Astral is a rough fine dining restaurant, or maybe it’s more descriptive to call it a Nordic brasserie with a tasting menu. The setting is certainly very relaxed. Naked, dark wooden tables, exposed brick wall, industrial windows and a moose head above some jars of homemade vinegar. Certainly one of the most spectacular dining room in Oslo, with supreme headroom to the roof in the old factory building which was once part of the historical Denofa-Lilleborg company. In the kitchen, Steffen Hansen is in charge, while restaurant manager and sommelier Ragnhild Wright Ousland controls the floor.
Getting there and back again
You might remember that their seasonal patio restaurant Straa opened last summer, with a menu that apparently served as a teaser of what we could expect from Astral. Back then, I only got around to testing lunch at Straa a few times, but recently I found an excuse to visit Astral as well. The two sister eateries are located along Akerselva in the area of Lilleborg. While that may not sound like central Oslo to most people, it’s actually just a short tram ride from the city centre or Grünerløkka to Torshov, either that or you can catch any of the buses that go to Sagene.
Happy 50th birthday to Erik Valebrokk!
Our good friend Erik Valebrokk celebrated his 50th birthday last year, and our present to him was a dinner together with us and his wonderful wife Helle. Later on, when I was nominated for the innovator of the year-award together with HellesKitchen and Spiselandslaget, I thought it would be a shame not to ask Maj-Britt and Filmfyren to join as well. Bada bing, bada boom! That’s how the three most innovative food bloggers in Oslo ended up together at Astral, enjoying the full tasting menu, cocktails, and as always – too many bottles of wine. Thank goodness we had booze to restrain some of that creativity bubbling inside of us!
Astral is a word linked to the cosmic and spirituality. It can mean to have an out-of-body experience. While I am not sure that’s the feeling they want to communicate, I can certainly imagine hovering high up in the ceiling of Astral and looking down at the six of us as we ordered our cocktail aperitifs. Snap back to reality, I wasn’t too pleased with my red beets cocktail, but it was more down to personal preferences than the drink being poorly made. Looking back, I am not quite sure why on earth I would order a beets-based cocktail when I prefer more refreshing liquids in my glass. I guess I was curious. Erik Valebrokk muttered some words about his negroni being too sweet, but we all agreed that the gin & tonic was tasty.
Three snacks hit the table shortly after our drinks arrived. Homemade fenalår (salted dried and cured leg of lamb), oat biscuits with lingonberries, Nýr fresh cheese and shaved, smoked reindeer heart, and lastly wheat- and beer pillows filled with Kalix løyrom (vendace roe), sour cream from Røros and horseradish. As you can tell, very Nordic ingredients and flavors. I quite liked the taste of them all, although none were fantastic, but I would easily have traded the fenalår for one more bite of the biscuit with smoked heart shavings.
The first plate to come out just happened to be my favorite dish of the night, and it was all vegetarian! A confit egg yolk played the lead role, with Finnish sturgeon caviar as the second in command. Velvety, salty and rich. The cream of celeriac and sour cream from Røros gave the dish sweetness, almost caramelised notes, while the juice of celeriac, apple and parsley contributed with acidity and freshness. Well-balanced taste and textures, which unfortunately lacked a bit in the next one to arrive.
Although I loved each and every individual ingredient that went into the scallops dish, from the browned butter mayo to the pickled gooseberries, it just didn’t play that well together. Sadly, the entire table seemed to agree on that point. Additionally, I think the elegant, raw scallops just drowned in too many supporting flavors. Would it have worked better with a cooked scallop? I’m not sure, but it would have worked much better on film with a better light. At this point, the sun had set, and unfortunately, the lamps at Astral provided horribly bad lighting. Apologies for the poor quality ahead.
Surf and turf with lardo (!)
The third course was a huge piece of langoustine from Frøya. Not quite the size you get at Maaemo, but certainly very close. Boiled onions gave the dish a bitter flavor, which I am not sure was intentional. I would have preferred baked, sweeter onions, but I liked the broken sauce of fermented lemon and buttermilk. However, the three-year-old lardo from Amass in Copenhagen was the true highlight of this serving. The silky, fatty texture of the umami-rich lardo, together with the sweet and gently cooked langoustine created magic.
Next up, another winner around the table. French white asparagus with an espuma hollandaise flavored with finger kelp. Also starring the Icelandic seaweed søl, which, in addition to umami flavor, also has a sweetness and an interesting texture – almost like sheets of dried fruit. Lastly, toasted almonds from Spain, which added crunch and proves that Astral is not dogmatic about using Nordic produce.
A bonus dish of burnt and pickled onions wasn’t too well received amongst my fellow diners, but I quite liked it. It acted almost like a teaser of the heavier main course which was next to arrive: Slow cooked, tender lamb from Jæren. Luckily, not a huge slab of meat, because we were at least starting to feel the inside-of-body experience of Astral now.
Helle and Erik’s story
At this point, we had finished the Magnum bottle of Foillard Morgon Côte du Py and decided to skip sweet dessert wines since none of us really cared too much for that. Instead, we let our sommelier Ragnhild choose a nice white wine. You should have seen how Erik and Helle literally cheered when she arrived with a bottle of Lieu Dit Chenin Blanc. As it turns out, a few days prior the lovely couple had renewed their vows in Las Vegas. After the Elvis-themed wedding, they had a table booked at David Chang’s Momofuku. Believe it or not, but the restaurant had fucked up the reservations that night, and didn’t have a spare seat for the newlyweds! Long story short, Erik used his masterly skills in the written English language, and luckily, the next day they were invited back for a compensatory dinner. Apparently, Lieu Dit was their favorite wine of that night!
Hits and misses, but more than approved
An interesting cheese serving with a cold espuma pear puree worked quite well towards the end of the meal. I learned from eating at Straa last summer, that Steffen Hansen loves beets – even in desserts. I’m still not that convinced, although the first dessert was saved by being well-balanced with the fresh cheese cream underneath. I even liked it better than the final dessert, but that’s not why I have skipped the photo of the latter – the dish just performed really poorly in the dreadful light we had at this point. Jerusalem artichoke ice cream, shaved cream of brown cheese, browned butter and toasted hazelnuts. How damn delicious doesn’t that sound, though? Still, somehow, the brown cheese ruined the dish for me, but I should mention that others around the table disagreed.
Nevertheless, despite both hits and misses throughout the meal, Astral still enters my map of favorite places in Oslo by a good margin. I support people with a passion, and even more those with skills to make delicious food and create a wonderful setting to match. With a 10-course tasting menu priced at NOK 795, Astral is an oasis along Akerselva in the outskirts of Oslo city centre. Get on the tram or move that bus!
Did you also enjoy Astral or Straa? Please share in a comment below what you think.