Eating at the opera sounds like a serious breach of good manners – as if you were to take out an orange and a packet of crisps in the middle of Lohengrin. But not if you are in Stockholm. By general consent, the finest restaurant in the Swedish capital is the Operakällaren.
The name means, of course, “The Cellar of the Opera”. But do not be put off. This is no dingy basement hidden from the rays of the sun. It is not even underground, but is on the ground floor at the back of the 1890s Opera House, with – from its enclosed terrace – splendid views across water to the King of Sweden’s palace. The dining room itself is one of the most handsome in Europe. I sat in an armchair of crimson velvet at a large round table and admired my surroundings. The atmosphere is something akin to that you would expect in a Scottish baronial castle: the panelling on the walls is oak and wonderfully carved, the ceiling is far away in the heavens and the sheer sense of grandeur is quite magical. This is a chamber which is much more impressive in reality than it is in photographs. (And it would be better still without the metal buffet across the middle of the room, which has the effect of breaking the space in two.)
Aesthetes have much to admire here. For the Operakällaren has some wonderful paintings. High up around the walls are various mythical scenes by Oscar Björck. As I gazed at the characters therein, I noticed that these naked figures had gone to great lengths to drape foliage over their privy parts. Later I discovered the reason. When the canvases were first unveiled, the good burghers of Stockholm – rather less liberated, perhaps, than their successors today – were scandalized to behold the nudes in their beloved Opera House. They would have to go. Mercifully, King Oscar II rode over from his palace to try to sort out the difficulty. Looking around, His Majesty wondered whether Mr Björck might “allow the reeds to grow a little…” Thus was the honour of all parties satisfied, and thus was I able to enjoy this glorious art over my dinner.
On the white tablecloth in front of me were Riedel glasses, a sure sign that standards here were going to be high. I liked, too, the arrangement of red roses on my table, the standard lamp over my left shoulder and the dress of the waiters – white button-up jackets with epaulettes, imparting a slight sense of being on a luxury liner in the 1930s. Less to my taste was the presence of canned music – even if it did consist of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and other such prestigious items. (Ought I to start a campaign against recorded music in restaurants? I already have the name – SOLO, Silence Or Live Only.)
I expected my perusal of the wine list to bring me pleasure, and it did. I do not suppose I will ever drink a bottle of 1937 Chateau d’Yquem (£2,900), but it is good to know that it is there and waiting should the lottery look kindly upon me. Other notable temptations included 5 DRC Montrachets (£1,100 for the 1998), 11 Romanée-Contis (£5,000 for the 1978) and a magnum of 1982 Mouton Rothschild (for £1,850). From the non-French part of the cellar, I chose two Australian bottles. My 1999 chardonnay had rather too much citrus in the nose and in the mouth for my palate (Yalumba Heggies, Eden Valley - £41), but the 1997 Yalumba Reserve Cabernet was terrific, bursting with cherries, with the legs of a marathon runner and alcohol to match (Clare Valley - £50).
Chef Alessandro Catenacci describes his food as ‘French, with Swedish influences’. Scallops with sorrel sauce were perfectly poached, both sweet and meltingly tender. Foie gras mousse did not really have the power to stand up to the accompanying quail breast and mango jelly – a terrine might have worked better. Lamb came in three services: superb sweetbreads with a green salad; a consommé (over-salted for me); and a truly glorious roast leg, carved by the table, soft and yielding, full of taste and the perfect partner for the Yalumba Cabernet. The concluding raspberry soufflé was on the small side for this trencherman, but of good quality. (£78 for these four courses.) With this last I tried a glass of something new to me, a sweet wine from Spain – and it was excellent (Molino Real 1999, Telmo Rodriguez - £5.50 a glass). Altogether, a thoroughly enjoyable meal at the Opera.
I sat back with a contented smile. It occurred to me that here was an Englishman, in Sweden, eating French food, cooked by an Italian. Who says I am not a good European?
Operahuset, Karl XII’s Torg, S-111 86 Stockholm, Sweden.
Telephone +46 (0)8 676 58 01
Fax +46 (0)8 676 58 72
Closed: July, 24 December – July 6