Per Risnes

Following the rise of the New Nordic food movement, eaters around the world are paying close attention to Oslo’s food scene: in particular, the city’s fine diners. Per Asbjørn Risnes, an award-winning author, journalist and amateur chef born in the coastal Norwegian city of Bergen, says these high-end restaurants are only part of the story and wants travellers to consider Oslo’s neighbourhood establishments. A resident of Oslo since 2001, Risnes has been tracking openings and closings in the capital for the past 20 (and counting) years. These are his favourite local addresses.

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An Introduction to Oslo’s Food Culture

Scandinavian countries did not have very sophisticated cuisines to start with because we’ve been poor for most of our history. Our ancestors were peasants and fishermen and they never ate the stockfish and fresh cod that this part of the world is renowned for, nor did they use it in their cooking: we mostly sent it to Italy and Spain. The Norwegian food scene is now dominated and steered by the wealthy. The people here have a high income and can spend money on expensive restaurants and quality goods. They travel a lot and get their inspiration from all over the world. The New Nordic food scene, spearheaded by Noma and other Danish chefs, manifested itself in Oslo a few years back. All of the chefs involved were trained in French culinary tradition. They understand it really well and channelled the movement to make simpler and cleaner dishes with very local ingredients. After 20 years of training and travelling within the region, a lot of these Nordic chefs have come to Oslo to work, then started their own businesses. Many talented Swedish and Danish chefs are dominating the Oslo restaurants scene. Danish chef Esben Holmboe Bang who has lived here for many years and runs three-star restaurant Maaemo is a good example. I spent three days at the restaurant once, profiling Mr. Bang for food magazine NORD. I remember one dish that they were working on for several months. It was a buttermilk snack that recreates the Bang’s childhood memory. You know that skin you get on top of milk when you warm it up? They took that layer, dried it and turned it into a cracker, then fried it and put pine spruce ice cream inside. Many of the top Nordic restaurants do lots of memory-triggering dishes and lots of fermentation: things like koji ice cream with a miso glaze combined with Nordic ingredients. A lot of these restaurants are minimalistic. Some are more rustic and will maybe have their own garden in which they grow edible flowers and leaves that they can pick themselves. Some will even have their own bees on the roof.

Modern Nordic Cuisine in a Former Sex Shop

I finally managed to eat at Jo Bøe Klakegg’s new place recently. He ran one-starred  restaurant Fauna together with chef Björn Svensson, which closed down in 2016. He later opened Hot Shop with his wife Siri Haslund in a former sex shop and they decided to keep the shop’s old name. It was a really wonderful experience and a great example of modern Nordic cuisine. It feels very casual, so no white tablecloths or anything like that. It’s not the cheapest place in town but it’s not very expensive either. They focus on vegetables without being vegetarian, and use things like pine shoots and elderberries, which a lot of chefs are using at the moment. They use a lot of seafood and cook it in a subtle way: no demi-glace, no red wine reduction. I especially remember an endive dish, because I’m usually not a fan of endive – I find it too bitter and restaurants tend to serve it with a lot of lemon – so it was a surprise for me to have enjoyed it. It had a light marination that made it almost sweet and was served with raw clams and a clam stock. That’s what I mean by subtle. There was a very nice lamb dish we ordered. I went there with some of my friends to celebrate one of their birthdays. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time and we all enjoyed how relaxed the service was. In a lot of the modern or fine-dining restaurants you feel that the waiters are forced to memorise exactly what they should say, which feels forced and it makes me feel uneasy. There the service felt very human and relaxed. The waiter was chatting with us just the right amount, which was nice when you go out again after more than a year of quarantine.

My Go-To Neighbourhood Pizzeria

The other side of dining out in Oslo is comfort food and it has thrived especially after the pandemic. I’m more inclined to give my money to these places rather than the big guys. There are a lot of gourmet pizza restaurants that do things differently to the traditional Italian sourdough style that we’ve had for years. There’s a small hole-in-the-wall called Jungel Pizza that’s in my neighbourhood. If you’re eating there and they have time, they’ll talk to you for hours about the dough and toppings and will invite you out the back to try things. The pizzas are quite big with a lot of crust that’s sort of soft. I love their pizza with salami picante, but my favourite one has sour cream, merguez, fermented chilli and broccolini. My family often orders in from there.

