With Chef Esben Holmboe Bang of Maaemo at Dill
My lifelong hatred of dill makes me a terrible champion of New Nordic cuisine. At age seven I swore to my mom I would try my best to eradicate the herb—and now I find myself in a restaurant named after that noxious weed. My skin may be the colour of cauliflower soup, but my taste buds are bulgur brown.
It hasn’t helped that the Icelandic food scene has mostly embraced the parts of New Nordic cuisine that suited our aims (reaffirming patriotism and separating tourists from their money) but left out the tricky bits, like carefully sourcing and foraging your ingredients. Dill is the notable exception here, having embraced the manifesto more readily than any other restaurant in Iceland.
Recently, Dill played host to Esben Holmboe Bang, head chef of Maaemo in Oslo, the first place in Scandinavia to be awarded two Michelin stars (at least to the best of my knowledge—my Fox Mulder fan site on Geocities was better-designed than the Michelin restaurant site).
Getting last-minute seating at one of the most innovative restaurants in Iceland, and being treated to grub by a guest chef with enough Michelin under its wheelhouse to take the show on the road is, for a person like me, like waking up to David Bowie asking where he can plug in his amplifier.
Esben doesn’t seem that flustered by his growing fame, but he still puts a lot of stock by the Michelin star system. “I think the Michelin system is still enormously important and has been something very important to me personally from a young age. It‘s a valuable rating for restaurants and something I value personally.” He hesitates and wants to elaborate: any chef worth his salt knows better than to bite the feeding hand of Michelin. “But in general, I think ranking restaurants is nearly impossible, since everyone’s experience and taste is completely different.”
Out of nowhere, a hamster-optimized carrot and cheese sandwich appears in front of me next to a glass of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé. This is followed by another sandwich. This time it’s a crispy wafer of chicken skin with a mousse of smoked eel and an herbal cream. Like bacon if pigs were thin and lacked pelvic fins. A delicate and delicious transformation of traditional palate ravagers.
During prep, Esben had settled on a ‘90s playlist. He comes gliding into the kitchen, tattooed forearms, confident but not overbearing, tall but with an impish smile. He’s flanked by Gunni, the owner of Dill, and his cuddly Maaemo sous chef Jay Boyle. Esben reminds me of Lars von Trier, except far less sadistic and far more intimidating.
The crispy wafers keep coming. This time it’s rye bread and an angelica mustard. Creative uses for rye bread were once a pleasant innovation but rye bread ice-cream, croutons and crumble grace every other restaurant these days. But the angelica mustard carries the dish into the clouds. Meanwhile, the beef tartar with charred celeriac is over-seasoned and underwhelming.
Maaemo has always maintained a focus on 100% organic ingredients and a close “collaboration” with nature. Even the name Maaemo translates as “Mother Earth” in Old Norse. Esben has professed an affinity with growers working according to the biodynamic ideology of Rudolf Steiner—also known as anthroposophism. It’s an approach to agriculture that—at the extreme end of the spectrum—believes in planting bullhorns stuffed with quartz crystals to ensure a good harvest. Indeed, Steiner is controversial in some circles, but Esben isn’t biting. “We do focus on organic produce and seasonal local ingredients but I’m not sure that I would say I am working along the Rudolf Steiner system. What we found is that the farmers we like to work with, many of which are working under the biodynamic system, have the kind of approach and relationship with agriculture that delivers consistently good produce. I don’t know how much of that is thanks to Steiner, but the results speak for themselves.”
Before I can grill him further, two sourdough buns the size of large profiteroles come arranged as eggs in a nest of straws. This is followed by one of Esben’s classic creations: small, autumn-red Oxalis leaves draped over beets in a sloe berry syrup. Elegant, easy on the eye and surprisingly complex. The nature is strong in this one.
I ask Esben about which Icelandic ingredients most appeal to him and he immediately singles out the Icelandic seaweed. “It’s got a very interesting, unique taste, I would want to explore it further.” Typical of chefs lumped with the New Nordic movement, he seems to favour a stripped-down approach and to focus his energy on the discovery and foraging of raw ingredients.
Similarly, the interiors of Dill have been stripped to expose the old walls and weathered wooden doors, as hip restaurant designers are wont. The beams above the serving table are supported by thick anchor ropes. Below the ropes, the chefs are breezing through the ten-course menu. Dill head chef Gunni (Gunnar Karl Gíslason), a precise and likeable man, seems a little inhibited next to his Danish colleague. Esben’s choice to play nothing but ‘90s NOW compilations over dinner is not helping, making Gunni visibly perplexed.
