Goodness, Dubai needs to take note of what is happening in Enigma at the Palazzo Versace hotel. How’s this for a wacky concept?! They have partnered with a celebrity chef from Sweden – who has had two Michelin stars to his name in his restaurant – Chef Björn Frantzén. Not yet impressed? No, I wouldn’t be either – but what I type next will blow your little cotton socks off.
You see, when I speak about Enigma restaurant partnering with Chef Björn, I don’t only mean for the opening, where he collects his cheque, kisses a few babies, throws some cloudberries into the crowd and gets back on the next Emirates flight to Stockholm. I mean, he’s there – in the kitchen with his team, cooking like a real chef. Furthermore, he’s there until the end of June! I know, I know – what a disruptive concept – it’ll never catch on.
Here in Dubai, we prefer our celebrity chefs to bugger off as soon as the opening party finishes and leave their restaurant floundering in some underlings hands.
The Journey of a Nordic Chef is a twelve-course menu built loosely around Nordic ingredients, such as dill, lingonberries, fir tree, deer, scallops & MDF – OK, maybe not MDF. Symbolically, the journey starts with a macaron and ends with a macaron. There is something satisfying about bringing the menu full circle with something that is circle shaped.
Also, it is not lost on me that Michelin Stars are often called macarons, and the two macarons on the menu perhaps represent two stars his restaurant earned back in Sweden. If it wasn’t intentional, they should just pretend it was and send me a cheque in the mail.
The room is minimalistic by Versace’s standards, but that still means decorative tiled flooring, arches, and a central contemporary chandelier. It is a room that is quite perfect for what Enigma is trying to be – a blank canvas for the food to shine on. There are no fancy chairs or water features – the room is understated quality, its only job is to provide a space where chef and guest can engage.
As we sat outside on the terrace with our pre-dinner cocktail, images of Sweden were projected onto a nearby wall with photos of farmhouses covered in snow and the northern lights dancing over quaint little villages. Adding to the atmosphere were songs such as Cats in the Cradle by Harry Chapin and something by Elvis Presley – those well-known Nordic songsters.
Chef Björn approached our table and welcomed us to his evening. He was polite and engaging and carried himself with a confidence and self-assurance that was encouraging. What was even more encouraging were the chefs whites and apron he was wearing – there was a significant danger that he might do some cooking – how exciting! He handed us the menu for the evening – a little booklet that documented each dish much like a program at a theatre production. The whole premise of the night was for Chef Björn and his team to take you on a journey, with the four seasons of Scandinavia represented in some form across the twelve courses.
What is so intriguing and alluring about evenings like this is how trusting and submissive you have to become. It is really quite liberating, to be so helpless, to be at the mercy of a complete stranger. As a guest, you have relinquished all control to Björn and his team. There are no menu choices to make, no power to hold on to, not even salt and pepper on the tables – Chef Björn is the conductor of his culinary orchestra, and you’re there to enjoy the music. It was going to be difficult for the Serb – this was her first degustation experience, and she hates giving up control.
I’m not going to review every single dish, as I don’t think I can remember all of them if I am honest. However, I want to try portray how enjoyable the evening was as an entire experience, and I hope I can manipulate my words enough to reflect that.
The first three courses arrived all at once and watching The Serb’s reaction was like watching the world through a new born’s eyes. It was immensely satisfying to see how much interest and curiosity dishes like these could spark in people. There was an apple & lingonberry macaron, with foie gras & chervil, an oyster with sea buckthorn, juniper cream and sprouted walnut and a tomato water golden tea with lemon verbena and mustard.
After the head chef had explained each dish and suggested eating methods (yes, really) The Serb leaned in and whispered: “Do the portions get any bigger?”
The macaron had that smoky smoothness that only foie gras can provide, and the dried lingonberries and apple provided a sharpness that cut through it with equal parts sweetness and bitterness. A wonderful little bite and if every journey starts with a step, this was a good first step to take.
The tomato water was a little weak – The bowl arrives with the dry ingredients and then the tomato water is poured over the ingredients including what looked like a small ice cube of tomato juice. I wasn’t sure what was going on with this dish, but I distinctively remember ending up with a small floating iceberg of something that I’m sure should have melted with the tomato water. However, icebergs are very Scandinavian, (I think) so I’ll call this another ingenious nod to the Nordic theme and definitely not because the water wasn’t hot enough.
The next dish was the white moss sushi, with deer, frozen bird’s liver, burnt hay, and chanterelles. Easily the most Swedish dish on the entire menu – possibly the whole world, outside of IKEA, which, as everyone knows, is the home of real Swedish food. The white moss was deep fried and topped with deer and did resemble a piece of sushi. Eaten in one bite again, it was an entirely new experience for my mouth – and I don’t say that lightly. My favourite single bite in a long time.
The Serb continued to show concerns for the portion sizes, and I assured her that we wouldn’t need to raid the fridge when we got home and that the menu was designed to leave us perfectly satiated by the end. She took a big gulp of water which I took to mean she didn’t believe me.
The next couple of courses were shellfish, in the form of king crab with wild trout roe and scallop with dried roe, fir tree, finger lime, and dashi. The scallops were the winners for me – but I think it was because the chef again regaled me with a wonderful little story behind the dish – and I’m a sucker for a good story. The scallops are hand dived by young, tanned Swedish girls in a small, untouched village in the north of Sweden.. OK, that’s not the real story, but they are hand dived, and the tang of the finger lime gave the scallops a beautiful poise.
As each dish was consumed and cleared, the waiter was on hand to check our satisfaction levels. He was professional, charming and very amicable. I asked him lots of questions, to which he enthusiastically promised to check with the chef. He also enthusiastically never came back with any answers – but that’s ok, I can blame any mistakes in this review on him.
The main courses came next, with the cod being cooked at 38 degrees – the magic number apparently between delight and disgust. It came with Swedish roe from Kalix, beurre blanc with anchovy juice, dill, and baby onions.
The hot pot was tender lamb, with lively cabbage, roasted cauliflower, truffles and colourful, edible flowers. In another reference to the Swedish heritage, this dish was plated so it resembled a midsummer’s crown. Again, if it wasn’t done on purpose, keep quiet and just send me the cheque.
It was at this point that The Serb made the observation that the plates and serving dishes were getting bigger, but the portions were still small. Not much gets past her.
The final three courses were desserts – however, the first one and the best one was a sticky beetroot with blackberries, 100-year-old vinegar, and liquorice mousse. This was a kaleidoscope of confusion – I’ve never fallen in and out of love so quickly, so many times. My mouth numbed due to the liquorice, yet was defibrillated back to life by the 100-year-old vinegar. In an ideal world, this beautiful madness would never end.
The final dish was a cloudberry and thyme macaron with wild berries. It was humble and simple – and in that sense, it was a perfect reflection of the Nordic culture. It was a subtle, understated end to our journey. It was a full stop, a conductor’s closed fist, a signal that this was the final destination – a completed circle.
This was a menu of character, built with ingredients of substance, delivered by the magic of Björn Frantzén.
My sincere congratulations to him and his team for their performance at Enigma. To the rest of Dubai, if you have the chance to experience this, I urge you to take the deer by the antlers. I promise you won’t have to raid the fridge when you get home.