September 8, 2010

the land of ikea and lingonberries

Can you guess where I just returned from? (I already gave it away, didn't I?)

Yup, Stockholm!

My first foray into Scandinavia. This was a work trip (bummer... but the expense account is an inarguable benefit), and I never quite mastered the correct pronunciation of the letter j in Swedish, but by a stroke of luck I was traveling with a friend and fellow foodie conspirator, and we managed to make the most of our time there. Basically, we ate a lot of potatoes and cream sauce.

First attempt at jetlag recovery  -- a cappuccino from the Stationhuset (station house) cafe next to the train station in Saltsjobaden, a seaside area southeast of Stockholm. (Essentially, we were marooned out in the Catskills of Sweden. Beautiful, but nowhere near where we needed to be for work.) Our home base was an old, seen-better-days resort hotel a la The Shining.  No pics (I don't want to give you any nightmares), but you can get a teeny glimpse of the hotel in the photo below.

The hotel was right on the water, so we had lots of beautiful views (not from my room, though  - below my window were a backhoe, a large dirt pit, and some sort of tank they must be planning to bury). There were only 2 restaurants within walking distance. One was the hotel restaurant, which we never tried. The other, Holmen Kök and Bar (kök is Swedish for cooking or kitchen), was a casual dockside place that served all sorts of fresh seafood and traditional Swedish dishes. Lucky for us and our lack of transportation, it was darn good.

The kok and bar was also very popular with the local sailors, who hopped off their boats and across the little dock to grab beers, burgers and fries (eaten in polite Scandinavian style with knife and fork). Great people-watching. It was lovely to sit by the water and eat bowlfuls of fish stew with cod and crayfish, bleak roe toast, cod in cream sauce with potatoes and mushrooms, and delicately cured salmon with potatoes in dill cream sauce. Potatoes. Cream. It took me a few days but I adjusted to my new diet.

We would have eaten there every night, I think, and did the first three, but they're closed on weekdays now that it's almost the end of summer (we totally freaked out when we discovered this, by the way. We. Were. Stranded.)

Coming from 90-plus-degrees-and-humid New York, it was quite a shock to arrive in low-60s-and-dry Stockholm. My big scarf was a trusty companion all week.

Moving on to Stockholm proper, thanks to Rick Steves we discovered that the opera house in the Norrmalm district, near the Royal Palace, has some fine eating. The flagship is a fancy and highly rated restaurant called Operakalleren (we didn't go there - too many krona!), but they also have two relatively casual eateries: the cozy Bakfickan ("hip pocket", pictured above) and the slightly larger and more formal Operabaren next door. 

Bakfickan and Operabaren share an open kitchen that turns out expertly prepared, traditional Swedish specialties for the mostly local crowd: pickled herring five ways (including cream sauce, mustard sauce, and an especially pungent Baltic variety), lightly grilled gravlax, smoked salmon, Swedish meatballs with lingonberries, and Uppsala stew (cubes of tender, corned-beef-style brisket with root vegetables in a light but flavor-packed broth and topped with lots of freshly grated horseradish). Nearly everything was accompanied by a generous portion of perfectly boiled potatoes and cream sauce. Of course.

The locals seemed really into the grilled steak tartare, a generous hockey puck of deep-red chopped beef seared on the flat-top for about 30 seconds on each side to caramelize the exterior and leave the interior burgundy-colored and, ahem, say the least. It was topped with an inch-thick disc of herbed butter and accompanied by fried potatoes, for good measure. Yowza. Though we were mesmerized every time a server walked past with one of these, I never got up the courage to try it.

It's worth a visit to Operabaren just to ogle the gorgeous ceiling, adorned with exquisite stained glass skylights.

Operabaren's Swedish meatballs with cream sauce, mashed potatoes, lingonberries, and pickled cucumber. Oh. My. Goodness. (My only other experience with Swedish meatballs was at an IKEA in Elizabeth, NJ, as a kid - can you believe it?)

A delicious special of lightly grilled gravlax with mustard sauce (I think they snuck some cream in there, too!), fingerlings, and wilted baby spinach. 

And just a few more pics I snapped during the journey.

A cute square in Gamla Stan (old town).

Walking over the bridge between the National Museum and the Modern.

Gamla Stan at night.

PS - I should add that I did not see a single IKEA while in Sweden.
PPS - I did see quite a few Volvos, though.