Any restaurant that wins three stars from the Michelin Guide is, according to the guide itself, worthy of travelers making a trip to wherever it’s located, just to eat there. That has boosted the hopes of Oslo tourism officials, after the local restaurant Maaemo won three stars this week and thus stands to become a tourist attraction itself.
“This is just fantastic,” Bente Bratland Holm, Oslo’s tourism chief, told newspaper Aftenposten. She and other civic boosters now feel equipped to move forward with plans to launch the Norwegian capital as a prime destination for well-heeled travelers fascinated by food.
Oslo, always known for being expensive and once seen as a relatively boring capital on the outskirts of Europe, already has gone through a major renaissance during the past 25 years. In 1989, the city had only one restaurant serving sushi at sky-high prices, for example, and not a single Thai restaurant. It wasn’t unusual to travel around Norway in the summertime, right through cherry orchards at harvest time and when the rivers were full of fish, but be served dry roast beef and pudding from a can at area hotels.
That’s changed. Not only has Oslo blossomed with a lively café and restaurant scene, but its vast resources of fresh seafood, locally raised lamb and wild game, and various specially grown produce have prompted prize-winning Norwegian chefs around the country to emphasize local fare.
Maaemo wasn’t the first to feature locally produced food, but it turned its contribution into culinary artistry. Oysters from Bømlo, scallops from Frøya, reindeer filet from Norway’s Arctic plateaus, even ice cream made from browned butter from Røros have been on Maaemo’s menu recently. Its chef Esben Holmboe Bang is known to send young staff members into the hills and forests surrounding Oslo to find and bring back raw ingredients that can be used in salads, as garnish or to give flavour to, for example, an oil with a hint of evergreen.
Aftenposten reported this week on some of the “simple raw ingredients” that are crafted into delicacies and served with artistry. In a 20-course menu costing NOK 2,05o (USD 240), they included carmelized yeast with smoked løyrom (a local caviar) and rare combinations that were uniquely Norwegian – a lightweight version of the sour cream porridge known as rømmegrøt, for example, hidden under powdered reindeer heart and enhanced with butter and plum vinegar. Even many of the drinks on offer at Maaemo are locally produced, including cider and beer and strawberry juice.
It all clearly impressed the demanding reviewers from the Michelin Guide and left Oslo with its first three-star restaurant ever, while three others (Statholdergaarden, Fauna and Kontrast) also won or retained stars. The west coast city of Stavanger also became Norway’s first outside Oslo to claim a Michelin-starred restaurant when Renaa won the distinction on Wednesday.
Two other restaurants in Oslo, Eik and Smalhans, also won Michelin’s distinction of BIB Gourmand, while fully 16 were accorded “three knives and forks.” That solid ranking in itself also spread to restaurants in suburban Bærum, Stavanger, Bergen, Kristiansand, Trondheim and the coastal hamlet of Austevoll, where the Bekkjarvik Gjestgiveri is run by a family whose son won the gold medal at the Bocuse d’Or competition in Lyon last year.
More than mountains and fjords
Such accomplishments are whetting the appetite of those keen to promote Norway as being a destination offering more than the mountains and fjords for which it’s known. Efforts were already underway to boost Oslo as a goal for so-called “foodies,” and Holm, the city’s head of tourism promotion, has no doubt Maaemo’s Michelin stars will only help.
“We’re quite sure there’s a large group out there who travels to find new food experiences,” agreed Audun Pettersen, head of sustainable tourism and food promotion at Innovation Norway, the state’s business development agency. Pettersen told Aftenposten that the group is made up people with relatively high income, high education and good jobs – an attractive market for Norwegian hotels and restaurants.
Meanwhile, the champagne was flowing at Maaemo, and its head waiter Benjamin Ausland was among those celebrating this week. “We’re enormously proud,” he exclaimed as reporters showed up to capture the jubilation. He added, though, that the Maaemo crew was celebrating “carefully” because they still needed “to think about the guests coming this evening.” And chef Esben Holmboe Bang, who’s originally Danish, was still in Copenhagen where the stars were handed out at the launch of Michelin’s new Nordic guide. Ausland said the real celebration would wait “until Esben comes back.”