Editor’s Note: This city guide was originally published in Life & Thyme, Issue Four.
Calm, colorful and impossibly charismatic, Stockholm is nothing if not sure of itself. Images of wide-open skies, glassy waters, pastel buildings and white trainers come to mind when recalling this city. It is hard to imagine a better time to visit the Swedish capital than in its colder months. The trees burst with leaves, bleeding from green to yellow to red. The sun throws icy light onto the cobbled streets, and the drop in temperature has locals flitting between cafés on their bicycles. Each year, Stockholmers brace themselves for another long winter, which at its height steals the sun away as early as 2 p.m. Yet intriguingly, it is the time when the city is at its most vibrant. The stretched darkness and biting winds draw people inside for long meals of hearty, rich foods and lashings of red wine. Love or hate the dark, winter looks good on Stockholm.
While Denmark has hygge, Sweden has mys––an untranslatable mentality that falls upon the country during its cold months. It evokes scenes of candlelight, too many chairs around a table full of friends, thick scarves and the scent of roasting vegetables. More than any other time of year, winter in Stockholm brings people together. In glimmering bars, over steaming hot coffee with afternoon pastries, and in the folds of its enchanting restaurants, Stockholm feasts on wintertime.
Sankt Eriksgatan 67
Dinner time is precious in Stockholm. In the dark winter months, restaurants hum with visitors dining on foraged and preserved produce from the surrounding land. Few restaurants are as inviting as Gro, which we bundled into on our first night, and few rejoice in the seasons quite as much. Opened in 2013 by friends Henrik Norén and Magnus Willnow, the soul of this small restaurant is in its celebration of the colors, textures and flavors of vegetables. The kitchen stands proudly in the center of the room, surrounded by guests at tables flickering with candlelight. Willnow and Norén converted this space, which was previously a sushi bar, with their own hands. From the walls to the washing up area, Gro is all their own work. “We are both head chefs and pot washers,” Willnow laughs. He and Norén’s love for the place is at the core of Gro. As we melted in and out of our dishes, Norén was always seen checking that everyone in the room was doing the same.
The food at Gro is generous and subtle, each dish revolving around a single ingredient. There are two menus offered: one “Herbivore,” and the other “Carnivore.” The options change constantly, sliding through Sweden’s dramatic seasons. When we visited, Norén served up a fragile little dish of carrots, sea buckthorn and sunflower, followed by juicy arctic char with kohlrabi, and mushrooms of every shape and size with veal and charred onions. This was tied up by a dessert of creamed sweet corn ice cream with a corn meringue crust and blueberries. Each morsel on the plates (which the pair explained are crafted by a hippie potter in the North without running water) came straight from the surrounding lands. “The food needs to taste like here and now,” Norén explains. “Because we are here and now. We let seasons and availability dictate the menu.”
Culinary star Niklas Ekstedt refers to Oaxan’s head chef Magnus Ek as, “The Pope of Nordic Cuisine.” According to him, it was Ek who inspired Rene Redzepi to open noma. High praise indeed.
The marina glistens around the edges of Oaxan, which is housed in an old yellow shipping container. It harks back to the Djurgarden area’s shipyard history with wooden boats hoisted up on the ceiling, while the glassy façade makes art of the calm waters.
The restaurant, which was launched in 2013 by Ek and his wife, Agneta Green, is divided into two parts. The larger portion of the room is dedicated to Oaxan Slip, where a menu of seasonal, satiating food is the backdrop to a bustling bar and dining space. To the far left of the room, tucked behind a black wooden door, is Oaxen Krog, the two-Michelin-starred eating experience. Operating under one roof, Krog and Slip are two entirely different beasts. Slip is a space to eat, drink and be merry. A glut of beautiful wines are on offer alongside rich, flavorful food. Yet just a door away, Krog is an altogether more mature scene. Guests fill the small, half-lit room to indulge in six- or ten-course tasting menus. The food is inventive, studied and serious. In both parts, the silky water and distant lights of the city are an ambient backdrop. Conversation spills into the food at Slip, while at Krog it happens around it.
