High Voltage

Phil O'Connor
Posted March 1, 2012 in Food & Drink

Panorama Test

If they’re going for a laid-back, unobtrusive vibe at Volt, they’ve succeeded – with barely a sign outside, my guests and I rushed right past it as we hurried to make our reservation. And to miss dinner here would have been close to a disaster.

Started by four young restaurateurs and claiming to be “Sweden’s first gastro-bistro”, Volt is one of the hottest properties on the Stockholm restaurant scene at the moment.

Their idea is to combine elements of fine dining with the relaxed atmosphere of a bistro, and our task is to see if they can live up to the ambition.

My guests are both chefs from Ireland who have lived and worked in Sweden for several years, and are no slouches in the kitchen themselves.

Liam Ginnane won a Michelin star for his work at the Champany Inn in Scotland in 2008 before moving to Sweden, while until recently Seán Beatty was head chef in the high-tempo kitchen in The Dubliner in Stockholm, Scandinavia’s busiest Irish bar and restaurant.

We were greeted warmly at the door by co-creator Johan Bengtsson, who showed us to an intimate corner booth in the corner, fitted with an L-shaped table and plenty of comfortable cushions.

The décor, like the staff, is unpretentious, as if they don’t want to allow anything to divert attention away from the food. The downside is that it feels a little too relaxed on occasion, with regular striplights hanging over some tables and the colourful sneakers worn by staff giving something of a nonchalant impression.

But it wasn’t long before our attention was diverted back to the food, as we chose the set three-course meal with Seán and Liam partaking of the recommended wines for each course.

The starters arrive (rabbit, carrot and dandelion for Liam, white asparagus, skin of chicken and egg for Seán, oysters and scallops for me) – first impressions?
Liam: Impressive. People shy away from putting rabbit on the menu, usually because they have no idea how to cook it properly. Nine times out of ten it’s overdone, but this is perfect.

I come from the countryside where rabbit was a reasonably regular dish, but I’m not sure the cookery colleges still show people how to cook it.

Seán: I can’t fault the food – well-presented and very fresh, but the plate looks like something from your grandmother’s house…

How hard is it to source good ingredients in Stockholm?
Liam: It’s very difficult to make anything worthwhile if you can’t get the raw materials. I used to get up at five o’clock six days a week to buy the food for the Champany. That comes from not trusting anyone else to do it.

Seán: What surprised me is how hard it is to get decent fish in Stockholm – there’s a huge coastline, so you would think you could get it, but it’s really only in Gothenburg that you can get good fish. Maybe it’s because people here don’t like eating fish from the Baltic Sea.

Is it difficult to create a menu that reflects a restaurant’s ambitions?
Liam: It’s obvious they’re going for the star here – they’re all about the food. If they were looking for a second star they’d need to look at the surroundings, the staff and the rest, but for now they are concentrating on the food.

At the Champany, it wasn’t something I nor the owners consciously went looking for. The whole thing with the Michelin star is very cloak-and-dagger – they don’t announce they’re coming, and you never know who the inspectors are. You don’t even know how many of them will arrive. That means you have to give top-class food and service to everyone – even the fella who is not that well-dressed and doesn’t look at all like a fine diner.

Seán: At the Dubliner, we had a very high tempo in the kitchen, but you can’t sacrifice the quality for speed. Otherwise, people will just go to McDonalds or somewhere else instead. OK, you might never win any awards, but it’s your pride in the job and yourself too – making the best possible dishes from the available ingredients.

Customers in the Dubliner know what they want, and even though we changed the menu regularly there were certain dishes that were always there. It’s part of the whole image of an Irish pub – to serve fish and chips and the like.

What is the key element in running a kitchen?
Seán: Preparation – if you prepare properly, you can feed any amount of people. The Dubliner had a pretty big walk-up trade, so you always had to be prepared to be hammered, and not just at the weekends – it could just as easily happen on a Tuesday.

Liam: I don’t think most diners realise how much goes into putting that plate in front of them – we don’t just open the door and start ladling it up. I used to be up at the crack of dawn every morning, and we were often there long after the guests were gone home.

If you look at the main courses, it appears a lot has gone into the presentation – your thoughts?
Seán: You have to have a bit of passion for what you do, and these guys clearly still love what they do.

Liam: You can see from the garnish (carefully-carved wisps of delicately-cut fruits and vegetables) that nothing is left to chance. It’s a bit odd – these things generally take a lot less time than you’d think, but they have a great effect, but diners think it took ages to do!

Seán: Yeah, it’s a long way from a sprig of parsley on a steak!

Do you try to keep up with the restaurant trends in the city?
Seán: Not as much as I would like to, but I still try to go out with the girlfriend every once in a while and see what’s out there.

Liam: I go out regularly. I like to keep up with what is going on, to see what people are doing and eating. To be honest a lot of the places turn out to be a disappointment – they go to a lot of effort but then trip up on a small detail, like their sweetbread is not fresh or the desserts are just an afterthought.

They’re clearly not an afterthought here – is this the most ambitious dessert menu you’ve seen?
Liam: This is pretty impressive (fennel, white chocolate, liquorice and dill). I don’t really like liquorice and I’m not one hundred per cent sure I’d have put these ingredients together, but you’re right – it’s very ambitious. I’m just not really sure what he’s trying to do here.

Seán: Again you can see the attention to detail. This (goat’s cheese) is not something they just throw together in the kitchen and then ship out, someone has worked long and hard to come up with these ideas. They’re putting together ingredients that you wouldn’t expect to see together, taking a chance. I think that’s a good thing.

The meal ends with freshly-brewed coffee and a deliciously light sponge cake, and it’s time to take stock of what we have seen and tasted throughout the evening.

The consensus is that the food lives up to – and in many cases – exceeds – all our expectations. It is fresh and ambitious without being pretentious or elitist, and one can well understand those diners who would like to keep the restaurant and it’s surroundings as their own little secret hideaway.

The service was friendly and knowledgeable, but added to our admittedly old-fashioned reservations about the dress code, occasional misses were made when delivering the food and wines.

In a bigger party it would be understandable, but with only three of us it should be easy enough to remember who ordered what.

But the quality of the food far outweighs anything else and an evening at Volt is not to be missed. In a competitive world, this is the rarest of things; an openly ambitious restaurant that exceeds expectations.

Or, as Liam put it succinctly “I think they’ll get their star. But they’ll have to work hard to get a second one.”

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