Rhythm Of The Night
No more mister nice guy. Now I’m being served a raw oyster mayonnaise dotted with viridian green dill emulsion. Woodsy, oily and unlike anything I’ve tasted. Like an ocean breeze blowing through dead leaves. The Ragotière is perfectly paired—both mineral and boozy. This white wine is so butch I had to shave the bottle just to glimpse the label.
This is followed by a whiskey-yellow Pascal Lachau chardonnay to accompany the smoked char processed like wind-dried halibut (harðfiskur) and shredded over a dollop of potato mousse. The tweezers must have got a workout with this one.
The silky-voiced sommelier swings by with a swig of Lustau East India Solera Sherry and asks if I want the long version or the short one. I’m not sure what he means at first but inform him that I have nowhere better to be. He regales me with an epic poem of the grape’s struggle to get into my liver: a perilous journey littered with gently sloping hillsides and aged caskets. Someone please give this guy a radio show.
If his soothing tones aren’t enough, that unmistakable first notes of Sisqó’s “Thong Song” can be heard in the background—the universal herald of suave dining.
I am confronted with a strange pudding, a Norwegian “Very Sour Cream” worked into a béchamel-like texture. It’s drizzled with plum vinegar and sprinkled with dried smoked reindeer heart. The brilliantly paired port brings the acid to the party. Like a raisin-y porridge with a cup of acidic coffee.
Soon after, the lamb shoulder with spruce needles, spruce oil and pink flowers from freshly picked mother-of-thyme arrives. I can smell that dish forever and bury my nose in it. The lamb is tender, but it does seem like the sous-vide has gotten the better of the more virile heating methods.
U Can’t Touch This
September marks the ten-year anniversary of the Nordic cuisine symposium where the manifesto for New Nordic Cuisine was born. I was curious to see what Esben felt the future had in store for the movement which he is so often associated with. “In a way, I think New Nordic cuisine is dead. I would not consider Maeemo a New Nordic restaurant anymore.” He seems mildly irritated. “New Nordic has become an umbrella term for all the food being made in Nordic restaurants, and is therefore quite meaningless. This was an exciting movement but I feel that in the last decade we have seen the New Nordic movement come into its own. It has accomplished its goal by giving Nordic food a place on the global food scene like French or Italian cuisine. It has its own identity and different restaurants are now taking it in different directions.” World domination accomplished with calm, Nordic precision—I’m starting to think Esben would make for a pretty decent supervillain.
I finished, my plate so now I get to have my desserts. Joy! In front of me is a wooden plate with skyr, raw celery, foraged cicely, a celery sorbet and a brave squadron of roasted oats. I remove the mandatory sprig of dill they had tried to poison me with. The cicely is absolutely inspired and the sorbet wonderfully sharp and fresh.
This is followed by ice cream made from browned salted butter from Røros over a slick of toffee with the aroma of strong coffee. This dish has been featured on the Maaemo menu from the beginning, and for good reason. It’s absolute unadulterated heroin. I could eat this every day until I die. And I probably would die. Rapidly.
I’m stuffed. And the mix-up with the drink menu means they had thrown a couple of extra glasses in me. This has been a feast but I can’t help thinking back to the tragic selection of rotting Dutch shapes in the Bónus vegetable aisle. How could a normal person in a country like Iceland ever hope to eat seasonally and locally and according to the New Nordic maxim (dead as it may be)?
“Well, the climate in Norway and Iceland are not that dissimilar and of course your average home cook in Norway is using a lot of imported ingredients,” Esben says. “But I think on a restaurant level, it’s absolutely possible to work on a local and seasonal basis. Although with climate change and migrating species the idea of what is local and seasonal is changing constantly. Who knows what the future will bring for Iceland?”
Well, the recent past brought me a very memorable meal at a moment’s notice. But you heard the man! Cast your eyes on the future, skillet-wielders! Raise your scythes and harvest those sea-buckthorns! But whatever you do, don’t call it New Nordic—Esben has his finger on the controls for the doomsday laser.
As I stumble out into the seasonless Icelandic climate, the Danish national anthem can be heard faintly in the background: “I’m a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world. Life in plastic, it’s fantastic.”
Yeah, life is pretty fantastic sometimes.
Who is Esben Holmboe Bang?
He was born in Denmark.
He’s an award winning chef.
He owns and operates the restaurant Maaemo in Oslo, Norway. That restaurant was Scandinavia’s first to earn TWO Michelin stars (those are very fancy).
He is also Maaemo’s Head Chef.
He knows what he’s doing. He acted as guest chef at Dill over one magical weekend last month.