Overall score: 8.6/10
It really wasn’t supposed to be this way. I’d booked a table at the one Michelin-star Bagatelle in Oslo, a solo Saturday night diner in town from Hong Kong. It turned out to be the most extraordinary and bittersweet last supper.
Maybe it wasn’t the smartest financial move to choose Oslo, a city notorious for its high food prices, as my latest culinary destination. But with a rumoured launch of a Michelin Guide Nordic I was intrigued to see how Norway’s capital would fare alongside its better-known culinary neighbours in Copenhagen and Stockholm.
Bagatelle certainly has form, with The Michelin Guide deeming it ‘discrete but legendary’. A large part of that status is due to its former chef, grandmaster of Norwegian cuisine, Eyvind Hellstrøm. Under his tenure until 2009 Bagatelle held two Michelin stars, while the culinary God Paul Bocuse, arguably the most important chef in a generation, called Hellstrøm “one of the greatest”.
Recently, however, the Bagatelle kitchen has been helmed by Danish chef Allan Poulsen. He leads an international team who every week try to outdo each other by presenting ‘neo-Nordic’ dishes to potentially be added to the menu. This electric and eclectic creativity means that the innovation and invention presented is, frankly, off the charts.
But first, the setting. The windowless dining room features muted tones, gentle lighting, artworks from the collection of businessman owner Christen Sveeas, a long central table where glasses and wines are kept and a maximum of just eight tables for diners. These are overseen masterfully by the front-of-house staff, one Swedish and one Norwegian, both elegance personified, demonstrating extraordinary depth of knowledge on the menu, particularly around the wine pairings.
There’s a tangible sense of fearlessness, exhilaration and adventure apparent in each of more than twenty plates that they place in front of me throughout the tasting menu. Moreover, whilst elsewhere this often means more misses than hits, in Bagatelle every single dish succeeds over the course of four remarkable hours, a wave of remarkable sensations and tastes and textures.
What came first sets the tone for the rest of the evening, a rock garden featuring jet-black smooth stones, scallop and oyster shells with just one tiny smooth pebble standing out due to the celery “cloud”, oyster powder and parsley. I was told to lick the pebble and avoid swallowing it – the first step in a hands-on, experiential ride. (8/10)
Next to tease was a beautiful ruby-red raw shrimp with beetroot and lingonberry juice, Norway in one bite. (8/10)
Fried cod skin served with a dip made from rare PDO (Protected destination of origin) Löjrom roe from Kalix in Northern Sweden. This was utterly sensational, a brilliant wave of umami. (9.5/10)
Three breads interspersed dinner. Step aside Per Se, apologies Arzak. They were, simply, the best I have ever been served in a restaurant. A picture-perfect miniature loaf with butter, an unbelievable salt-crusted fried brioche served with goats cheese infused with blue mussel stock and dried seaweed and a cocotte of sourdough baked in a pan with oil, rendering it perfectly crisp to contrast with an accompanying cream cheese. (9.5/10) When a restaurant shows this much love to bread, then you know you are dining somewhere very special indeed.
A ‘Santa Cristina cured ham sandwich with watercress’ was a perfect hit of crunch and sodium: (8/10)
‘Yesterday’s dried bread fried in mushroom powder with cep porcini dip’. How this dish was created confounds any reasonable creative process, but I was so very happy that someone took a chance on it. (9/10)
Razor clam with compressed apple, chervil and cream was outstanding. A bonus taste of razor clam came in the form of a mochi-like bubble of horseradish and milk jelly (9/10)
The ride continued as hay-roasted monkfish was brushed clean in front of me, painted with a chicken stock reduction, coated in Japanese panko breadcrumbs and served with an extraordinary pearl onion reduction. As it was presented, Jeff Buckley appropriately sang the Hallelujah in the background. (9/10)
A young English chef called Chris then came out to present his recent dish, a perfect deconstruction of cucumber. I really don’t like cucumber. It’s a miserable, watery, frigid waste of chlorophyll. But not here. Not at Bagatelle. (8/10)
At no point was dinner overwhelming, overpowering. On the contrary, it was perfectly-balanced, perfectly-timed and perfectly-served.
As I reached the end, so to cheese, namely melted Havgus from Denmark with Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, raw apple and walnut “snow”. Sometimes ‘wow’ speaks volumes. (8.5/10)
The crescendo came in a globe of white Valhrona chocolate done two ways, one a mousse and the other caramelized, alongside pickled pear with lemon verbena powder, plum jelly, fresh plums and frozen lemon verbena cream. (8.5/10)
The wine pairings throughout were exceptional, from an ’87 Marsala to an unusual Pinot Noir from Exlberg in Austria, a ’99 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris to an 1834 Barbeito Malvasia Madeira. Yup, 1834. 180 years after it was bottled, I was given the huge honour of a taste, bringing extraordinary notes of molasses and caramel and plum to my wholly untrained and uneducated nose.
If you’ve followed me this far, you’ll know there’s an almighty sting in the tail. This was the last meal ever served at Bagatelle. After 32 years, by total and extraordinary coincidence and chance, I happened to be their final diner, the last to walk out into the cool Oslo evening with the elegant door closed behind me.
I only discovered the closure recently. It shut after ‘losing millions in recent years’, according to one source. While dinner with wine pairing was far from cheap, I’ll admit that even on the night I was there I wondered how it could be sustainable, given the quality of the ingredients and brilliance of the staff.
That’s not the point, however. If the staff knew of the closure, their professionalism meant that they gave absolutely no indication. If they didn’t, then I can only offer small comfort: that the final meal they served was an unconditional triumph, a salute to more than three decades of toil and tears and brilliance and love.
Forgive me if this all sounds too convenient, that one of the meals of my life should be their very last supper, but it was so. So thank you, Bagatelle.
Notes: i) A small adjacent bistro, Lille B, remains open. The staff on that final night – confirmed by front of house who gave me her card, were: Karin Dejeborn, Yngvild Skaaraas, Marius Dragsten Kjelsrud, Peter Frydkjær, Chris Duncan, Dennis, Emil, Marianne, Krzysztof, Sofia and head chef Allan Poulsen.
Lille B, Bygdøy allé 5, 0257 Oslo, Norway Tel+:47 22 44 40 40
ii) I wrote this review last year but had not posted it until today. This week Michelin announced the latest star awards for the Nordic region and mentioned that Bagatelle had lost its star through closure.