Review: Donostia

London,
26 September 2012

After yesterday’s many #fails in dining, I really needed a good lunch this day — especially before I head to Heathrow to get back across the Atlantic. This trip has been so long and knackering, and utterly draining, that I was actually looking forward to collapsing on my own sofa and just zone out…

So for this difficult task I chose Donostia — which was very highly regarded and reviewed. I always enjoyed Basque cuisine (Donostia is the name of San Sebastián in Euskara), and the menu looked quite nice. This should be good.

I got there as it just opened for lunch service, taking up a spot on the side counter. Bad move, as they were still prepping and cleaning, and it’s not comfortable to have people carring trays of mucky water and dishes back and forth behind you, and being kicked by the service staff every minute. Spacing a problem on this end. I offered to move but they said it’s not a bother…for who? Sigh…

First of all, my server seems to be either half asleep or hungover, as it was rather inattentive — even as I was the only diner for the first half of my meal. I had to constantly remind other wait staff for a water top-up or for more wine service as he just seemed to be on another planet half the time.

I was disappointed when the one dish I really wanted to try, the fried beef tongue, was off the menu. Instead I went to start with the typical Padrón peppers. It’s hard to screw these things up, but sadly Donostia came close… These utterly bland things, I think they forgot the seasoning. And it was so unbalanced that some of the areas near the stem were not cooked through…

I often use something like Padrón peppers as a test of a kitchen’s competency. Simple dish that can be screwed up easily, like fritto misto in an Italian. So far, it appears my bad food luck from yesterday is following me into today…

Their special of the day is a braised leg of baby lamb. At a hefty 28 quid and untested, I said what the heck. It smelled good. It was good at parts, with some delicate but deep flavours. Perhaps there should have been a little more green on the heavy plate, as this was a main, not a tapa. I should have ordered some greens but again staff did not advise. Not bad of a main, but honestly pricey and not much of a kitchen challenge.

And instead of having a dessert, I decided on tasting their special smoked meats plate, many based from the rare Basque breed kintoa. The ham, on the left, is a rather unspectacular Bayonne ham. The centre is the sausisson and the right is the chorizo made from the kintoa. Both are rather nice, worked as a good dessert for me. But having that lame Bayonne really messed up the balance of this plate for me.

But watching some of the slicing of smoked meats, I wonder what Health & Safety would say about a guy in the middle of slicing ham by hand answering the phone and going back without wiping or washing… Lucky not for my plate, but when you see unhygenic service of food like that, you get worried.

And don’t get me started on the slicing of the jamón. This really reminded me of the terrible cutting I see in NYC (where they should NOT be serving pata negra!). I prefer my ham sliced larger and thin, like how they do it at Cambio de Tercio or El Pirata. These small, 1-pound-coin-sized pieces don’t give the intricacy of the fats, which is the joy of the pata negra. But I see a lot of smaller pieces being wasted (cutter explained to me later that they were the sides and very bitter, but I saw a LOT of red in the bin that morning…). Of course I did not order this…

By this point I made my move out of the restaurant. I was sick of being kicked by the servers in the unfortunate seat with the restaurant getting busier in the late lunch hour. I packed up and left a rather unsatisfactory meal. I know I’m getting picky, but London is capable of so much more.

To me, Donostia has the potential of being excellent, but whether it is them living off their own hype or what, it is nowhere near. The front of the house is a mess, especially if you add the smoked meats handling (that was appalling). But it just seems like another of London’s “new sparks” that actually lack substance beyond a theme and concept. This “New York-fication” of London’s restaurant scene, one that is based on flash and PR, worry me. NYC dining has become so boring, with no one taking real chances anymore. I worry London’s headed in that direction.

Donostia
10 Seymour Place
London, England

London on a Tuesday — a Day Full of Food #Fails…

This past Tuesday, the 25th of September, was just not my day. It’s one of those days that the food gods just chose to work against you every step of the way, and a terrible way to end this long and draining trip. The 25th was my last full day before I head back across the Atlantic, and obviously I hoped for a memorable day.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. The previous evening I had enjoyed a 9-course dinner at Viajante with two good friends. I chose not to write a review because partly the point of the dinner was the good company. After my Maaemo and Yjalaji epic meals, it was hard for anywhere to compare. Although the meal at Viajante was good, I think the twin adventures in Oslo has ruined me for tasting menus for awhile…

Semi-fail in Chelsea…
I headed to lunch with one of my dearest friends at the venerable and reliable Cambio de Tercio, often listed as one of the very best Spanish restaurants outside of Spain. I have always had excellent meals here, and I did not expect anything different. I’m not going to write a review either, as it was more about the company once again. The meal was small as I had planned for more feasting in the afternoon, so we each ordered 2 tapas and ordered a patatas bravas to share. My two were the Padrón peppers and a nice trotter dish.