Dining at Slip, feeling like we were shored up on some magnificent boat, the winter that had been threatening the skies all day came rushing in. The menu that evening was studded with hearty game dishes: a venison steak with glazed root vegetables, a saddle of roe deer with mushroom lard, an allspice venison stew with chanterelles, and a grilled duck breast with pumpkin cream. These were accompanied by colorful little plates of roasted artichokes with smoked mayonnaise, roasted fennel with almonds, and beetroots with browned butter. From December 1, Oaxen Slip serves a Christmas lunch and dinner menu, while “cosy Fridays” offer slices of the finest Nordic meats and a glass of wine. We are sure this place is wonderful in the summer, but as the hours passed, the wine flowed and the air filled with spices, it seemed that Oaxen was created for the winter.
Bakery & Spice
If Stockholm were a smell, it would be gently spiced cinnamon buns browning in the oven. It would also be the scent of slowly baking bread, hot walnuts and delicate little pastries. In fact, it would probably smell like Bakery & Spice, the stalwart of the city’s bakery scene. Breads of every size, shape and shade accompany most meals in Sweden. Whether it is being piled with ribbons of smoked salmon, gilded with salted butter or dipped into a bubbling stew, bread is always on the menu here. And when a restaurant wants the good stuff, they head to Bakery & Spice. The bread and pastries here are delivered fresh from their kitchen in Northern Stockholm each morning. The minimal, airy space houses favourites like their rich rye loaves, focaccia and plump walnut breads. Our day of wandering around Stockholm didn’t really call for an entire loaf of sourdough, but we bought one anyway and carried it round in a brown paper bag all afternoon, feeling like true locals.
Now and then, you come across a place that is entirely shaped by the people behind it. Erlands is one of those places. Manager Max Karsbrink stands at this shimmering bar stirring cocktails with his beloved utensils, jovially greeting visitors like old friends. In fact, sitting the bar with Karsbrink until closing time (at the tender hour of 12 a.m.), it was hard to distinguish which of the guests were regulars and which were new to the place. In the small space, which is lit with candles, humming with blues music and festooned with old furniture and textiles, it is easy to mistake Stockholm for a city practiced in the art of cocktail drinking. But according to Karsbrink, this is not so. “That people are even drinking cocktails in Sweden is nuts!” He explains, spinning us another old fashioned, “A few years ago, if you drank spirits you were seen as an alcoholic. It just wasn’t the done thing. This is a new world for us.”
This newfound respect for hard liquor probably explains the endless warmth inside Erlands. The bar is stocked with a rainbow of gin, whiskey and rum, with the drinks menu presented inside antique books. Alongside the impressive cocktail menu, the kitchen of Erlands churns out traditional, robust food like slow-cooked pork belly with apple puree, locally farmed meats, and burgundy poached pears with candied apple. With the help of the passionate, charming Karsbrink, a bevy of perfect cocktails and plates of decadent food, this glowing room became our home for the evening. And every evening that followed.
Speaking of Stockholm being sure of itself, Barobao’s menu opens with the humble sentence, “There are no words to describe this place.” Happily, though, this is pretty accurate. The gua bao is taking off in the city, and when the cool kids fancy a pillowy bun piled with shredded pork and tangy pickles, they head here. Leafy plants hang from the ceiling and antique botany posters line the walls of this local favorite, which is located on the hip Hornsgatan. The menu is clean and simple, with two carnivorous choices available––strips of pork belly with daikon and crumbled peanuts, and a tender chicken version with kimchi and zesty cabbage. There is also a vegetarian bao stuffed with grilled eggplant, shiitake mayonnaise and celery. There are few things as cockle-warming as a soft Taiwanese bun washed down with hot rice wine. Which probably explains why it is so difficult to pass by Barobao, where customers eat merrily and messily inside and music pipes out the door. We joined the lunchtime revelers to let the bun’s fragrant, spicy fillings spill down our wrist. We ate them with laces of tangy beetroot and a glass of sake, watching the beautiful people of Stockholm swish by on their way home.
Swedes have a famously sweet tooth. And the question of the best cinnamon roll in Stockholm is a prickly one. This traditional creation is central to the Swedish “fika” culture––afternoon coffee with pastries––and there are endless places to sit and watch the world go by with a cup of steaming coffee and a warm, spiced bun. We spent a few grueling days combing the city’s cafes to find our favorite sweet treat, and eventually named Saturnus our number one. The kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls) in this French café are afternoon delight in its purest form. Churned with spices and punches of cardamom, the huge twists of dough perfume the whole room. Finding a seat at teatime might be something of a task, but once you are sitting down, scooping up cappuccino froth with hunks of soft bun, you’ll understand why locals flock here each afternoon.