Matbaren – A Balanced Equation

Matbaren
Mathias Dahlgren
Grand Hôtel Stockholm
Södra Blasieholmshamnen 6
10327 Stockholm
Website
Map
Online Reservations (for Matbaren only, you must call for Matsalen)
Phone Reservations: +46 (0)8 679 3584

  • The menu at Matbaren changes every day and all dishes are served as ‘small plates’ (though some are not that small). The restaurant recommends 2-4 dishes per person, and prices range between SEK 135 – 315, or £12.50 – 30.00 (on average about SEK 250, or £23). There are 3-4 vegetarian options each day.
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

I had a superb meal and a wonderful time at Matbaren, Mathias Dahlgren’s more casual eatery in central Stockholm. It holds a Michelin star and deserves it. The intensity and balance of flavors in his food is memorable and the setting of Matbaren achieves a wonderful balance between the fun and the formal. The restaurant (which is only nominally a ‘bar’) is by no means cheap, but if you fancy a stimulating meal in a great setting, and don’t mind splurging a bit, look no further.

Entering the grand

I am fortunate enough to travel to Stockholm fairly often. I love the place no matter what the season. It always seems peaceful and content with itself. The air is crisp and you are surrounded by clear water in many of the main areas of the city. The people are straight forward and friendly in their own way.

My only frustration with these trips is that I am normally too consumed with work to be able to spend time exploring the more exciting culinary experiences that Stockholm has to offer, and it boasts many – from the simple to the more refined.

However, on my last trip in mid-October I was determined to at the very least pay homage to Sweden’s brightest star in the culinary world, that being Mathias Dahlgren. For those of you not familiar with the name, here’s a potted history. He was the proprietor of Bon Lloc from 1996-2005, which held a macaron in the Michelin guide. In 2007, he braved it on his own and opened up two restaurants in the Grand Hôtel Stockholm. One is a private dining salon called Matsalen which only has 38 covers and currently holds two of those Michelin macarons. The other, Matbaren, is nominally called a ‘bar’ (although it only accepts dining guests), but is no slouch, holding its own star from the man dressed in puffy white inner-tubes.

Chef Dahlgren’s flagship restaurant was recently voted #25 in the most recent, and now well-established, San Pellegrino’s The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and is only the second Swedish restaurant to hold two Michelin stars. He also holds the distinction of having been the recipient of Kockarnas Kock (‘Chef of all Chefs’, or Swedish Chef of the Year) four separate times, and is the only Swedish chef to have won the Bocuse d’Or.

Given my time constraints, and the probable difficulty in scoring a reservation at the private dining room at short notice, I opted to go to Matbaren, which was facilitated with ease only a few days before through their online booking system. I was meant to go with a colleague, but on the night of our reservation, we ended up hanging out with some of his friends at a casual restaurant called B.A.R. (coincidentally just behind Mathias Dahlgren), which was pleasant enough but the food was pretty ‘meh’. Nevertheless, undeterred, I booked a table for the following night and decided that I would go solo if need be.

The approach

I made my way across Skeppsbron, and over the bridge on a quite a chilly Nordic night, with the illuminated facade of the Grand Hôtel beckoning.

The vibe

Upon entering the very attractive room, I immediately liked the atmosphere and vibe of the place. The bar (where you can have the full menu) was still completely full and there were a few tables of two left, so I took one next to the window, which afforded a nice view of the room. The décor was very Scandinavian, with bright red accents throughout and some wonderfully playful high-backed white spindled chairs in the corner. The room exuded that difficult to achieve balance between the casual and the formal, and had a good energy without verging toward the frenetic.

The open kitchen

The rather small kitchen is visible through a glass wall, and the chefs were operating in a quiet, controlled and precise manner throughout my meal.

The table

My waiter came over to explain how the menu worked. The menu at Matbaren changes each day and is printed on brown paper – oh-so current, no? – within your wooden tray. The food is arranged into four sections (‘From our Country’, ‘From Other Countries’, ‘From the Plant World’ and ‘From the Pastry’ – i.e. desserts), and there are 3-4 dishes in each group. All dishes are presented in the format of ‘small plates’ and the restaurant recommends 2-4 dishes per person. They also have a very good selection of local beers and an interesting selection of wines by the glass. Also within your tray is a brown bag with the current day’s date stamped on it, which contains some crisp Swedish crackers, and on the right they place a small helping of butter with a little wooden spatula.