The food was nice, from the traditional peppers (although the same from El Pirata the other day was a bit better) to the trotters that was nicely spiced. However, I think they forgot our potatoes…an odd miss from this usually spot-on restaurant.

It was also a difficult one for me, as it was in a way a ‘goodbye’ to one of my dearest friends. She was embarking on a major change in life and moving away, and this lunch was like the end of an era. She had been a wonderful friend, a confidant for nearly 8 years, and London will never be the same again. So it was a reflective, melancholic walk back north out of Chelsea that early afternoon…

Semi-Fail in Fitzrovia…
I made my way north via an uncomfortable Northern Line ride (is there any other kind?) and found Bubbledogs &. Now there has been many good write-ups of this odd concept of hot dogs and champagne, and honestly neither of them really appealed to me. But as I know how good the people are behind this restaurant, I went in to check it out. It has been über-popular from all the good PR…

It was not very busy mid-afternoon, and I found out why — I had arrived just before their mid-afternoon break. I had thought that would commence at 4pm, but they were already shutting down by 3.30pm. So that had soured my mood a little (since they shut the bar down too). And the second thing that made the experience start badly was watching my bartender make my cocktail but about to waste and toss the egg yolk. They looked at me incredulously as I asked for the yolk and promptly ate it.

It’s a pet peeve of mine, to stop bars from wasting things like egg yoks. I remember doing this with my own bartenders at the late Elettaria, sacrificing my cardiovascular health to make a point (eating over a dozen raw yolks). I was soured by now, unfortunately. Didn’t help with a pushy wine rep talking the ear off the bartender, who was neglecting service…

The 2 hot dogs arrived, and to be very honest I was disappointed. I eat a hot dog for the sausage/wiener, not the condiments. And at this restaurant it was all about the condiments. The “José” (w/ salsa, avocado, sour cream and pickled jalapeño) didn’t have the kick I had hoped for, and instead drowned out the taste of the meat. The “Sloppie Joe” (chilli, onions and cheese) was also on the underwhelming side, and I got very little out of the meat again. And the bun was crumbling quite a bit.

Maybe I caught them out at the late side of lunch service, but these dogs just didn’t work for me. The people behind this place are awesome and I wish them all the success in the world, but it’s just not me. For me, it has to be about the meat, not the condiments I usually brush off anyway. It has the same problem as the dinner at Gillray’s Steakhouse the other night — good meat, perfect temperature, but bland-tasting base meat — it’s all about the sauces there (condiments here). Oh well…

Total-Fail in Marylebone…
After two not-so-great dining experiences in one afternoon I wandered above the road-of-hell (Oxford Street) west-ward and made for the usually solid MeatLiquor. I have had many a good burgers there and solid cocktails. I wandered in the dark, dank and trashy place that so many love, and with Charlie Daniels blaring, I was finally relaxed…

That didn’t last. I ordered my favourite, the “Full English Martini” — but they told me it’s gone off the menu (I assume they just ran out of the egg). A bad start. The negroni that replaced it wasn’t too hot. The mushroom double burger that came could barely be called a burger. It was so laden with sour-tinging sauce it killed so much of the flavour. The meat? Well, it was disintegrating so much I worry it was soy fillers. I ate as much as I can and just gave up…

I left and instead of hopping on the Tube back to the hotel, I was just so dejected I hopped into a cab back. I didn’t want to stumble into a pub and drink myself into a stupor…

Semi-Fail Finale…Semi-Good Finale…
After a few hours of rest to forget about the three misses this afternoon, I needed somewhere that has not failed me. But I didn’t want to sit anywhere and get loaded the night before flying, so decided on a safe take-away instead.

I headed to Royal China Club on Baker Street, which has never let me down (food-wise). I got there and the manager and bartender recognised me, so the merlot kept flowing as I waited for my food…one positive.

I placed my order and just to show how bad today’s luck was food-wise, they ran out of the one dish I wanted most — the razor clams with garlic chives. Instead it was made with asparagus. It was good, as was the steamed minced pork with salted egg, but it was just not the awesome dishes I have become accustomed from this place.

The only good thing was the wine…I think I drank about a bottle worth, as they just kept topping me up… So if anything, these guys took care of me when I needed it, which is why I would travel across the Atlantic to eat Chinese food.

