Luxurious French fine dining hasn’t exactly been a trend in Oslo lately. In fact, almost every new restaurant that opens these days seems to stress the fact that they are casual, relaxed, affordable, and available neighborhood bistros or brasseries. And Heaven forbid they have a concept!? Everybody wants to be free to make whatever kind of food they feel like. Enter restaurant À L’aise. Formal. French. Classic. Luxurious. A strict dress code. Wall-to-wall carpeting. A subtle off-white coloring. White table cloth with a tasteful thickness to it. Oh my God, they even have a Champagne trolley…
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The Prices of a One-Michelin-Starred Restaurants
In the kitchen of restaurant À L’aise is none other than the Danish chef Ulrik Jepsen, who’s excellent cooking we have experienced before at Engø Gård. The menu card, in a beautiful little book bearing the À L’aise colors and visual trademarks, gave us the choice of a tasting menu (NOK 1495) or à la carte. With starters priced at NOK 300, main courses at NOK 400, and desserts closer to NOK 250, the set menu seemed like the best choice. The prices put the cost of a meal at À L’aise somewhere between Kontrast and Statholdergaarden, just to compare it to the other one-Michelin-starred restaurants in this city (I can only assume that is the ambition level here).
Snacks Reminiscent of Engø Gård
We asked to enjoy our aperitif in the lounge area where the Champagne trolley is parked (very handy). A series of bite-size snacks arrived, some of which we immediately recognized from Engø Gård. Specifically, the walnuts with foie gras and the cheese canelés seemed to have fit well into Ulrik’s luggage when he moved from Tjøme to the capital. From all the snacks, the latter is the most outstanding piece with its salty and caramelized cheese flavor.
A Nordic Touch to French Haute Cuisine
Seated at our table, we were presented with a choice of two types of bread. I picked the brioche, which was deliciously warm, airy and buttery. Sadly, the actual French butter on the side was served too cold. But only the first serving. For the second (and third, and fourth) time we got refills, it was soft and spreadable. An Eggs Benedict dish marked the transition from snacks to starters. Clearly, Ulrik loves quail eggs, which I also remember being a snack at Engø Gård. The first starter was actually more Nordic than French: a Skrei tartare. This dish worked amazingly well with its balance of salt, citrus, and herb flavors, and soft and crunchy textures.
The second starter was langoustine with red beets and raspberry vinegar. I can see what chef Jepsen was trying to do, by combining the delicate sweetness of the crustacean with the acidity and sweetness of beets and berries, but I couldn’t feel the harmony in the flavors. In this case, the Nordic touch didn’t fit the French haute cuisine. The sauce was overpowering and camouflaged the wonderful produce from Frøya. However, this was one of the very few misses in a long meal. In fact, as soon as the next serving arrived, we had forgotten all about it. Agnolotti, a pasta pillow, was filled with the leftover langoustine claw meat, and topped with caviar and a Coraline sauce. Buttery, salty, and warming. Just the way À L’aise should taste.
Surf’n’Turf & Krug Champagne
There were minor details with dishes like the scallops Royale which wasn’t perfect. The milk skin was thick and rather flavorless, although it did contribute visually with a nice pattern. On top and underneath, hid a lot of flavor, though: Ibérico ham, Piedmont hazelnuts, and black Périgord truffle. That’s luxury plated, right there (just add some caviar and gold leafs, right?). Ulrik was in surf’n’turf territory with the next course as well. Skate wing combined with glazed pork ribs, and yet another butter sauce – this time aromatic. In the glass: 2003 Krug Champagne. From here on it was pretty much straight uphill!
Too Many Highlights to Pick a Favorite
Foie gras de canard was possibly the best pan-fried duck liver dish I’ve had. It had a perfect consistency and was balanced by the sweet and tangy sauce of ginger and long pepper. Just as we were discussing what our favorite dish of the meal had been so far, our most treasured plate from Engø Gård made a reappearance! Ravioli with wild boar and mushroom consommé. So rich and fulfilling – it takes a Danish chef to make an ingenious creation like this. After all, with the exception of Bent Stiansen’s one Michelin-starred Statholdergaarden, the two other Michelin stars in Oslo belongs to a Danish and Swedish chef. So it wouldn’t surprise me if the next two go to our neighboring countries as well (I’m thinking, of course, of Bokbacka and restaurant À L’aise).
Were we still at starters or did we make it to the main courses? Were we really in Norway, or was it the French countryside? And what’s that touch of Danish finesse? Chef Ulrik Jepsen had us all befuddled. Happily so, I should say, and at least the first question was cleared up when the dish of veal “en croûte” came. Clearly, this was the evening’s highlight (at least, until we got the next dish). Perfectly cooked veal tenderloin inside the crispest and lightest bread coating you can imagine. Any sane person would stop at this point, but one item on the à la carte menu was practically screaming at us: “Pigeon en crépinette” with foie gras and truffle. It sure as hell wasn’t hunger that drove us (read: me) to order it. Rather, it was curiosity – could it be the best one? All I know is that after eating it, I thought: “Now I can die happy.”
The Mr. Creosote Moment
Some restaurants have excellent savory dishes, but struggle when it comes to desserts. At À L’aise you get the best of both worlds. Technically, Ulrik does a flawless job. Just look at that sugar eclipse on the Mont Blanch, or the full chocolate circle surrounding the crispy mango cigar – which, by the way, is just as tasty as it looks. The latter was definitely my top pick among the three we tried, but it did get strong competition from another technical masterpiece – the snowball. I take my hat off, and bow to chef Ulrik Jepsen. He hasn’t just reintroduced the classical cooking to Oslo, he has also put his very personal touch to it, and proven that it still has its place in this city. Even if you’re left with heartburn, and a lingering heart attack, as you mutter your final words: “I’ll have the petits fours to go, please.” You better get home before someone offers Mr. Creosote a wafer-thin mint.
Are you excited to have classical French cooking back in Oslo? Please share your thoughts in a comment below.