A memorable quartet

I would like to say at the outset that the service – which was solely provided by my one waiter – was phenomenal. He answered all of my questions without fail (even some fairly obscure ones) and was friendly at the same time as being professional and efficient in what was quite a busy dining room for most of the evening.

Crisp bread

After we decided on what my first course and accompanying wine would be, I opened up that brown paper bag and tasted some of the crisp bread, which was good, but even better when smeared with a touch of the creamy butter.

Creamy butter

I was also offered some other bread, of which I selected a white sourdough, which was excellent. They don’t do their baking in-house but rather source their breads from one of the best bakeries in Stockholm, whose name of course now escapes me.

Plate 1: Pumpkin & Broccoli, Truffle, Watercress, Hazelnut, Parmesan

I decided to start off with the pumpkin and broccoli as it sounded like a light dish and was recommended by the waiter (I had also eyed it myself). The green elements masked a base of faintly orange pumpkin cream, apparently a native variety that was in season at the time. While appearing to be a very simple plate of food, I actually found it to be quite complex in flavor and definitely more than the sum of its parts.

The pumpkin cream itself was rich and sweet, but not too much so. This was enhanced by the surprisingly pungent and concentrated flavor of the truffles, which were from the nearby island of Gotland (a popular summer vacation destination for Stockholm residents in the middle of the Baltic Sea). The truffles were fabulous – again full of flavor, but just restrained enough not to dominate the plate. The simply steamed broccoli served as a neutralizer of sorts, while the chopped hazelnuts (or were they actually almonds?) added bits of sweetness and textural variation. The hint of parmesan also lent a little dose of acidity to the sweetness of the pumpkin and the richness of the truffles. This was a really accomplished and harmonic dish that showed off the produce of the region and the season. The broccoli was a tad too chewy for my liking but I think it was probably intentionally cooked this way. 8/10.

The waiter recommended pairing this dish with the 2009 Mâcon-Charnay from Domaine Cordier (Bourgogne, France). This white Burgundy was rich and intense, but also refreshing and would give many a good wine from the nearby Côte d’Or a run for their money. It was a match made in heaven with the vegetables.

Plate 2: Sashimi of Salma Salmon & Reindeer, Avocado, Ginger, Horseradish

First of all, sorry about the appalling lighting in the photo – I’m still trying to get to grips with my little Canon. This is apparently one of Mathias Dahlgren’s signature dishes at the bar. I liked it a lot, but wasn’t wholly enamoured. The presentation was beautiful, I have to say, and the conceit was certainly clever. It is sort of a de-constructed sushi/sashimi box lunch. You’ve got the salmon, which I didn’t think was particularly memorable (it tasted farmed, but I didn’t enquire); you’ve got the ginger, but it’s fresh and not pickled; you’ve got the horseradish, i.e. wasabi, but it isn’t green (though the avocado is); and then you’ve got beads of tapioca, which have been soaked in soy sauce, lying on top…so while it appears to be fish roe it’s actually the soy sauce into which you’d normally dip the sashimi or sushi.

There are, however, two rather intriguing additions: avocado and reindeer carpaccio. They both somehow worked, despite my culinary logic telling me they shouldn’t. The softness of the avocado didn’t bother me, and its mild creaminess actually worked well with the sharpness present in the dish. The reindeer itself was excellent and somehow didn’t stick out like a sore thumb either – it was rich but certainly not overpowering.

I liked this dish, and thought it was an interesting take on a sushi/sashimi box meal, but it’s not what lingered in my memory a few days after the meal. 7/10.

The suggested wine pairing was a young German Riesling named Jacobus (2009) from Peter Jakob Kühn in Rheingau. It was an intense and unique Riesling in a very dry style which complemented the dish very well. Its biodynamic roots (pardon the pun) definitely showed through well.

