“This isn’t a normal restaurant” is what strikes us the moment we walk through the doors. A subtle aroma of smoke laces the air, faint sounds from a crackling fire echo in the background and in the back of the kitchen, flames keep on flickering, lighting up the faces of the chefs. It feels like we’ve walked into a something like a luxurious mountain hut, and not a Michelin-star restaurant in the very centre of Stockholm.
“…subtle aroma of smoke laces the air, faint sounds from a crackling fire echo in the background”
Dimmed lamps might light the way to our table but in the kitchen at Ekstedt, electricity is frowned upon. “Every piece of food in this restaurant is cooked over an open fire”, head chef, Florencia Abella, informs us at our table, explaining that this happens ”either on the 18th century stove and open fire in the back kitchen, or on the wood-fired oven in the dining room”. She concludes by saying that “fire is an integral part of Ekstedt’s DNA.” and the light in her eyes tell me that cooking with flames is also a part of her Argentinian DNA.
Abella is the boss in this kitchen but the restaurant was created by Niklas Ekstedt, the notoriously hyper-active Swedish chef who opened Ekstedt as his flagship site in 2011, based on an idea he had of “bringing my love for outdoor cooking from my northern Swedish childhood into a fine-dining setting.” He had told us as much during the inaugural edition of Food Stock, his annual open-air food festival planned to take place on a tiny island in the Stockholm archipelago each summer. A festival, which turned the highly picturesque island into the temporary home of a dozen open fire pits, each operated by some of the most acclaimed names in modern cooking.
“The fire in her eyes tell me that cooking with flames is also a part of her Argentinian DNA”
Back in Stockholm’s city centre though, here we were, a group of food writers from all corners of the world ready to find out how an Argentinian head chef interprets Nordic fire cooking. A couple of logs were thrown onto the fires and then the show began. Raw shrimp arrived in a coal-infused cream with a smoked broth of shrimp and Tagetis oil. The sweetness of the shrimp alongside the rich cream and floral notes from the oil triggered a hunger for more. More smoke. More fire.
Langoustines and squid came next, grilled over oak and hay and served with seaweed salad alongside a sauce made from the grilled heads of the langoustines – an exhilarating combination with the soft structure and sublime quality of the seafood playing rock’n roll alongside the umami-punching head liquid sauce. A huge porter house steak cut from a Swedish milk cow is presented to us raw, but our piece has already been slow grilling all night long, elevated high above the flames over low heat and smoke, Argentinian asado style. When we finally are served the finished meat, it’s especially the quality of the beef that shines through.
“A couple of logs were thrown onto the fires and then the show began”
In the middle of the meal, the sous chef approached our table with a stern look, saying “come with me, we’re gonna put something into the fire.” Huddled around a small fire pit in the dining room, a couple of freshly shucked wild rock oysters were presented. Then, out of the glowing embers, the chef pulled out a flambadou. “For god’s sake, please stand back!” he exclaimed before putting some lard from a dairy cow into the cone of the glowing hot iron. With loud sparks and sizzles the fat melted, dripping onto the raw oysters, which were then garnished with smoked apple spheres, butter sauce and nasturtium. We ate them at the table, marvelling at how these meaty oysters were perfectly conceived for cooking in fat and fire.
With every dish it became apparent just how rooted the food at Ekstedt is in the concept of neo-Nordic and a profound celebration of localism. At the same time though, it stays devoid of any eccentric fine-dining quirkiness or excess complexity. This food is as real and grounded as the techniques used to cook it, an approach that’s also reflected in the low-key natural wine pairing served by modest and genuine service staff at a price point significantly lower than many Stockholm fine-dining peers.
“..an exhilarating combination with the soft structure and sublime quality of the seafood playing rock’n roll alongside the umami-punching head liquid sauce”
The meal continued while we sat and chatted and watched the fires slowly die down as guests left. The longer I spoke to both Abella and Ekstedt, the clearer it became that the wildness of the fire and flames in this kitchen are perfectly balanced by the mild and modest characters of the people working it. Ekstedt is often put in the same category as open-fire industry peers such as Etxebarri in the Basque Country or Firedoor in Sydney, but realistically it can’t really be compared to anything. Niklas Ekstedt has created a unique restaurant and Florencia Abella is well on her way of taking it on a leap from one to two Michelin stars.
When I woke up the next morning, a hint of smoke on my clothes reminded me of a very special experience. As I left the hotel an hour later, I couldn’t smell it anymore. I suppose that means I have to return to Ekstedt, very soon.