As I finished my food in my room and near the point of passing out, I reflected on this crappy food day. So much expectation, so many underwhelming results. I didn’t want to leave London with this in my mind, so planned for a good lunch tomorrow before heading to Heathrow. Let’s hope that works better…

Review: Opera Tavern

London,
23 September 2012

London, my former home, is the last stop before I head back across the Atlantic on this massive birthday trip. I am, to be honest, utterly knackered. I just want to rest on my sofa and not think for a few days…but work beckons. So I needed this Sunday to relax. It was utterly pissing down outside in the worst of English summer traditions, and roadways were flooded. Half the Tube was shuttered in post-Olympics works (I’m sure if it wasn’t it would have been down due to rain also). So I wandered down the road in the rain, and realised I was near Drury Lane…which means near Catherine Street…which means near Opera Tavern. Ooh…Sunday impromptu brunch time!

It was pouring and I got there early, so waited outside for a little before walking in at midday. First diner! I nursed myself into a corner bar slot and enjoyed a wonderful and relaxed few hours, especially after the glass of cava reached my hands.

It was early and disgusing outside, so I didn’t expect this ultra-popular restaurant to get full for a little. It filled up slowly as people survived their hangover, their screaming children, the army of tourists confused in the downpour off Drury Lane… I was relaxed, indoors, with cava and very quickly my first snack arrived. It’s positively my favourite thing, crispy pigs ears — sourced from Ibérico pigs. Utterly heavenly… I can eat a bucket of these things…

Soon a second snack, another of my all-time favourites, a plate of padrón peppers. I can eat these things all day. Simple, simple stuff, but just makes me miss being here so much more…

I decided to go a little off my ‘usual’ path this time, since it was a Sunday and I was by myself. I skipped some of my “usuals” at Opera Tavern, such as the fantastic mini Ibérico and foie gras burgers, and the rillions. I decided on one from each of the three categories of tapas. The first, from the vegetables, was the sauteed wild mushrooms with chevril roots and poached egg. I love wild mushrooms. I love chevril. This was a match in heaven…

The fish choice of the day was the deep-fried gurnard (or sea robins), accompanied by fennel and samphire. I am not a big fan of fennel, but I absolutely love samphire. I can eat it all day in any way, raw to sauteed, boiled to broiled. So this worked fantastic. Wished for more samphire tho!!!

The meat choice was more typical of me, the Ibérico presa. This awesome seared meat is just the most tasty thing in the world. The sweetness of the Ibérico comes out, and the additions are probably not necessary. To be honest, they are a little distracting. I actually prefer how it is done at El Pirata, when it’s left unadulterated, just lightly seared… But this was fantasic.

A very nice lunch/brunch, with 3 glasses of cava (should have bought the bottle). Was so much fun I decided on a wee final snack, a trio of complementary and contrasting flavours: another of the pigs ears, the spicy guindilla peppers, and smoked almonds. The almonds and ears are a natural calming agent for the peppers, but not needed. They weren’t as spicy as usual, and I could have thrown them in my mouth like popcorn. The ears remained heavenly, and the almonds, simple but a nice closing snack.

All that with the fourth glass of cava was enough. I headed out in the nasty rainstorm and wandered back to the hotel. I had to run to an event mid-afternoon so needed to get my bearings after this wee exercise in Sunday gluttony. Oh, this is what I love about London…

Opera Tavern
23 Catherine Street
London, England

PS — no, another tradition broken. I did not do a take-away of the pigs ears…

 

Nearing the Final Leg…

This long trek is slowly coming to an end, and for one I am rather glad. I am running out of energy and I have put on an unhappy amount of weight from all the feasting without gym — exacerbated by lack of walking due to injured foot. I am slowly getting back to normal, but…

A brilliant last lunch on the road…
I left Budapest on Saturday the 22nd. It began so nicely that day, with a surprisingly excellent lunch at the Leroy Bistro in Terminal 2A. As I didn’t eat again after that excellent meal at Klassz yesterday, and as I don’t eat breakfast, this was a needed large lunch. I began with a nice asparagus and mushroom cream soup — very strong flavours, which I really love. Surprising for an airport cafe. My main was an excellent dish of pork medallions in lecsó, with a tantalising crispy smoked belly resting on top. It was excellent, but the belly was heaven…mmm… A perfect Magyar send-off for me.

I left the cafe happy, little to realise my day was going to go straight, straight downhill… Here is when the adventure turns very, very sour…beginning with some Chinese tourists trying to hop the queue at boarding (before I started yelling at them).