Plate 3: Baked Farm Egg from Sanda Farm, Forest Mushrooms, Garlic, Parsley, New Potatoes

This was quite possibly my favorite dish of the evening – for me, it was really all about the mushrooms. They had such a deep, rich flavor and were some of the better ones I can remember tasting. Again, I felt the dish was perfectly balanced, with the soft and creamy new potatoes lending a fairly mellow base (with their crispy counterparts in ‘chip’ format providing both saltiness and crunch), and the garlic and parsley both coming through just enough. I detected the presence of a rich, buttery and unique oil, which I enquired about, and proved to be a bit of a revelation…but more on that later. Oh yes, the egg! You can see below a diagram of why it’s called a 63° egg as illustrated on the menu, and yes, it was very good, yielding a creamy yellow yolk, which added the final textural component to this superb dish. It didn’t look or sound like much, but it sure made up for that in taste! 9/10.

Math for eggheads

The suggested liquid partner was a lovely Californian Pinot Noir, which I had read about but never had the opportunity to taste. It was the 2008 Garnet from Saintsbury (Carneros, CA) and I liked it on its own but didn’t think it integrated all that well with the egg and mushroom flavors. I think I personally would have tried for a white wine to drink with the dish – but these things are very subjective.

Dessert: Baked Wild Chocolate from Bolivia, Sour Cream, Toffee Ice Cream, Nuts

There’s not a whole lot to say about this chocolate dessert…but in a good way. My menu informed me that they have sold 28,967 of these since opening the restaurant in 2007, but the waiter said they’ve actually sold over 30,000. A decadent baked chocolate cake revealed a molten chocolate core, which melded nicely with the intense dollop of toffee residing on top. This was enhanced by a superb toffee ice cream and just the right amount of sour cream to cut through all that sweetness and gooeyness.

Aforementioned ‘gooeyness’

The addition of chopped nuts added the necessary crunch factor and it all worked together in harmony. It wasn’t the most original dessert I’ve ever had, but it was certainly excellent and very satisfying. 8/10.

2008 Vin doux Naturel Vendage, Domaine Pouderoux (Maury, France)

The sweet red wine that I drank with the dessert was my favorite out of the four wines I tasted that evening, and was also the best pairing. The light Grenache wine was sweet, but not cloyingly so, and retained a good streak of acidity to preserve its freshness. Red berry fruits – I noted raspberry most distinctly – abounded and I think I could have drank a whole bottle myself as dessert on its own…pure pleasure. It also went very nicely with the dark chocolate of the dessert. Chocolate and raspberries is a classic combination, I suppose.

Single macchiato

I finished off the meal with an espresso macchiato. Besides the coffee being very good itself, what I particularly liked was the fact that they brought out a silver pot of steamed milk (which had very fine foam), and after the waiter placed a dollop of foam on top. I was allowed to do with the milk as I pleased (I actually left it as it was served). Nice touch, though.

Petit fours

The bowl of petit fours that came with the coffee contained little round Madeleines that were delicately flavored with lemon and some dark chocolate with hefty chunks of hazelnut and a smattering of sea salt. Both were very tasty and I’m sort of ashamed to say that I ate the whole lot. Greedy me.

In the kitchen

Near the end of the meal I asked my ever-effervescent waiter if Mathias was in the kitchen today, to which he replied ‘yes’, and asked if I would like to meet him. He graciously took a minute to come and say hello and I was struck by his understated personality. After the meal, I asked the waiter if I could have the name of the olive oil that I had found so intriguing (it is from the arbequina olive and this particular version was from Spain). He explained that it is much less spicy than typical Italian oils and this is why they used it in particular dishes.

Mathias show me ‘THAT’ olive oil

He went to the kitchen to make sure he had the name right, and called me over to show me a bottle of the stuff. At that moment, Mathias came in from the back door in the kitchen and asked what was going on. He then took the bottle himself and showed it to me, and told me that when he spent time in Napa Valley he was able to find it there as well (I found some online afterward). He then asked me if I’ve ever had oranges, olive oil and salt before. When I said no, he sprung into action.

The chef’s kind offering

He told me that in some parts of Spain, it is a typical thing to eat for breakfast, but of course his version had an extra little element. He gave me a bowl of oranges, orange sorbet, the Spanish arbequina olive oil and sea salt and explained that it covered the “four corners” of taste, being sweet, bitter, sour and salty. The simple concoction certainly provided a nice explosion of flavors in the mouth. He said that he needed to get back to the dinner service and I thanked him again, hardly believing my luck at not only getting to meet him but also sample something straight from his hands. It was the perfect end to a highly enjoyable evening.

