What do you do when you’ve reached the top as the only three-Michelin starred restaurant in Norway’s history? You risk it all and reinvent yourself, of course. In December of 2019, two days before the 9th anniversary of his restaurant, executive chef and co-founder Esben Holmboe Bang closed the doors of Maaemo 1.0 on Schweigaardsgate for good. He had exhausted all options at that venue – it was too small and it was time for something new. Three months later, in early March 2020, Holmboe Bang opened Maaemo 2.0. The new restaurant is located just 300 meters from the old one, over the train tracks that lead into Oslo central station, in the new Oslobukta neighborhood. On the ground floor of Dronning Eufemias gate 23, in an otherwise residential apartment building, you now find Norway’s top-rated restaurant. Actually, you don’t. Technically, Maaemo now has zero stars – but don’t let that prevent you from booking a table.
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MAAEMO Address & Contact Information Dronning Eufemias gate 23, Oslo, Norway Website Instagram Facebook
From Three to Zero Stars
The rumors we had heard were true. When Esben Holmboe Bang entered the stage in Trondheim for the launch of the Michelin Guide Nordic Countries 2020, he officially revealed that Maaemo would not keep its three stars in 2020. Instead, he discussed with Michelin’s international director, Gwendal Poullennec, how they would have to earn them back again in 2021. Our original prediction had been that Maaemo would retain the stars despite closing down and moving location. That’s what we had seen happen previously with restaurant Re-naa in 2019. However, it appears that the Michelin Guide must have stricter rules for a three-star than a one-star restaurant (which Re-naa was back then).
A Long-Awaited Dinner at Maaemo 2.0
Initially, we had a reservation at Maaemo 2.0 on their original opening day in February (we were present for the very last meal at Maaemo 1.0, so it only seemed right). However, we also learned something else from Holmboe Bang’s brief appearance on the stage in Trondheim: due to unforeseen events, Maaemo’s opening would be postponed until March 4th. That meant we had to push our reservation to a much later date (which also never happened due to a global pandemic and a worldwide lockdown). So finally, in mid-June, we were able to ring the doorbell of the new Maaemo on Dronning Eufemias gate for the first time. Third time’s the charm.
A doorbell is a clever way to allow guests to announce their arrival, something we’ve only ever seen before at Kadeau in Copenhagen, Frantzén in Stockholm, and Ernst in Berlin. The door opened and Maaemo’s restaurant manager Niklas Johansson welcomed us inside with pandemic-appropriate elbow bumps and a personal bottle of hand sanitizer. We could not help but notice the huge concrete column that dominates the striking entryway, where the ceiling height is at least three times that of a normal room. The walls on the left side have adjustable wooden boards that function as vertical window blinds, letting in only strips of sunlight. Something about it reminded us of a cathedral, or an art museum.
From Open Glass House to Dark Cave
The day after our meal at Maaemo, we met with Esben Holmboe Bang for an interview. We chose the only room in the restaurant that has natural light – the upstairs private dining room. Holmboe Bang reiterated much of what he told us back in January before the move, but also revealed some new details. The decision to move was made two years ago and came from an urge to develop further. Esben explained that they started to feel boxed in at Schweigaardsgate 15B, which is ironic when you consider that the old space was like an open glass house and the new venue is closer to a dark cave. However, Holmboe Bang was referring to the size of the kitchen and dining room, which created a lot of limitations for him. The new space is five times the size, but actually seats fewer guests.
“The whole reason for doing it was to elevate the guest experience. One of the things I missed over at the old space, was this journey you can take your guests on, where you come in and you relax in a space before you enter the dining room, and then you can wind down after the meal, which was impossible at the old space since it was so small,” Esben explained.
Esben’s Living Room
Johansson led us downstairs to the lounge, where the first part of the meal plays out. This is also where you return after the main part of the dinner, to enjoy desserts and petits fours. Once again, Frantzén comes to mind as a restaurant with a similar format, but also Vespertine in Los Angeles. A mix of elegant, light-brown leather chairs and plush velvet armchairs in pastel colors invite you to sink comfortably in and relax. Clean, cold, concrete floors and walls on one side are contrasted by a warm, wooden ceiling and walls on the other side. Sleek Scandinavian design is matched by “hygge” elements like a fireplace that burns throughout the evening. Familiar tunes flow out from the Bang & Olufsen speakers – the playlists are, of course, curated by Holmboe Bang himself.
The first serving of the night was a rye cracker with yeast and mushrooms – all flavors that have been with Maaemo from the beginning, but in a new combination. A fried mini doughnut filled with duck liver parfait and glazed with fermented honey was brand new. The next snack was a highlight for us – a tart made from caramelized onions filled with aged beef, horseradish, and chanterelles, topped with chive flowers and ramson capers. To end the living room service was a welcome reunion with a Maaemo classic: lompe (potato pancake) topped with beer-steamed langoustine (the meat from the claws), and elm shoots. This dish has come in many variations throughout the years, but this was one of the best.
Holmboe Bang has designed the space himself together with architects and interior designers. There are elements that remind us of a home, for example, the doorbell you have to ring to enter, or the cozy lounge area. In fact, Esben specifically views it as an extension of his living room rather than a lounge: “I wanted people to be invited into my living room, where they can unwind, have a glass of Champagne, listen to some music, there’s a fireplace…”
Dramatic Lighting in a Shadow Temple
Moving upstairs, we were greeted by Holmboe Bang for the first time. Esben pressed a button on the wall and a door slid open, revealing the main dining room. Seated in yet another comfortable leather chair, the first thing we noticed was the lack of music (much to Kaitlin’s dismay). Although this room felt slightly more formal than the lounge, the naked wood elements (floor and tables) create a relaxed setting compared to Maaemo’s old space where every table had white tablecloths and the floors were carpeted. “My brother made the tables,” Holmboe Bang told us proudly. His brother also made the sommelier’s service station that floats like an island in the middle of the dining room, and several other wooden elements.
