Thursday, March 27, 2014

Are there affordable mid-range restaurants in Stockholm?

A few weeks ago, we were fortunate enough to have a chance to visit Stockholm, Sweden, for a long-weekend trip, and two friends from work also joined us as well. It was my first time to Sweden, and I knew that the Scandinavian countries were going to be expensive, especially when it came to dining out.

Our first night after arrival, we explored Ostermalm market, which is a beautiful old-European style market (like a grander version of Westside Market in Cleveland), with vendors selling all sorts of fres groceries, but particularly with a focus on seafood

Ostermalm Market in the evening

In the evening, some of the walkway areas are converted into table spaces, and a number of these vendors offer a full dinner service, or "after work", as they called it, seemingly like "Happy Hour" in the US. The evening crowd is quite interesting... small groups of well-dressed people, enjoying a wine and snack at the bar, or small groups huddled in quiet conversation around the tables.

Dining out in Scandinavian countries always appears as a very formal and elegant experience. Men in their jackets, women nicely dressed for an evening out, even if it's just eating inside a covered market. In fact, while having dinner at this market, we even saw a "night out" between a father and his young 5-8 year old daughter, who was dressed very nicely for what appeared to be a dinner out with dad.

While these dining experiences are enjoyable, it can get quite expensive as a tourist to be eating out so often. And in my previous experience in Denmark, as I noticed in Sweden, it's hard to find mid-range restaurant choices. Even for us, a meal inside the food market costed nearly SEK200 (US$30) per person, including drinks. And on lower end, there are kebab shops, and while tasty, they're probably not that good for you (ie, lots of salt in kebab meat), and still not that much cheaper at SEK100 (US$15). Were there any mid-market restaurants where we could find something that was better than a kebab, but cheaper than a full restaurant (or even market) experience?

Before our trip, one of Sen's colleagues, a native of Stockholm, had written down a place called Bakfickan, and I had also heard about it on the CHOW.COM forums, and on our last day, we decided to give it a try. I had some high hopes - Bakfickan, meaning "in the hip pocket", is a type of restaurant in Sweden that typically shares a chef or kitchen with a more well-known restaurant. In our case, Bakfickan was located in the bar behind the restaurant Operakallaren, with set menus starting at SEK995 (almost US$150 per person!). Instead of haute cuisine, Backfickan specialized in Swedish home cooking, like Swedish meatballs, something I could recognize from IKEA.

Finding this place wasn't easy - and it didn't help that we had to backtrack from our original location, because I had the wrong address in my head. The restaurant was near the Opera house, but the entrance wasn't as obvious as the Operakallaren. Maybe this was by design from an MBA graduate who wanted to make sure that Bakfickan didn't cannabalize the business from the higher-end restaurant next to it. After going around the side of the opera house, we finally found the door, and when we opened it, we saw this:

Dark wood paneling, accentued with a blue and white tile pattern along the walls, with a bar around the center, and high-top tables around the sides. The tables were designed for small, intimate groups, maybe 3-4 people at a maximum. The restaurant was quiet when we arrived, only 2 people sitting on a table overlooking the outside, with 2 staff members quietly working in the background. The day's two menu choices were written on the chalkboard behind the bar, but one area appeared erased, as Sen noticed, indicating the dish (a type of salmon) was sold out, as confirmed by the waiter. In addition to the day menu choices, there was a standard menu as well. Surprisingly, there was a section of the board that had a listing of vegetarian options as well! Unfortunately, if I'm paying expensive SEK, I should be buying meat instead of vegetables.

Knowing it was our only Swedish "home cooked' meal opportunity, I ordered Swedish meatballs, which came presented with a very smooth rendition of mashed potatoes, and Sen ordered a very tasty smoked sausage dish, also with a side of mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. Great value for the quality and presentation, as each dish was ~SEK150 each. Definitely healthier and better prepared than kebabs, and cheaper than going out to a full-service restaurant. After a long day of walking in the cold, these winter dishes were exactly what we needed for our last dinner in Stockholm before returning to the US

As we finished our meal around 9pm, a large group of male, English-speaking businessmen arrived, for what appeared to be a late after work meal. It was quite an international group, and including two younger people probably in their late 20's or 30's. I imagined that maybe these were some consultants (McKinsey? BCG?) getting dinner after work. Who doesn't enjoy a good meal after a long day?

Karl XII:S torg, adjacent to the Opera House
Stockholm, Sweden