When the sweet turns to sour…to acid…
The flight to Amsterdam was packed, full of very rude people carrying WAY too much carry-on luggage. And I was very annoyed at the crew for turning blind eye to Dutch carrying too much crap, but berating Hungarians and arguing with Americans over their violins. And of course when some Dutch woman took it upon herself to move my laptop to another overhead bin (not crew, just some crazy cow), crew did not intervene. WTF? KLM is a rubbish airline. Never again.

And of course, I was in a very uncomfortable seat and the crew was rude the entire way, except to Dutch-speaking passangers? I heard a lot of grumbling from others around, including the two Italians next to me. And of course, with all the Dutch carrying WAY too big carry-ons, it took about 20 minutes to de-plane… I curse this airline.

I remember reading that Heathrow was worried about losing transit business to Amsterdam Schiphol…not to worry. It won’t happen.

Shit-hole…or Skip-hole…it’s still a receptacle for crap…
BTW it is pronounced ‘Skip-hole’ so it’s a rubbish receptable. I prefer to call it the incorrect but appropriate ‘Shit-hole’. This monstrosity of an airport outside of Amsterdam is just terrible. Fine, it’s big, lots of runways, and a million flights can come and go. But why? It’s like a glorified holding facility.

I was flying back to London so needed to cross Schengen. I purposely did not book the flight suggested by KLM that had a very short connecting time (I would have missed it). The Schengen border, utterly understaffed, was completely slammed with people. So I just ducked into a pub for a few pints. It didn’t help that the barman was too busy chatting with other tourists to serve people in timely way. This is an airport!

Finally seeing a mild lull in the Schengen queue I paid and went to clear. Of course, when I reached front of queue, they proceeded to shut down most of the desks. Wonderful, the unions of the EU gets its way again. So they consolidated all of us into the other side. So after fighting my way through Schengen I went to get a bottle of water. And approach the gate for London.

Huh? They had a secondary security there that involved the supposedly-banned-by-the-EU millimeter wave backscatter scanner. I refused, as I do anywhere I travel. Had the ‘hard’ patdown (which was pretty soft compared to the US). But they checked my computer power cables? They took my water that I just bought for 3 euro?

And they stuffed us into a waiting area with NO access to water machine or toilets, and enough seats for half the people. This is just ridiculous! We are not cattle, we are not prisoners! Those of you following me on Twitter remember my rants about this…

Leaving the slurry tank…
We boarded the half-empty plane after a long delay and you can see the service difference. The crew was helpful and happy. I find this ‘discrimination’ against Central/East Europe by KLM and Dutch authorities (which I have seen for the last decade, including various “post-flight searches” at Schiphol which is utterly a violation of EU regulations) shocking and the fact people — including my ex-boss Siim Kallas (who is EU Commissioner for Transportation) — are not looking into this very disheartening. #fail

After a pleasant flight I was into Terminal 4, the rubbish terminal at Deathrow. I never thought I’d be happy to see Heathrow, but I was. Even the immigration official was happy (he wanted to hear more about Spitsbergen). Got my bag very quickly, got to Paddington, and finally, the last insult… Why does Paddington employ a person to stand at the escalator to the taxi rank to tell people with bags to use the lift? What a bloody waste of money. And why stand up from his chair and physically block my way up? Is he looking for a fist in the nose? Ridiculous.

This kind of shit keeps happening because no one speaks up about it. And we are all paying for it.

Well, back in London, nothing like it than chatting with the cabbie about footie and food. He said he would have “thumped the fellow” that did that at the escalator… 🙂

Felt normal again. Had to run to an event nearby, and then grabbed a nice takeaway from China City (braised pork belly hotpot, chicken with salted fish) and headed to my hotel to relax.

Shit, there’s a wedding reception, and the bass is still thumping. Shit… At least I’m back in London…almost home…

Review: Klassz

Budapest,
21 September 2012

After my very, very, very liquid dinner last night, I stupidly continued my belated birthday celebrations with a few hours in the casino with more pálinka, and didn’t get back until after 3am. Lost a few bob at the end, the best way for me — no temptation to come back. But that’s a lot of drink… I needed to totally let loose my poor liver, who has been taking it easy this entire trip. So yeah…

Suprisingly (and worryingly) had very little hangover in the morning. Which is why I had no trouble enjoying more wine with a late lunch at the wonderful Klassz bistro on the beautiful and iconic Andrássy út (Avenue), the avenue of the bistros and cafes that makes Budapest what it was and what it is.