Bicycle Workshop by Day, Local Hangout by (Friday) Night

I go weeks without leaving my borough of St. Hanshaugen. My office is within crawling distance from my home so I like to stay super local and prefer to hang out in places that are a walk or cycling distance away. Café Rouleur was originally a neighbourhood bicycle workshop but becomes an after-work hangout for locals on Fridays. We have a WhatsApp group alerting our friends when we’re stopping by. It’s a very easy-going and friendly place with a good Oslo vibe outside the main streets. They even tolerate my dog howling when I go to the bathroom. They serve nice, adventurous wines – organic wine has sort of been the norm here for a while – and a G&T with Vidda, a Norwegian gin. It’s convenient because we sometimes pick up a pizza from Jungel on the way out or have a flamed salmon maki to-go to feed the kids back home.

The Story of a Neighbourhood Cafe

Although I don’t think people in Oslo are patriotic, they’re very neighbourhood-oriented. There used to be a coffee shop run by an Italian guy just around the corner from my place that was like a local institution. It won the local cultural prize for best community initiative one year. We used to go there with the kids for some ice cream, or to grab a coffee before or after kindergarten, or just alone with a book. The neighbourhood unofficially called the little square after the place which was called La Sosta. So everyone would say, “Let’s meet at La Sosta square.” I used to have an office right by them, so I had a lot of coffee and good times there. The owner opened a second place and had a rough time with it so he had to end his entire operation. He managed to turn things around and he now runs an Italian import business called Smak av Italia and sells quality, Italian produce like ham and cheese.

The Best Cinnamon Rolls in Oslo

Åpent Bakeri is my local bakery. It’s sort of a chain but it makes very nice sourdough bread, croissants and what is almost our national pastry: cinnamon rolls. I think it makes the best cinnamon rolls in Oslo, which is important for a guy from Bergen. Some of its franchises will make a very nice pizza after-hours once the daytime operation of the bakery wraps up. The location by my house is opposite from where La Sosta used to be. Although Åpent serves great coffee, it downplayed that aspect of the business so it wouldn’t compete with La Sosta when it was having a difficult time, which makes me like it even more.

Where To Buy Norwegian Cheese, Meat and Fish

I think it’s difficult for many shops to survive by only specialising in the local stuff. There are some delicatessens that sell top-shelf Norwegian cheeses or organic beef but will also have imported things such as truffles, Italian ham, or San Marzano tomatoes. Gutta på Haugen is a delicatessen with good pantry staples. We also have a large food hall called Mathallen that started 10 years ago and was originally supposed to replicate the Swedish food hall experience but it worked better as a food court. It still has a very nice fishmonger, a nice fresh meats and sausage seller and a shop dedicated to local cheeses. They organised a farmers’ market dedicated exclusively to Norwegian cheese and cured meats because there’s a lot of it and some producers do great in international competitions. One cheese that comes to mind is called Føniks by Stavanger Ysteri. It’s like a creamier Roquefort from the west coast of Norway and it’s wonderful. 

Sunset Beers and Burgers

Kongen Marina beer bar and restaurant is a place I frequent, not for its outstanding food or huge beer collection – though they serve as good a burger as the next place, and do have a funky Hawaiian pale ale – but more because it’s situated just by the marina where I keep my 1965 Polar 17, the Norwegian poor man’s Riva [boat]. It has a cheesy Miami Vice kind of aesthetic with a boat ramp and gas pumps just next to it, but it’s a good place to enjoy the sunset and a post-docking drink.

The Lebanese Food Scene in Oslo

There is a Lebanese restaurant that opened in the harbour area called Feniqia which is more upscale than other Lebanese restaurants in Oslo. It’s quite popular and has been getting a lot of great reviews in the papers, so there’s a long queue to get in. I give Henrik Henriksen, the guy behind Ben Reddik, the credit for putting Lebanese dining on the map in Oslo. He’s a very nice guy and does a really nice job in the restaurant which serves mezze and is focused on clean and sustainable raw materials. They bake their pita in house and make a sourdough version using stone-milled organic flour. Their dairy is from Rørosmeieriet which is all organic, as is the meat and fish. They were commissioned to create a restaurant on top of the Munch Museum which is a difficult thing to pull off but it’s a great opportunity for them.

