Our first full day in Norway was surprisingly warm. All the packing lists insisted that travelers bring jackets, scarves, and hats – one with the notation YES, EVEN IN SUMMER – but we quickly shed jackets and sweaters, and I even wished for shorts as we explored the open-air Folkemuseum and the Viking Ship Museum.
The evening stayed quite warm. I’d been worried that my light dress and open-toed Danskos would be too cool for the walk to dinner, but the outfit was perfect for the weather. I was really excited about this meal. It was the only dinner reservation we’d booked ahead of time, after I’d done a lot of research and found tons of highly ranked restaurants that sounded delicious, but a little staid. Arakataka seemed different: a hip, slightly off-the-beaten-path “modern bistro” featuring small plates influenced by Norwegian and Continental cuisines. Norwegian tapas? I was so in.
We found the place with no trouble and were greeted warmly. Very warmly – it was roasting inside. I was pretty hot in my sleeveless dress, and I really felt for Arne in a long-sleeved shirt. We were shown to a seat near the door and handed menus printed on coarsely elegant, stiff brown paper. There were 10 dishes listed – not counting a “snack” and a couple of dessert options – and a hefty discount for ordering five or more courses per person. (119 kroner per dish, with regular prices ranging from 130 to 185.)
Well, that was easy. “We’ll have one of each.”
Shortly after we ordered, the most beautiful bread arrived at the table. It was served in a brown canvas sack weighted with raw rye berries, accompanied by rich soft butter presented on a piece of slate. We tore into the loaf to find a steamy-warm inside surrounded by crunchy-crisp crust. It was moist yet fluffy, tangy and grainy, dotted with chewy rye berries, perfectly complemented by the creamy butter sprinkled with coarse salt. It was probably the best bread I’ve ever eaten. I’m considering taking up bread baking on a serious basis just to try and recreate this perfect little loaf.
We finished the bread and sat back to observe the open kitchen, staffed by five Norse gods who somehow never seemed to trip over each other in the tiny space. A nimble-fingered Thor with a blonde ponytail faced the dining room over a counter that didn’t quite reach his hips, plating the complex dishes – sometimes in batches of eight of a kind – with patient speed.
Soon our food began to arrive. This was the only place in Oslo where we had minor language issues, because the waitstaff mostly assumed we could speak Norwegian, until we shyly told them otherwise. I think the neighborhood was just far enough from the city center to attract few tourists. In any case, the food was dropped off and described by whichever staff member was available when it came out. Once we asked, each transitioned to English that, while not always flawless, put to shame any attempt at another language I have ever made or probably ever will.
The first dish we were served is pictured at the top of the post. Between the perfectly crisp cucumbers and the cracker-like, elderflower-crowned “hat” was a small pile of lightly cured fish. The dish was nicely balanced, beautifully presented, texturally interesting. I was becoming certain this would be a meal to remember.
This was followed by a second fish dish, this time mackerel served with sliced radishes and turnips on a bed of caviar. I was surprised by how much I liked this; mackerel has been too heavy and “fishy” for my taste in the past, and I wouldn’t call myself a caviar fan either. But the flavors were unexpectedly light and pleasant together.
I forgot to photograph the next dish, a very simple small bowl of spaghetti topped with the Swedish specialty of “bleak roe,” a brilliant orange fish egg from a whitefish called a bleak. It was very pretty. The dish reminded me of a delicate spaghetti carbonara – without bacon, of course – and I liked it a lot. Arne was less impressed, but he certainly finished his share.
The least exciting-sounding dish showed up next: potatoes, peas, xo. I confess, I’m still not sure exactly what xo is. I think it’s the savory brown stuff at the bottom right of the photo, and is a Chinese sauce. In any case, this plate turned out to be one of the most interesting and delicious courses we tried. The potatoes showed up in three guises: as soft-cooked slices, crunchy chips, and ephemeral foam. The peas were a sweet cream, and the xo gave it all a savory kick. Really a splendid dish, with earthy, sweet, and umami flavors and a range of contrasting textures. I loved it.
The peppercrab came next, and I found it to sit a little oddly with the rest of the menu. The chunks of crab tossed with sticky sauce had a decidedly Asian accent to me, the only one in the meal besides the dollop of XO sauce in the previous dish. It was also very hard to eat, and supremely messy. The first chunk squirted from my fingers and thoroughly besmirched my dress, rendering it unwearable for the rest of the trip.
So maybe I’m biased against it – I have to admit that the sauce was tasty – but this was my least favorite course. Arne enjoyed it more than I did.
The prettiest dish came next. I’m afraid my photo doesn’t do it justice. A perfectly cooked portion of redfish – I don’t think I’d had redfish before, but it was really moist and sweetly delicious – was surrounded by elegant lengths of white cauliflower, topped with nasturtiums and their lilypad-like leaves.
Somewhere in there was another dish that I forgot to photograph: oat groats from a local mill served with peas and… maybe it was scallops. The groats were really tasty and chewy. I’m sorry I forgot to take a picture, because I remember it just well enough to know it was worth remembering!
It seems that Norwegian cooks have a way with cauliflower. We had a creamy cauliflower soup later in our trip that contained sweet, crunchy nubbins of pickled cauliflower and tiny, flavorful Norwegian shrimp; it was divine. This cauliflower dish was delicious too, with thinly sliced florets and a beautiful foam crown. There were also scallops, a sweet/tangy sauce, a thin brittle for crunch, and a pretty scattering of elderflowers. Really nice.
We were getting pretty full when the two red meat dishes came out. The first was suckling lamb with spruce shoots and cabbage. The cabbage was very bright green and looked a little like bok choy. I’m not sure what kind it was, but it was very tasty.
Had I not known this dish was lamb, I would have guessed pork belly from the look of the meat. Lamb belly, perhaps? It was cooked to a perfect, tender pink, and I was impressed that the strip of fat atop each piece was melting and delicate; lamb fat can be heavy and strong-tasting, but not here. The pool of sauce with its subtle scent of pine was delicious, and I wished for some bread to sop it up.
Our last dish looked absolutely amazing in person, a roasted carrot shingled with slices of raw carrot, next to an admittedly weird-looking braised pork cheek, both topped with delicate chervil leaves. We tasted the carrot and were even more amazed: It didn’t taste like a carrot at all. It was deeply, satisfyingly savory. We mused about how the flavor was accomplished. Braised with the pork? The cheek, by the way, was also incredible, very flavorful and meltingly tender. And the sauce at the bottom was as deliciously savory as the rest of the elements. I really wanted to pick up the dish and drink it, but I restrained myself.
We were stuffed – too full to contemplate dessert – and happy, and relieved to escape the hot dining room and stroll slowly back to our hotel room. It was nearly 10:00, but the sun was out and the streets were bustling. We won’t soon forget that terrific evening.