Some will view it as a stroke of genius, others the work of a madman. A year ago one of Sweden’s most highly regarded and respected chefs, Mathias Dahlgren, made the bold decision to close his two Michelin-starred restaurant, Matsalen, at the opulent Grand Hotel in Stockholm to make way for a daring new concept. In its place sprang Rutabaga (meaning ‘swede’) – a veggie focused restaurant where you won’t find a single piece of meat or fish on the menu.
While we are seeing a gradual evolution towards a more flexible way of eating that no longer makes meat the star of the show, pioneered by the likes of Alain Ducasse, who audaciously removed meat from his menu at his eponymous restaurant at the Plaza Athénée hotel in Paris in 2015, Rutabaga may be the first restaurant of its kind from a two star chef to completely shun meat and fish altogether.
As with any movement, it takes someone bold, brave and a little bit bonkers to get the ball rolling. After experiencing one of the most satisfying and complete meals of my life at Rutabaga, as I sank back in my bar stool enjoying the final sips of a carrot-hued cocktail that blended Bourbon, Aperol, saffron and grapefruit, it felt like I was witnessing the future of fine dining, though it may take years or even decades for the rest of the world to latch on to the idea.
Dahlgren isn’t trying to be pious, nor is he on a mission to turn his guests into vegetarians – he has a French bulldog called Bacon and is as partial to a juicy hunk of meat as the next man – he simply believes that we don’t need to eat meat every day. The best way to experience Rutabaga is at the chef’s table – a small square room next to the main restaurant with a marble-topped counter, blond wood bar stools, low-hung filament bulbs and silver bowls bulging with fennel, where you’re given a ringside seat to the veggie-centric action.
On my visit Dahlgren was busy in the main kitchen, so we were left in the capable hands of Kim Hernandez, a spirited young Canadian who has clocked up stints at The Fat Duck in Bray, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at The Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge and meat mecca St John in Clerkenwell. Enjoying the challenge of convincing consumers that a meal can be complete without meat, Hernandez believes the time has come to make a hero of veg.
“We’re not sacrificing flavour by taking away meat and fish. The world is changing and we need to change with it,” Kim tells me, keeping her cool while single-handedly cooking and plating up an impeccable eight-course tasting menu for our table of 10. The secret to achieving intense and unforgettable flavour experiences at Rutabaga is butter, which is weaved into dishes by the bucket load, illustrating that vegetables aren’t always virtuous – they can be as decadent and downright delicious as the dirtiest burger you’ve wrapped your lips around.
Among the highlights on the tasting menu was a simple combination of carrot, elderflower and smoked crème fraîche that would make Peter Rabbit’s whiskers wet with delight. Another triumph was a punchy tartare of beets, walnuts and porcini whose smoky autumnal flavours evoked memories of bonfire night. The meal was a revelation, and proved that when treated with care and respect, vegetables can be elevated to greatness. Surely Dahlgren is shooting for the stars? “It would be silly to say that we aren’t interested in a Michelin star, but the most important thing for us is to show people that vegetables aren’t boring or basic,” Hernandez insists.
After dinner I slope off satiated to my suite in the Grand Hotel, which boasts a staggeringly beautiful view of the Royal Palace across the water. The devil is in the detail here, from the velvet eye mask and salted caramel chocolate left on my pillow, to the giant marble bath and citrus-scented Acqua di Palma products, one is made to feel like a visiting dignitary. The jewel in the hotel’s crown is its sumptuous gold ballroom, which is modelled on the ballroom at Versailles and framed by a giant chandelier dripping with crystals. Opened by a Frenchman in 1874, the Grand Hotel is home to 18,000 bottles of wine, including a bottle of 1914 Pol Roger. Winston Churchill’s favourite Champagne is so popular with the guests that the hotel accounts for 1% of all the Pol Roger sold in the world.
