaurants in one of Stockholm's landmarks, the iconic Grand Hôtel: Matsalen (The Dining Room) and Matbaren (The Food Bar). Matsalen was awarded its first Michelin star in 2008 and a second star followed in 2009, that same year Matbaren was also awarded a Michelin star.

Matsalen is open for dinner Tuesday till Saturday. The evening I was there (30 November 2012) the restaurant had two menus on offer, a 5-course 'Focus on mushroom, truffle and lichens' menu (SEK 1,700) and an 8-course ' The Natural Cuisine' menu (SEK 1,750). I chose the Natural Cuisine menu.

First two bowls with appetizers to share arrived: a piece of crispy cod skin sprinkled with some vinegar, a crunchy squid ink and mussel crisp with lovely intense squid ink flavours and a wafer-thin crispy seaweed and black sesame crisp, the seaweed providing a nice aftertaste and length. Also in the bowl were some smoked haddock croquettes (made with sourdough batter) which had a wonderful light and fluffy filling. In the second bowl were so-called onions of the season (shallot, spring onion, red onion) served with a vinaigrette cream. A wonderful combination of onion flavours and textures, the vinaigrette cream adding a lovely touch of freshness. The braised shallot was soft and sticky, the red onion was nice and sweet and still had a bite to it and the spring onion was lightly charred.

Next up was an amuse bouche: Swedish squid, lobster, cucumber, salmon roe, tapioca, beurre noisette, yoghurt and coriander.
Tender strips of squid and a piece of succulent lobster served on top of some tapioca and garnished with some salmon roe. Fresh, pure, delicate and precise flavours. Nice touch of 'earthiness' from the tapioca and the beurre noisette provided a lovely touch of warmth.

Recently more and more restaurants have started serving bread as a separate course and Matsalen does so too. The bread course is called 'Mathias's first food memory'. A great selection of homemade breads and crackers served with the following accompaniments (from right to left in the picture): a crisp puff with a cream cheese filling and sprinkled with some dried fennel, cold smoked butter, herb cream cheese with cress, whipped lard, Norwegian brown Gjetost cheese and a small tube filled with goat's cheese cream. A delightful but quite substantial bread course but I guess bread of this quality does deserve centre stage.

The first course of the Natural Cuisine menu was called Swedish coolness - raw Nordic seafood, soy, ginger, horseradish. Ultra-fresh langoustine, prawn, salmon and king crab (lightly charred with a blowtorch) served on top of a large rectangular block of ice accompanied by a ginger, horseradish cream, soy and roe dressing served on a separate plate with a brush, so each piece of fish could be brushed with the dressing individually. The quality of the seafood was superb and the king crab was amazing, the chargrilling gave it a lovely buttery finish. I loved the presentation. Don't leave the (shell)fish on the ice too long however; if it becomes too cold the delicate flavours get a bit lost.

Second course, Pointed cabbage, oysters, caviar, 'sea foam', black pepper, parsley. A lovely fresh salad of finely shredded crunchy cabbage and deep-fried cabbage served with a mussel foam, a delicious oyster mayonnaise dressing and some caviar on top. A wonderful dish with great textures and lovely natural marine flavours.

Next the third course: Cabbage, smoked pork belly, consommé, daikon, lovage. The beautiful, thin layer of smoked pork belly was wonderfully meaty. On top of the pork belly was a piece of (3 hour) oven-braised cabbage covered with a light lemon beurre blanc, some crispy pork crackling and thinly sliced pickled daikon. A lovely and elegant pork and cabbage dish with precise flavours, intense but fresh at the same time; all the ingredients on the plate complimented each other beautifully. The pork consommé (not in the photograph) was crystal clear and had the perfect touch of lovage.

On to the fourth course: Egg & Truffle, spinach, Gruyère cheese, sea salt. A crispy puff shell filled with a wonderfully creamy egg and Gruyére cheese emulsion topped with some wilted spinach and very fragrant grated Swedish Gotland truffle. Brilliant simplicity. A wonderful combination of rich and intense flavours, the spinach adding freshness and bitters.

Fifth course, Potatoes, Kalix bleak roe, crème fraîche, beurre noisette. Crisp potato cubes and skin accompanied by the very delicately flavoured Kalix bleak roe (PDO protected). The crème fraîche added a touch of freshness and elegance. An attractive dish but it had a slight lack of intensity: the beurre noisette provided some depth of flavour but not enough to tilt the dish.

Sixth course: Wild duck, fried peppers, natural jus, steamed Levain bread. Well-cooked tender duck served with a delicious grilled green pepper. The intensity of the flavour of the natural jus was fantastic. Wonderful soft and moist bread; perfect for mopping up the natural jus. An inspired dish, but the (char)grilled pepper flavours slightly overpowered the duck which only played a secondary role in this dish. Was this intentional?

Seventh course: Roe deer, leeks, beetroot, watercress, gravy. First a creamy and well-seasoned herb and petal salad arrived. The leek-wrapped roe deer which came next was beautifully cooked. Also on the plate was a lovely sweet and lightly smoked beetroot puree, delicious lightly pickled yellow beetroot and some watercress stalks which were crunchy and peppery. A well-executed dish with clean and fresh flavours that had a nice intensity to it. On the other hand it didn't deliver the warmth and comfort you would hope for from a game dish on a very cold winter's night.

Next up was the extra cheese course (no photograph). A nice selection of Swedish soft and hard cheeses served with some thinly sliced dried Gotland bread. Before the dessert we were served a refreshing palate cleanser: fresh grapes, grape sorbet with some Moscato d'Asti poured over.

Eighth and last course, dessert. Swedish Akero apple, vanilla ice cream, flaxseed, fried rye, browned milk. A gorgeous dessert with wonderful, light and creamy flavours and great textures. Delightful caramelised flavours from the toasty fried rye and flaxseed mixture, which also provided a lovely savoury touch. A simple but very refined dessert.

Mathias Dahlgren is a well-established, confident and prominent Swedish chef; he has been in the business for more than 25 years. His natural cuisine is based on carefully sourced Swedish ingredients and a deeply-held belief that the quality of the ingredients should define the food that he serves. Consequently his food is characterised by pure and delicate flavours; his unadorned, sometimes even minimalistic dishes are beautifully balanced and clean-tasting but sometimes the intentional lightness and elegance lead to a certain lack of flavour intensity. Dahlgren often employs only a few ingredients but he never overworks them and the execution of his dishes is flawless. His style is deliberately restrained but his modern food is inspired and the overall restaurant experience is convincing. In a way the resolute modernity of the world of Mathias Dahlgren, located in the catacombs of the gloriously grand great old Grand, contrasts with its opulent old-world surroundings but it never clashes with them. The wine list may be presented on an iPad and the wines may be mainly biodynamic, but there is linen on the tables, flavour comes before dogma and they kill their prawns before serving them. This is modern Nordic cuisine and very fine it is too.

Posted 25-01-2013


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