Monday, 11 January 2010

Restaurant Review: Sjömagasinet (Gothenburg)

Sjömagasinet is the michelin-starred restaurant of top Swedish chef Leif Mannerström. If you're British you're unlikely to have heard of him, but in Sweden he's a big deal attracting 10,000 customers every Christmas to have his pickled herring and even getting his head on a stamp.  I was ready to sing his praises already just for the fact that there was an open fire in the reception area, something that was very welcome after a 20 minute walk in the minus 10C temperatures outside. 

Sadly this was ruined slightly by the waiter who showed us to our table being oddly condescending and rude.  This wasn't a language thing, since I speak Swedish and all the staff's English was excellent.  Either way it was rubbed out my happy mood of the fire, which was a shame. 

Anyway there are more important things to talk about than that.  The name of the game here is fish and everything about the setting tells of the sea.  The building itself is impressive.  Built in the late 18th Century, it was originally the headquarters of the Swedish East India company.  The inside is all solid wood with plenty of nooks and crannies, reminiscent but not actually of an old boat.  The paintings and few antiques also carry on this theme.  There's a real personality in the building and its nice to see a top restaurant like this moving away from both clean lined luxury or a more old school heavy draped approach.        It's still luxurious though, with deep cushioned benches covered with thick red cloth and plush blue pillows with the East India Company logo sown on in gold.  This is all a bit Tommy Hillfiger, but it actually works fantastically well.

Gothenburg is a fantastic place for fish.  It's still a working port, so extremely fresh fish is never far away.  Mannerström is also widely considered to be the man to talk to if you want to eat top, traditional Swedish fish dishes.  The quality of produce certainly did not disappoint, it was all fantastically fresh and top grade, cooked delicately and left generally uncluttered and allowed to speak for itself.  I will at this point, however, add a caveat; the Swedish palate takes more salt than most people do here and the seasoning in the restaurants there is definitely more pronounced.  This isn't a complaint, or a fault of the kitchen and I would certainly not mark them down for it.  If I were in London, however, I probably would because although it wasn't too salty for me it was on the limit.  Its just good to be aware of this.  

We were given an amouse bouche of pork leg terrine with aioli and a white Shallot marmalade.  This was (and sorry that I can't think of a better comparison) like the best spam ever.  I really hate spam, having been forced to eat it in junior school, but this was something else.  The flavour of the cured meat was allowed to speak for itself with some excellent complementary sweetness from the shallot.  This definitely indicates Mannerstöm's style, deeply traditional, but incredibly refined.  My first course carried on in the same vein was smoked salmon with truffle mayonnaise and miniature, dill pickled, scallops.  This was very good, and the truffle went fantastically well with the smoked salmon, something that slightly surprised me.  Sadly the scallops, though pretty, had a very, very delicate flavour and this was drowned by the salmon.  My girlfriend's first course couldn't have been more traditional.  Pickled herring (matjesill) topped with traditional accompaniments; chopped chives, chopped red onions and chopped hard-boiled eggs, this was served with hot melted butter poured over the top and two hard cheeses (one flavoured with cumin) served on the side.  This was fantastic although be aware that sill is like marmite and its probably not for everyone.  The fish chunks were thick, and incredibly sweet and salty with a strong savoury flavour that still tasted of the sea.  The butter cut the strong flavour of the accompaniments, which themselves added a wonderful freshness to the preserved fish.  Eaten with the cheese after it became incredibly complex as the dish moved through its various layers of flavour.  Delicious as this was the portion was far too big.  It was enough for a main on its own and bizzare as it feels to complain about this given the size of the mains, this could be a real appetite ruiner.  This effect is increased given the sheer strength of flavours.  Sill is delicious, but it packs a punch and this much at the start of a meal can be quite overwhelming.  

My portion, though generous, was slightly more demure, so it was with appetite intact that I tucked into my main course.  This was roast halibut with ox-marrow and marrow jus, lukewarm spinach salad, Autumn chanterelles a roast baby onion and some wonderfully buttery mash, which I think is easily the smoothest I've ever eaten.  I love restaurant mash, because chef's don't care about your health and tend to put in enough butter to make a cardiologist blush.  Luckily the rest of the dish was even better.  The halibut was perfectly cooked, thick and robust and worked wonderfully with the meaty jus and soft glutinous marrow.  The earthy chanterelles worked wonderfully with this combination adding a wonderfully complex note to the big flavours in the rest of the dish.  Even the onion, which I initially thought would just be window dressing added the sugar that would otherwise have been lacking.  Good as this was it paled in comparison to my girlfriend's choice.

Luckily for me she was quite full from her starter, allowing me to gallantly come to her aid.  The lemon sole she ordered was fried in butter and came with Pont Neuf potatoes (confit potatoes, or big crispy chips to the rest of us) and a wonderful béarnaise sauce run through with fresh lobster meat.  This was one of the best pieces of fish I have ever eaten (although the thinner pieces suffered slightly from the seasoning issue I mentioned before).  It was incredibly fresh, beautifully cooked left simple.  Doing anything else to a fish this tasty would have been a real shame.  I like this about Sjömagasinet they don't feel the need to overcomplicate anything because of their complete confidence in the quality of their ingredients.  Some onion rings were okay but unnecessary as were the roasted tomatoes on the side, the bernaisse was well made, but I wasn't allowed enough lobster to really comment.  I suppose that means it was good.

Along with this we had a glass of wine each picked by the waitress, both Burgundies, a light red for the halibut, and a crisp white for the sole.  They worked excellently with the food and given the rest of the prices here were actually quite reasonable.  Speaking of prices they are prohibitive.  The meal was one of the most expensive I have ever had and we only had two course and a couple of glasses of wine each.  Not having bought Christmas presents for each other so that we could go cushioned the blow, but it was still sobering.  This is where the small flaws start to really matter.  The food was excellent, and although the service warmed up it started off inexplicably stern.  Our waitress initially reminded me of a school teacher trying to prove a point.  Also any imperfection in the food became incredibly important, why was the salmon in my starter not more lightly smoked and paired with less aesthetic but fuller flavoured adult scallops.  Why were there onion rings with the sole.  Why did so many herrings have to die for the starter.  These are all small things, but at this level and the prices it commands its only fair to expect near-perfection and Sjömagasinet didn't quite deliver that.  Still it is a wonderful restaurant with a fantastic and highly original location that serves excellent food whilst sticking to the traditional flavours of Sweden and is highly recommended if you happen to be in Gothenburg and want to really treat yourself. 

No comments:

Post a Comment