Copenhagen hogs the ‘New Nordic’ headlines due to René Redzepi and Claus Meyer’s groundbreaking Noma, which changed the restaurant game for good when it opened in 2003 with the dogged determination to shine a light on local seasonal produce prepped in bold new ways. The New Nordic philosophy is a simple one: purity and freshness of flavour is the holy grail. Sweden’s New Nordic hero is Magnus Nilsson, who heads up the two Michelin star Fäviken 500 miles north of Stockholm. Almost all of the ingredients used in Fäviken’s dishes, from ox hearts and potatoes smoked in decomposing leaves, to fish caught by Nilsson’s fair hands, hail from the land surrounding the 16-cover restaurant.
Many of Stockholm’s avant-garde restaurants have taken up the New Nordic gauntlet and are giving a contemporary twist to Swedish classics like pickled herring and ‘salmon pudding’ – a comforting combination of salmon, cream, potatoes and dill. Happily, there is a newfound appreciation for and pride in Swedish cuisine and chefs in Stockholm have been busy scouring old cookbooks to learn traditional pickling, smoking and brining techniques. Exemplifying the new guard of innovative casual dining venues focusing on sharing plates and minimum intervention wines is Woodstockholm, a quirky themed menu restaurant run by five foodies in a furniture store.
Heaving with bright young things on my visit, I was lucky enough to be there while its ‘greatest hits’ menu was running, giving me a snapshot of some of the most successful dishes to have come out of the kitchen. Among them was ‘Aphrodisiac’ – a sublime scallop tartare served in its shell with borage, salmon roe, oyster mayo and cucumber snow inspired by Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Another hit was a French onion soup with an umami-rich Parmesan base that pays homage to Julia Child.
Affectionately dubbed ‘beauty on water’ by the Swedes, Stockholm is a floating city formed from 14 interconnecting islands where Lake Mälaren flows into the Baltic. With 30% of the city made up of water and a further 30% dedicated to green space, the most populous city of the Nordic countries was founded in 1252. Those who suffer when there is a lack of light would be wise not to visit in December when the city sees just six hours of daylight. Conversely, the sun barely sets in midsummer, when it stays light for 18 hours a day. During the dark days of winter Swedes indulge in ‘mys’, their version of ‘hygge’ (the Danish term for contentment derived from cosiness). Instead of wishing winter away, the cosiness of the season is celebrated with roaring fires, chunky knits and lashings of cake.
Another concept pioneered by the Swedes that is slowly seeping into the British consciousness is that of ‘lagom’, a Goldilocks-like notion of having just the right amount of something – not too little and not too much. If any nation can make moderation sexy it’s the Swedes. Like the locals, Stockholm is a liberal, dynamic and ever-evolving city at the forefront of dining and design trends. The Gamla Stan (old town) is a Dickensian maze of narrow cobbled streets, quaint bakeries and cosy coffee houses.
Pastry is worshipped here with near religious zeal. Locals stop like clockwork at 3pm each day to indulge in the heavenly ritual of the ‘fika’ – enjoying a coffee and a cake with friends, family and colleagues. The Swedes drink more coffee than any other nation in the world save for the Fins. They are also one of the world’s greatest consumers of sweet treats. During a meander around Stockholm I stumble upon a shop almost entirely dedicated to selling salted liquorice. Bakeries are dotted around the city like sugar sprinkles, each boasting their own secret recipes for Sweden’s most popular pastry – the cinnamon bun.
One of Stockholm’s most beloved bakeries is Bageri Petrus in Södermalm, run by angelic alchemist Petrus Jakobsson, who is so passionate about pastry he has a croissant tattooed on one arm and a rolling pin on the other. The young father of four opened Petrus back in 2012, and it quickly built up a cult following. It’s common to see queues snaking round the block of locals keen to get their hands on his signature sourdough and semla – a cardamom-spiced bun filled with almond cream traditionally made at Easter.
During an early morning tour of his bakery, Petrus speaks with unbridled enthusiasm about bread. “Bread is alive, you can’t control it, which is what makes baking so exciting,” he says as he hands me a sliver of sourdough slathered with salted butter. That first taste of the divine union of steaming hot tangy bread with rich oozing butter is one that will stay with me forever. “I’m keen to reinterpret classic Swedish pastries for a modern audience,” Petrus says, “but I get a lot of old ladies coming in who tell me that my cakes remind them of their childhood.”
More information on what to do while you’re in Stockholm can be found at www.visitstockholm.com.