I took the cute but useful Metró’s original line (the second oldest underground metro system in the world, from 1894) out to Oktogon and enjoyed the brief walk during a sunny and beautiful Friday afternoon, a nice 18C (64F). It was about 3pm, so it wasn’t too busy — some are still enjoying a long lunch and coffee. I opted to sit inside, as not to be bothered with cigarette smoke…

It is a cute little cafe/bistro, with a very large wine selection. I looked over the menu and chose a nice set to match my food selection. So at first, a nice large pour of an underrated Hungarian white, the Bakó Ambrus Kéknyelű. I didn’t bother with the bread and butter, focusing on the wine before my starter arrive.

To open this late lunch, the starter was a crab soup with baby octopus. The bowl contained two baby octopi chargrilled, then a creamy and aromatic crab soup was poured over the small creatures. The soup was both smooth and aggressive, really boasting a strong crab presence (unlike some other ‘crab soup’ you get that just smells like crab). The octopi were a nice touch to this seafood-centric opener. Excellent!

I enjoyed that very much, but it’s time to move up a gear. Wine-wise I switched to my favourite Egri Bikavér. Another good glass of this wonderful blend awaited my main course — and as you may guess it involves mangalica. Yep, mangalica. This dish was a fantastic mangalica chop, with red cabbage and potato tart. Beautiful presentation, but I was happy to rip this apart in a second. The potato, which as you may know I don’t always enjoy, was very tasty and was a needed starch. The red cabbage was delicious, done by a kitchen that obviously knows what it’s doing.

And the mangalica chop? Divine. Utterly divine. The sweetness of the mangalica came out in this beautiful cut, boasting some excellent lean and fatty portions in perfect juxtaposition. Just melts in your mouth. As I tweeted, eating mangalica in Hungary, like eating pata negra in Spain and Kobe beef in Japan, it’s mesmirising and it’s the real experience. Wow, that was a fantastic main…

I was so enthusiastic about this simple brasserie I decided to order a nice dessert — túrógombóc (cottage cheese dumplings) with apricot compote. It was a needed reserved dessert I needed after that fantastic mangalica; the cheese ‘balls’ were very subtle, even with the compote.

This all made the large glass of 6-star Tokaji Aszú the more beautiful in taste…now this is heaven…

I was more than happy with this entire late lunch…wow. The fabulous 3-course meal, plus the fine wines (including the tokaji), was just over 25 quid. London looks just horrible right now, especially when I walk outside in the sun and just look at everything in this pearl of a city.

It was already past 4pm and I wandered back to the now rather crowded Metró for the approaching weekend. I wandered around a little, needing the walk (yes, I can walk!) to burn off that heavy but delicious lunch. I really do recommend Klassz as a wonderful, unpretentious example of fine food in a beautiful area — the epitome of Budapest in 2012.

Klassz
Andrássy út 41
Budapest, Magyarország

Review: Dió

Budapest,
20 September 2012

After a rather trying trip from Oslo (never, never fly Norwegian…especially when it’s full of misbehaving and rude pensioners!), I arrived in Budapest. I needed a drink and shower by now, as these loud and crazy pensioners surrounded me as I cringed in the middle seat. I hate to say this, but I was glad to be heading out of Norway after nearly a week…

Once I stepped outside, I felt relaxed…a way I couldn’t relax in Oslo. I feel so comfortable here in Budapest, it’s even made my foot better. I got to my hotel and by luck I was upgraded to a junior suite…my luck turning big-time? By the time I headed out for an early dinner, the limping was already at a minimum.

I walked to Sas utca (street), which boast several good restaurants. I chose Dió for my first meal in Budapest in 8 years, and it was a pretty good choice. A chic new place that pursues Hungarian cuisine at a high level, this was the perfect way for me to enjoy my first evening here.

Now I love Hungarian cuisine, I cook it at home all the time. I think it’s one of the most underrated cuisines in the world, and good Hungarian food can kick good French food’s arse. I hope this is a trend for this oft-maligned-out-of-ignorance cuisine.

It was very early, just about 6pm, so it was not very busy. By the time I left a few hours later, the place was hopping. Obviously this is a massive tourist draw too, as I heard a lot of English spoken. I sat down in this nice restaurant and browsed the menu…and drooled.

I’ve kept my drinking pretty low on this trip so far, but I felt a little need to let it rip this evening. So I ordered a bottle of one of my guilty pleasures, the wonderful red Egri Bikavér (Bull’s Blood). Again maligned out of ignorance and some consistency issues, the top-end of this blend is one of the best wines for food, as it is not overwhelming but strong enough to hold its own with strong flavours — like some of the flavours I will be enjoying soon.

My wonderful bottle of Egri Bikavér was decanted and the first glass poured. This arrived at the same time as my bread and a very nice serving of pâté. A very pleasant way to begin this meal in central Pest.

