Food & Drink | A TASTE OF HOME

Swedish cuisine: so much more than meatballs

by Alex Dutson

Special To The Japan Times

Some Swedish delicacies, such as lutefisk (dried cod treated with lye), attract comments that are less than flattering. And when I say less than flattering, I mean downright slanderous. “Reminiscent of the afterbirth of a dog, or the world’s largest chunk of phlegm,” is one immortal line delivered by none other than U.S. author Garrison Keillor.

Frankly, it’s the kind of remark that no self-respecting nation wants attached to its food — and I say that with the sincerity of a long-suffering Brit.

Outside of Sweden, Swedish cooking seems to be largely ignored. There is, of course, the cursory reference to creamy meatballs and pickled herring, but a lazier man than I might be inclined to conclude that Swedish cuisine is rather like its best-known furniture brand — utilitarian, unremarkable and of questionable quality.

Lucky for me, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon Allt Gott (Shibata Bldg. 2F, 2-28-1 Kichijojihon-cho, Tokyo; 04-2221-2338) — an unassuming restaurant tucked away on the second floor of a nondescript side street in Kichijoji.

Inside, the look is polished but serious: brick cladding, low lighting and a small army of eager waiting staff. At the center of it all is chef and owner Takashi Yaguchi.

After training for a year in Stockholm in his early 20s, he returned to Tokyo and took over the reins at Gamlastan — a popular Swedish restaurant on the south side of Kichijoji Station — until its owner packed up and moved to Nagano in 2003.

Now, he single-handedly mans the kitchen at Allt Gott, bringing his brand of understated elegance to a little-known cuisine.

There’s plenty of Japanese technique in Yaguchi’s cooking, but also a considered place for Sweden’s characteristic flavors; wild, sweet things hunted and foraged from the forests and seafood pulled from the brackish depths of the Baltic sea. His omakase (chef’s choice) menu at ¥6,500 is an eight-course riff on the best of these ingredients, featuring eruptions of fresh Nordic shrimp, prime cuts of reindeer and fawn venison and succulent cloudberries.

Dinner begins. I’m presented with a platter of thickly-sliced, vinegar-charged mackerel, slivers of crisp pickled onion and a trio of toppings — honey mustard and dill, a piquant tomato relish and a small dusting of white miso powder.

Next comes a platter full of sweet pink shrimp and smoked salmon, presented around a small golden dome of choux pastry stuffed with whipped avocado and dill and dressed in anchovy mayonnaise and white mullet roe that tastes ripely of the ocean.

At the other end of the spectrum, a dish called Jannson’s Temptation, which sounds rather like a parable, is a thick potato and anchovy gratin creation heaving with cream and bubbling cheese — the gastronomic equivalent of being tucked into bed by your mother.

After this dish I have a chance to talk to Yaguchi and ask him why Swedish food isn’t better known in Japan.

He pins the blame on Sweden’s small population of just over 9 million people, which reduces its impact globally, and rejects suggestions of a need for either better marketing or a culinary change of tack.

“There’s really no need for them to stick to their pickling and preserving, but lots of Swedes — even the up-and-coming chefs — are keen to hold on to traditions and adapt them to a new generation,” he says.

As I consider this, I’m served the next dish: a tender fillet of grilled Kichiji rockfish in a thick bouillabaisse the color of rust. It has lingering peppery taste, a depth of spice and a rousing smack of fish guts that would be overpowering if not for the ramekin of cheese risotto that is provided to soothe the taste buds.

Then there’s the venison. Gamey and cooked to a slight char on the outside and pale pink interior, it comes with a dark slick of lingonberry jus and watercress. Sweet, bitter and tart all at once.

Dessert follows the theme of bold, brave and contrasting flavors with hot apple tart served with liquorice, strands of orange peel and ice cream topped with orange-colored cloudberries.

While digesting my meal and dining experience, I can’t help but notice a certain intimacy among the diners, as they chat over their meals, that strikes me as entirely the result of Yaguchi’s Swedish cooking — so wholesome and well-balanced that it enhances the social aspect of eating out.

Like Allt Gott, Lilla Dalarna (03-3478-4690; Daikan Bldg. 2F, 6-2-7 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; dalarna.jp) off Roppongi’s main intersection, is another place for Swedish cuisine that won’t disappoint. With padded red velvet walls and assorted bric-a-brac — from antique telephones to multicolored feathers and a bread bin — it’s got something of an “Alice in Wonderland” vibe. Go for a clean, cold shot of schnapps and a pot of the delightfully sweet and waxy cod livers with crispbreads and sharp cheese on the side. The Swedish classic of meatballs in cream sauce is also a sure thing.

Stockholm (03-3509-1677; 2-14-3 Nagata-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; www.stockholm.co.jp/english), right next to Akasaka-Mitsuke Station, is the place for an authentic smorgasbord experience, with more than 60 items, including crayfish and gravad lax (dill-cured salmon) on a massive buffet-style center table. There is a choice of eight acquavits served from the freezer and a notable endive and smoked trout canape.

Again, there is a certain warmth in experiencing the bold flavors and simple pairings in Swedish cooking. And in a country where the focus is so often on dissecting every dish put in front of you, a return to unpretentious, intimate dining is really refreshing.