Maaemo is an old Norse word meaning Mother Earth. The restaurant builds a culinary narrative around the clean, bright flavors of Norway. If you find yourself short on time when visiting Oslo, a visit to Maaemo is the perfect way to taste the whole country.
Esben Holmboe Bang, a Danish chef who emigrated to Norway, keeps his sense of modesty and yearning for a celebration of gustatory pleasure. There’s no stiffness about the place, and it’s immediately apparent that the waiters carry themselves with an aura of joyfulness, as if their entire mission in life is to make their customers feel well-tended-to.
A hostess at the door delivers the guests into the dining room. We are seated at one of eight tables while a small gaggle of waiters spreads glasses and champagne across the white linens, accompanied by a multitude of accents. The dining room is flooded with bright light from the massive industrial windows overlooking Barcode, a newer neighborhood in central Oslo where there has been extensive redevelopment on former industrial land in recent years. The interior is Nordic minimalistically designed; the round tables are covered by white tablecloths and simplistic ceramic centerpieces, while black and white portrait photographs adorn the walls.
A delicate white envelope sits on a wooden plank at each setting on the table: guests can choose to pair their 20-serving meal with a meticulously curated wine list or an alcohol-free drink option, with prices ranging between 830 and 2300 kroner, depending on the chosen selection.
The meal begins with a series of snacks. First, a bowl of warm broth of cabbage and sheep. The first sip warms my body and whisks my mind away to the heat of a balmy summer night.
Next, cornets filled with caramelized yeast and whitefish roe; grilled pumpkin; “lompe” (potato bread) with fermented mountain trout and horseradish; razor clams with wheat, red currant and heather; and ocean quahog clam (Arctica islandica) harvested in north of Norway, more precisely Nordskot, served with fermented kohlrabi. The flavors are unexpected with an combination of painfully fresh flavors.
Finally the first dish arrives – oysters from Bømlo, on the west coast of Norway. Since they opened just before Christmas in 2010, Maaemo has always had oysters from Bømlo on the menu. The oyster emulsion is surrounded by a clear jelly and served with a warm mussels and dill sauce. The emulsion is savory; minerally and clear as a bright blue sea, but also briny and surprising. The taste brings me back to childhood days in Larvik fishing and grilling fresh mackerel on the coast.
The oysters are followed by fabulous in-season and local flavors from all over the Nordics; consignments of scallops from Frøya, Reindeer from Varangerbotn, crab from Finnmark, biodynamic onion, blue cheese with trumpet mushrooms and juniper. To enjoy this cuisine, it is not necessary to eat traditional ingredients like moose, or even regional classics like dill, herring and salmon. The Nordic region has much more to offer.
Next up, a sour cream porridge sprinkled with shaved smoked reindeer heart, a healthy portion of browned butter, and a dash of plum vinegar. Sour cream porridge, made by sour cream, milk and a pinch of salt and flour, is actually one of the oldest hot dishes in Scandinavia and has been eaten by Norwegian households for thousands of years. It is rumoured that even the Vikings used to eat porridge during Midsummer. The taste of the porridge, warm from the pot, is of nurturing cream, thick with comfort. However this time it has something complex and surprising; the mix of the salt smoked reindeer and the creamy sweet porridge burst in my mouth as a result of rapid blending of two opposite flavours. A sour cream porridge even sour cream porridge haters can love!
For Norwegian guests, it feels strange to hear waiters with such spotless English accents (but using intense Norwegian pronunciations) nonchalantly espousing information about suppliers from all over Norway. After an extensive speech about reindeer, its habitat, and habits, we are introduced to the next dish in line: reindeer meat from Varangerbotn in northern Norway, served with cranberries, spruce and bone marrow. The dish has us daydreaming back to autumn hunting trips with bonfires burning through the night.
The signature dessert from Røros, butter ice cream with browned butter caramel and hazelnuts, proves that the only thing that can outdo butter is more butter. Especially when you add the butter from Røros, (self-)claimed to be the best in the world. At its best, the food at Maaemo is like reading a fantastic history book, and transports the guest to the last day of summer when the Sunday afternoon weaves through quiet streets, to the memory of autumn scouts and foggy walks in moist bar forest.
More than anything, Esben’s cooking is in a way about a sense of place. He lives out the creed of New Nordic cooking, celebrating the region and sourcing from all it has to offer.
Their accomplishments only serve to reinforce their superiority; Maaemo is Norway’s only three Michelin star restaurant. It is also the only Nordic restaurant to be awarded two stars directly for their very first mention in the Michelin Guide – 15 months after opening in 2010. There is no doubt – Maaemo is the best Norwegian kitchen we’ve ever been to.
Back to the $400 question. Yes, it’s expensive. Is it worth it? My wallet hurts, but I have no regrets. I float out the door into the autumn sunshine and cool air, missing the meal already as soon as I set foot outside. We tasted scallops from Frøya, oysters from Bømlo, crab from Finnmark, and herbs from Bøverdalen, to name just a few. A meal at Maaemo travels all across the country without ever leaving its sunny Oslo street.