My first dish of the night is the classic Hungarian gulyás, which featured beef from the heritage Hungarian grey cattle, szürkemarha. Done in a genuine Hungarian fashion with spicy paprika, this stereotypical Hungarian dish really hit the spot. I love when I can get good spicy food in Central Europe, and this dish provided. Nice start, especially the hot green pepper at the end…

As I had not had food all day, I ordered a second starter, another soup. This was a cream morel soup, with a large plum dumpling floating in the centre. The soup was a little weak, without much of the strength of morels. That’s too bad, as morels are excellent in Hungary. The plum dumpling didn’t do much for me either. Now I really want to go find some morels…

As the restaurant was getting busier, my main course arrived with yet more wine. This was what I was looking forward to, the awesome Hungarian mangalica (I choose to spell this the Hungarian way). This curly-haired pig have been in the forefront in the world’s growing interest in Hungarian cuisine, as the meat for this cute animal is one of the best porks in the world.

This pork is so delicious, boasting a unique sweetness, sitting atop a bed of goat cheese polenta. I absolutely love mangalica, and having such a nice portion was definitely a treat. The polenta had some consistency issues, but worked well as a base to the dish. I would have loved some veg here, but the mangalica was the star.

I did not have room for a dessert, but I instead went on a little tour of Hungary via pálinka — the powerful fruit-based firewaters that are either heaven or hell to people. After a bottle of wine, it was probably not the best idea in the world, to be honest… But I thoroughlly enjoyed several of them, including apricot (with honey), red pear, beer (!!!), plum and more. I think having 8 of them was really not bright!

I stumbled back to my hotel happy and tipsy, thoroughlly enjoying the warm evening in Pest and just being able to walk somewhat normally without limping too noticeably. This was a nice way to welcome me back to this city I really adore. Now for a little nutty Mel in the late evening… 🙂

Dió
Sas utca 4
Budapest, Magyarország

Review: Ylajali

Oslo,
19 September 2012

After yesterday’s amazing meal at Maaemo, I was about to do the ‘Oslo Double’ and enjoy a highly-anticipated meal at Ylajali. The Michelin-starred eatery has a reputation of also being excessively creative, and I was very happy when chef-partner Even Ramsvik made my booking during their summer holidays. This guy has a reputation of being one of the top innovators in the quick-charging Nordic food scene, and I was really looking forward to another major feast!

I limped off my cab (I usually would not have cabbed in Oslo, but I didn’t want to risk exacerbating the somewhat better foot, so…) and had trouble finding the restaurant (again). Thank goodness after ringing, the sommelier came out and waved me in. He provided so much of the great chats and entertaining stories through the evening. The booking was early (6pm) so I was the only diner at the start.

I was soon presented with the menu — which is in tribute to the book Ylajali. Unfortunately I know little about this story, and perhaps it’s a little too inside-Norwegian for those of us outside to appreciate. But it’s cute and the type of thing that intrigues diners beyond their tastebuds.

The restaurant is apparently located in the building that has a direct relationship with the story’s author, which makes it even more apropos. The menu is divided into ‘chapters’ to continue the book theme. Fascinating, let’s see where this story takes me on this second awesome dining evening in Oslo!

Chapter One is called ‘Prolog’ and it is the longest of the chapters presented tonight, with a series of small amuse-bouche-like items. It first began with a glass of fresh apple juice with peppermint ice. Nice and refreshing start.

The next item is a barley crisp with a chive cream and some foraged additions. A very cute presentation and a nice snack.

The following snack is a puffed “pork rind” as yanks would call it, accompanied by Swedish mustard. Nice and neutral and airy, goes down easy.

The following snack was one of the best of the evening, the raw prawns with dill cream and “shellfish crunch” — which was deep-fried shellfish bits. You take the prawn and dip it in the cream and roll it in the crunch. This combination worked wonderfully, especially with the strong taste from the crunch. I really liked this dish, from the visuals to the playfulness. The huge block of ice was a nice touch.

I was excited when chef came out with a leg from a smoked beast, and as I hoped and suspected it was indeed fenalår — Norwegian smoked mutton. He sliced two small pieces and placed it on the piece of wood, a fantastic presentation. I wish there was more, as the small portions made it difficult to really appreciate the taste of this rare delicacy. But as Maaemo had already run out of this treat, I can imagine how little is left for Ylajali. Very nice and unexpected surprise!

But by this time, as I had also ordered a wine pairing, I was a little confused with the lack of wine during this chapter. Perhaps I had to order something myself, or nurse that apple juice? But this really, really needed something like champagne. That’s the only real drawback for the session so far.