Equilibrium

A few things about my meal at Matbaren stood out for me.

Firstly, the flavors had been perfectly balanced in all four dishes I ordered. Everything had been thoroughly thought through and while all of the dishes were rich in flavor, there were no dud notes and every component was complementary. The intensity of the field mushrooms in the third dish I had particularly lingers in my mind. This highlights both the quality of the ingredients – many of which are locally sourced (there is a big emphasis on this) – and also the skill of the kitchen.

Secondly, the setting is exactly right for what the restaurant is purporting to be. It has a great ambience, lively and warm but not overly loud, and the staff is focused on making sure that their guests enjoy themselves while at the same time delivering the right degree of attentiveness.

This brings us to the issue of price. No matter how you slice it, Matbaren is not cheap. With the average price of a small plate above £20, things can add up quickly. That said, I would posit that an average bill at Matbaren is probably less than half the cost of the more exclusive Matsalen, which offers 5-courses and 8-courses for SEK 1500 (£140) and 1250 (£115) respectively (the corresponding wine pairings are SEK 1300 and 950). When all was told, my bill for four dishes and four wines at Matbaren ended up being just over SEK 1300 which is quite punchy even in by the fairly expensive standards of Stockholm.

That said, I was quite happy to pay on this occasion as I had a wonderful time – which is often a big ask when dining alone. I would highly recommend paying a visit to either restaurant if you find yourself in Stockholm and want to splurge on a meal.

From my brief introduction to Mathias Dahlgren’s food, I doubt you’ll be disappointed with it. Just like his illustration of the 63° egg on the restaurant’s menu, which is part humor and part science, I found Matbaren to be a perfectly balanced equation.

Oh, by the way, Matbaren keeps about 7-8 seats free (they are not bookable), so if you find yourself alone and want a good meal, there’s a good chance they’ll have a seat for you at the bar.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: the wine list is concise but well put together and sufficiently diverse. The wines also facilitated some good and varied matching with the food. My only quibble was that they did seem to be quite highly marked up across the board.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Matbaren once, and it was for dinner*

10 thoughts on “Matbaren – A Balanced Equation

  1. Oh that food looks fab! It’s great when chefs (who are very busy in the height of service) can pop out of the kitchen and talk to their guests! What good luck you must have had that night getting him to create you something extra!!

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, it is a great place, I highly recommend it. And yes, was very lucky being able to meet the chef – although he volunteered to make the little dish (I didn’t “get” him to!)🙂

      All the best,

      LF

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  5. Thanks so much for this review. My son and I read it and decided to keep our Matbaren reservation because of it. (The dollar is hideous compared to the kronor, as I’m sure you know.) We were not sorry. We had the same broccoli and pumpkin dish, a variation of the egg dish, several other items you didn’t mention (including one of the most refreshing simple salad of many greens and fresh herbs), and the baked wild chocolate. Each dish was more amazing than the next. The macchiato with the extra steamed milk was a great finish.
    If I am understanding your timeline, you now live in New York. My son lives there and I travel there frequently. Our favorite restaurant is Babbo. I’d also like to recommend a favorite “little” restaurant of ours, Porsena,in the East Village. It’s just a simple pasta restaurant with warm unobtrusive service. It feels like a European restaurant in that we never feel rushed.
    Best,
    Denise

    • Hi Denise,

      Thanks for your comment, and glad you liked the place as much as I did. I am indeed in the NY area now, and know both restaurants well. In fact, I recently attended a special meal at Porsena – you can see some photos on my Flickr account: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laissezfare/sets/72157627932349740/.

      Do let me know of any other recommendations you may have. I hope to be reviewing NY restaurants soon, after a brief lapse in activity on the blog, both for my own site and other publications.

      Best regards.

  6. The Porsena dinner sure sounds like fun. I’m sure you’ve heard of ABC Kitchen. If you haven’t been there, the salted caramel ice cream dessert is a must. I look forward to reading more of your reviews.
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours,
    Denise

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