From where we were seated, we overlooked the entire dining room, with the kitchen looming like a shadow temple to our left. The kitchen is almost in complete darkness, with the exception of spotlights that shoot a direct beam of light down on the counter, illuminating only the area where the chefs are working. Most of the time, you see their hands and arms lit up, but not their faces. “In this space, we were able to work more with dramatic lighting and distance ourselves from the outside world. The old space was all windows,” Holmboe Bang explained. If you have been following Maaemo’s Instagram account over the years, you would have noticed that the food photos were always very dark and moody, despite the inescapable natural lighting of the old venue. Clearly, Esben preferred that dramatic mood as a way to present his creations, and now, he has built it the way he wanted it from the ground up.
Opposite the kitchen, the wall to our right was covered in what looked like a giant carpet. “It’s made of leftover wool from bunad [Norway’s national costume] production,” explained restaurant manager Johansson. The pattern reminded Kaitlin of a snow-covered forest, and Anders of the fat marbling he once saw on a stretched out lamb belly in a meat market in Moscow.
The Maaemo DNA is Still Present
When we talked with Holmboe Bang the following day, he stressed how important it was that he could bring his DNA and identity into the new space: “We want to reinvent ourselves, but we don’t want to lose who we are. The cooking is mine, still.” After multiple meals at the old Maaemo, we, like many others, worried that some of the dishes we love the most would not be on the menu anymore. Holmboe Bang was frightfully aware of this issue and assured us that it has been the topic of many discussions with his team. “There are definitely dishes that people want to eat here. At the same time, it’s also important for us that we dare to change those dishes,” he explained.
At this point, we had, of course, enjoyed the meal already, and knew that signature dishes like the cold oyster emulsion with a warm mussel and dill sauce is still present on the menu. As is the sour cream porridge (rømmegrøt) with shaved reindeer heart, brown butter, and plum vinegar. They should need no further introduction, and, luckily, they were as good as ever. Less of a signature, but a dish we also had on the final night of Maaemo 1.0 was king crab in smoked reindeer broth with chicken fat. This was extremely buttery, sweet, and even more delicious than the last time we tasted it.
Finally, the langoustine tail that Maaemo has moved on and off the menu many times over the years was back in its best rendition to date. First of all, the piece of langoustine is just ridiculously large – more similar to a lobster. (Fun fact: langoustine is also known as the Norway lobster, which makes no sense since there are also actual lobsters in the cold Norwegian waters). The size allows Maaemo’s chefs to grill the tail over burning embers, all while brushing it with a syrup made from blackcurrant branches. This creates an almost crispy, sticky, caramelized crust that traps all the juices inside. Combined with a creamy sauce flavored with blackcurrant leaves, the dish hit on all the right flavor notes. Shortlisted for the best dishes of 2020!
A Produce-Driven Kitchen
A new dish that we truly enjoyed was the green asparagus from Hitra gratinated with aged cheese and topped with wild garlic and flowers. It was fresh and fatty at the same time. “How do you like the new menu?” Viviane Mello asked excitedly. We knew Mello from her time at Noma, but after a short stint in her home country of Brazil, she returned to take over the sous chef position at Maaemo. The old Maaemo 1.0 will always have a special place in our hearts since it’s where we met for the very first time, but we had to confess that we loved the food and ambiance at the new place even more.
Another highlight among the 2020 creations was the wild salmon with a foamy sauce of white asparagus and hazelnuts, with salted white currants and onions. “Fresh, line-caught, wild salmon is probably one of the best things in the world,” said Holmboe Bang as he served us this delicacy from the Norwegian fjords. Esben described his kitchen as very produce-driven: “We don’t have a goal to be the most innovative restaurant, but it’s very important for me that the produce you get here is the best you can get anywhere.” The salmon was accompanied by a glass of Jura wine from Stéphane Tissot that perfectly picked up on the nutty and caramelized flavors of the dish. Just one example of the great pairing that wine director Michał Gielas had prepared this evening.
The meal ended where it started, in the comfort of Esben’s living room, where we enjoyed the strongest lineup of desserts that we have witnessed at Maaemo. Our favorites were the honey lavender ice cream with wild strawberries, the super buttery cinnamon buns that were braided in an old Viking pattern, and the new version of yet another signature dish. “The brown butter dessert always seems to cause the most outrage when people realize they won’t get the full version,” Holmboe Bang confessed. The bad news? What used to be a full scoop of ice cream has been reduced to a tiny little soft serve. The good news? All the flavors have been preserved. The hazelnut crumble is now a cornichon instead, and the coffee molasses is found at the bottom of the cone. Even better – you can ask for seconds! And thirds… and fourths…
We can forgive you, Esben, for killing the O.G. brown butter ice cream serving, and even the waffles made with dry-aged ox fat (currently on the menu as canelés), as long as you promise that they might return in their original splendor at some point. Deal?
Have you eaten at Maaemo 1.0 and 2.0? How do they compare in your opinion? Feel free to leave a comment below.