The next dish also featured a nice presentation, of oyster grilled in shell with wild cucumber and smoked eel. To be honest I didn’t get much of the eel, but the small oyster pieces was nice and fresh. The sizing of this dish confused me a little, but was tasty.

And finally the last part of Chapter One arrived, bleak roe and cabbage with foraged additions. This was an excellent dish, as the cabbage really helped with the roe delivery. The flavours meshed very well as did the texture, and I was very happy with this dish.

So far this has been excellent, almost as good as Maaemo. Some were huge stars like the prawns, but it felt a little lacking without a paired beverage. It took something away from the entire experience, unfortunately. Maybe an oversight, but it made a big difference. Nevertheless a good start!

Soon Chapter Two — based on ‘Norwegian Cold Waters’ — was obviously a tribute to the amazing seafood from Norway’s long coastline. For years there has been too little appreciation of the various seafoods from up and down the coast; that has happily changed. Yesterday’s Maaemo seafood-centric meal demonstrated that, and Ylajali is about to (it was done very well so far).

Finally, wine has arrived. They explained that each chapter is paired with one particular wine, and for the chapter of seafood they selected a Riesling trocken from Robert Weil. A nice crisp wine that works well with seafood.

The first of the dish is a beautiful scallop from Frøya, the source of so much good shellfish for the best restaurants of Norway. The freshness and taste of this scallop was fantastic, did not need anything to make this a star. Unfortunately, the roe on the side was tasting rather plasticky and was kind of a downer. Too bad, as the shellfish was fabulous.

The second dish was the skate in a wonderful mussel sauce. The fish was fabulous as was the sauce, nice and rich without being overwhelming for the excellent quality fish. The one little issue is the odd placement of too-thinly-sliced button mushrooms (why button mushrooms?) that fell apart in the sauce and was hard to eat, and clashed a little with the other ingredients. Also, having samphire as decoration under the plate was a little annoying as I absolutely LOVE samphire…almost tempted to eat some…

The last of the short chapter featured a very sweet langoustine in a sour cream sauce with wild mushrooms. This was fantastic, as the shellfish was delicate but strong in flavour, while the wild mushrooms added to the overall feel of the dish. This was my favourite of the three in this chapter, as all the ingredients worked perfectly.

I have to say Chapter Two was a little of a miss at points, mostly on some what I thought were rogue ingredients (sliced button mushrooms, very plasticky roe) that detracted from the main ingredients. But it really shows how strong Norwegian seafood is, and the main ingredients were done very well and tasted wonderful. I am still very happy with this meal so far!

We now move onto Chapter Three — ‘Roots, Grains & Intermezzo’ — which came with the now Oslo-patented bread serving. These small caraway rolls were fresh and nice with some butter. I also crumbled some of the grains onto the butter, which made this a crunchy fabulous snack.

This chapter was paired with the Premier Nez by Marie Thibault-Cabrit, a wonderful, heartier wine to work with this chapter. The pairings have been good so far, with generous pours and top-ups. I kind of like this more than switching too much sometimes, like at Maaemo. I like to really get into a wine more.

Chef brought out the second dish wanting my opinion, as he said it was new. The dish was a fantastic scallops with salsify with caviar cream, topped with shaved egg yolk. Remember how I commented on how it didn’t quite work with the potato at Maaemo last night? It really works on this, with the salsify — this was the star. The scallops were very good, but the salsify with the yolk flakes worked fantastic, as the two so complemented each other it was almost symbiotic. Awesome stuff!

This chapter continues very strong with the 7-day aged halibut. This crudo was a wonderful continuation of these strong flavours in this chapter, and the freshness was delightful. The deep taste of the halibut is one of the best pieces of this humble fish I’ve ever had — certainly better than the cooked-to-death one I had last week in Tromsø! Fabulous!

The excellent chapter closed with a serving of sour milk and celeriac, working well as a palete cleanser after all those extremely strong flavours.

Chapter Three has been the strongest by far, with two just flat-out amazing dishes. The complex flavours worked so well together, none of the ‘rogue element’ issues from the previous chapter. It’s like when chef gets more adventurous he makes even better dishes. This was an amazing segment!

Chapter Four — ‘Poultry from Holte Farm’ — is a tribute to the humble chicken. Last night at Maaemo it was a seafood-centric menu. So it’s been awhile since I had any meat, so I as a carnivore was looking forward to this segment. Though I usually don’t prefer chicken, due to dodgy sourcing and bland preparation methods, I was looking forward to this chapter.