The Rise of the Microbrewery

There was this standing joke here about middle-aged men with beards, starting their own home breweries in their basement. During the last five or six years, a lot of them have gone professional, selling artisan IPAs or sour brews through shops and beer halls. I favour the Czech-style lager or pilsner, but west coast newcomers RYGR and Kinn make good beers. A lot of microbreweries popped up and, naturally, a lot of beer halls as well. I like going to Crow bar and brewery.

My Food and Drink Pop-Up Side Hustle

Two of my friends and I were encouraged to start throwing these food and drink pop-ups just before the lockdown. It started off as a hobby to support our drinking habits but it might turn into a more regular gig. We called it Tjukke Slekta. There was an old coffee maker on the harbour, roasting for the mass market, and it moved out of the city. A theatre group borrowed the space for like a year and we were invited to do our pop-ups there. If they’re having a show, we would serve some beer, wine, pizza or waffles. An art start-up has also designed an app for selling art directly from the artists. The space has a showroom and we have a permit to throw events in the weeks leading up to Christmas, so you can pop by on a Friday after work for two hours and enjoy some art and conversation.

A Classic Norwegian Christmas Tradition

We have something called “Julebord” which is a Christmas tradition where you go out with colleagues before Christmas Eve for a big eating and drinking party. Sometimes entire places are hired for Julebord. Theatercaféen is a grand cafe-restaurant in one of the city’s old five-star hotels that offers Julebord around Christmas-time. A lot of celebrities used to go there in the 80s and 90s and it used to be the place to be seen. It’s a nice, wedge-shaped space with windows on both sides. It serves Norwegian Christmas classics such as Lutefisk which is made from aged stockfish or dried and salted cod pickled in lye. I prefer fresh cod: it’s the best thing to eat in winter. Another option might be lamb ribs that are salted, dried and sometimes smoked, then boiled or steamed. It was poor man’s food in the 1800s. There is also a pork dish that’s almost like Italian pancetta but without being rolled.

Oslo’s Leading Coffee Places

I used to go to Java which was close to my old domicile. I had heard about the guy who opened it because he studied in my hometown of Bergen. Java was one of the first coffee-savvy places in Oslo and started winning barista competitions. It got famous about 20 years ago when the Crown Prince was dating a non-royal girlfriend and I think it was the first place where they were spotted by the paparazzi because they lived close by at the time. They now have another spot called Mocca in addition to their own coffee roasting unit called Kaffa. There’s another coffee bar called Fuglen that’s become popular and has opened a branch in Tokyo.

The City’s Jack of All Trades

I used to hang out in Bar Boca a lot. It was opened by a really nice guy called Jan Vardøen, an Englishman with a Norwegian grandfather who came to Norway to learn how to build boats. He didn’t want to work in carpentry anymore and started to work in bars and restaurants. He built the interior that transformed this dive bar into a 50s French bar. There was a vintage clothes shop next door which is now part of the bar. Bar Boca was the first place Jan opened and he went on to open a lot of restaurants and bars, all of which were very good looking but in a homemade kind of way.  He became the godfather of the gentrified Grünerløkka area and opened a very nice Italian restaurant called Villa Paradiso which served the first real Italian gourmet pizza. He sold it and used the money to fund various projects he’s passionate about including music, films and a novel. He also bought an old cinema from the 30s and restored it and it now hosts regular screenings. It’s one of the few independent cinemas left in the city. He’s always very busy with quality, community initiatives.

A Restaurant at the Cutting Edge of Eliminating Food Waste

Jimmy Øien from Rest is a humble guy who’s at the centre of the effort to eliminate food waste. The name is a reference to “rest” as in the rest of the things people throw away. He’s made a fine-dining restaurant out of leftovers he gets from big producers, dairy farms and such. He spends a lot of energy to make something not go to waste, like he’ll spend weeks trying to figure out how to use a hen’s comb so as not to throw it away. I think with wealth you lose the sense of necessity, but with awareness, you can bring it back. People throw away too much. It’s a good project, but at the core, Rest is also a good restaurant: he’s had good reviews on the food.

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