The first dish was a little odd, burnt onions in a chicken and parmesan jus. It didn’t work for me. The onion was a little under-burnt, almost like it was just cooked. It didn’t stand up in the liquid, unfortunately. The liquid was more parmesan than chicken, and it was nice. I looked at this almost as a small soup…

The pairing for this chapter was a very smooth and tasty mersault, which I appreciate. I don’t often drink mersault, as it usually doesn’t work with me, but it works with this segment.

The second dish was my favourite from this chapter, the crispy chicken with some beautiful foraged vegetables and flowers. The chicken was cooked superbly and tasted utterly spectacular. This was one of the best pieces of chicken I have ever had, sublime but deep, complex in a way chicken usually can’t achieve. The crispy skin was a bonus! I was blown away here, and the accompanying items added to the total package. Awesome accomplishment by the kitchen!

The last of this chapter is the chicken liver with apricot and pumpkin with roasted seeds. The liver? It’s hidden in the ball on the left, covered with a layer of very delicate and understated apricot. It was delicious and fresh, and the combination of flavours worked perfectly. However, the other ball, the pumpkin, just kind of sat there lost. It didn’t cut well with the utensil provided either. A little rogue? But the liver ball was fantastic.

Chapter Four was again very strong, with some eye-popping stuff (chicken…never thought I’ll ever say that), but a little inconsistency too. It’s like Ylajali is more into experimentation rather than refinement in some ways, and is willing to take more chances than Maaemo. Both have a role to play, and both are amazing in their own ways. Sometimes you want refined perfection; sometimes you need a little wilder stuff that can surprise you to falling off your chair with a risk of something that’s not quite there. And I’ve nearly fallen off my chair in stunned happiness a few times tonight!

Chapter Five is titled Christiania 1890 — after the name of Oslo during that period. This historical short chapter is one that explores some more interesting parts of traditional Norwegian flavours. And I was poured a very nice Foradori Granato from Alto-Adige, moving into the reds. I was really looking forward to these two dishes.

The first of the chapter is the urfe — a very nice rare breed of cow in Norway. Accompanied with parsley root, this was an excellent tasting of raw beef at its very best. Fantastic! The heritage beef is something Norwegians should treasure!

I happily dug into the second dish for this chapter, the duck hearts with porcini. The hearts were cooked so well it had a similar feel to the mushrooms. I have to say this was better than the chicken hearts from Maaemo last night, the taste was brought out more tonight. Excellent dish!

This marked the end of the savoury session, and I was extremely happy. From that awesome chicken to the salsify, I was again in Cloud 9. Amazing to do this two nights in a row! The final chapter is ‘Epilogue’, as you can imagine…

The first was a very diverse and good cheese course. I am sorry, I was chatting too much with the staff and enjoying myself that I didn’t get the specifics of the cheeses down. They ranged from a good blue on the far left to a simple goat on the far right. The selection was done perfectly (as only a Frenchman can do!), and I enjoyed the very large serving.

Next, after a short break, was a nice tasting of blueberries and sorrel. This region has a love of berries, and always great to taste fresh, tart and REAL berries like this. Perfect before the sweets!

The next dessert was an interesting mix of apple, caramel and oats (I love grains). It was not too sweet, and worked with my palate just perfectly (I don’t have a sweet tooth per se). I really enjoyed this creative mixture.

And finally, the final piece of the evening is a simple “coffee sweet” that covered the mild sweetness and aroma of coffee. I was happy with how this ended, as being a non-dessert person, I preferred more nature-based desserts like fruits and so forth. Great way to end this meal!

I was loving this…I am amazed I got to do this twice in two nights. These are very different experiences, and as I said, both utterly necessary for different reasons. Both are awesome in their own way, and both need to be enjoyed if in Oslo!

And just as I thought I couldn’t be surprised, the sommelier came with a surprise for me — a glass of 40-year-old calvados, to mark my 40th birthday! Wow, I was still surprised how he found out! Did they look at this blog or my Twitter account? But wow, this was an awesome birthday gift, the first tangible gift I received this birthday! I loved it!

After a second glass (on my own dime, heh…) and a double espresso, I was spent and happy. When the taxi arrived, I thanked the staff profusely for a wonderful evening of amazing food and sheer enjoyment. This was really enjoyable!

As I sat in the taxi on the way back to the hotel, I reflected on this evening. Sure, there were moments that it didn’t work. It wasn’t the crafted perfection of Maaemo. But when it achieved, it was near euphoric for me as diner. It’s extremely exciting to eat at a place that has more experimentation. Again, you need both in your lives. So no way to say which is better, they are both unique and awesome in their own ways.

So if someone asks me what to do if they had 1 evening in Oslo? I would say sod it, do both and die a happy glutton!

Ylajali
St Olavs Plass 2
Oslo, Norge