First off, I should say I’m no great expert when it comes to Swedish food.
First off, I should say I’m no great expert when it comes to Swedish food. Yes, I’ve been to Ikea — so many veneers, so little time! — and, yes, I’ve had the meatballs in the café but, judging by the taste and texture, I think even they were MDF with a meatball veneer. I probably should have opted for the mushroom umlaut, but there you have it.
However, having figured it might be silly to judge all Swedish food by Ikea meatballs and the sad little herrings in the refrigerated display, I think it might be worth giving Upper Glas a go. Upper Glas describes itself as ‘the premiere Swedish restaurant in the UK’, having, I guess, fought off quite a lot of stiff competition. I am minded to try it because I like the sound of the woman behind it, Anna Mosesson, a Swedish cook, writer and broadcaster whose childhood is described in the restaurant’s bumf as follows: ‘Brought up in a castle in Scotland by her father Baron Karl Knutsson Bonde, whenever she found the house too big and too draughty she headed straight towards the kitchen and warm-hearted Fanny, the family’s Swedish-Finnish cook.’ Isn’t that cool? I wish I was the daughter of Baron Karl Knutsson Bonde and had a warm-hearted Fanny. The trouble with my parents is that they’ve never given me anything interesting to write about, which may be an act of cruelty in itself. How am I ever going to get a bestseller out of ‘How I survived my happy, abuse-starved, Hampstead Garden Suburb upbringing?’ The bastards.
Anyway, having been inspired to cook by her beloved Fanny, Ms Mosesson initially set up her own catering business selling Swedish delicacies to the likes of Harrods before opening a stall in Borough market, then a small, much-loved restaurant in Borough, before transferring to this location on Upper Street in Islington. It’s up a flight of stairs and into a lovely glass-ceilinged room with splashy red and green upholstery, antique chandeliers and ‘candles on every table to evoke the magical atmosphere of a Scandinavian winter’. Actually, it’s more like an Islington restaurant with lots of candles in it, but one appreciates the gesture all the same. I meet my friends, Ann and Suzanne — nope, not a warm-hearted Fanny between us — and we are seated at our table. We note that the crockery is Ikea, as is the cutlery. Ann thinks this may be ‘a Swedish move too far’. I say I’m wondering if this restaurant is going to prove my cold climate/ crap cuisine theory once and for all. Can you think of a cold country known for its terrific cuisine? We can’t.
What did I expect here, then? Herring, I suppose. Possibly even herring, herring, herring, herring, followed by more herring and yet more herring and, with the coffee, After Eights made of herring, and then the restaurant would call us a herring to take us home and I’d get in a tizz because how much are you meant to tip a herring these days? This is pathetic, I know, but, that said, among the starters I do happen to note ‘glasmaster herring’. And: ‘Spiced matjes herring with sour cream and chives’. And: ‘Vodka citrus herring’. And: ‘Herring of the house’. And, just in case these somehow fail to cover your herring needs, there is lastly: ‘Herring three ways’. All I am saying is that you could have quite a herring-fest, if that’s your thing.
As it happens, herring isn’t really my thing. A very old, orthodox uncle of mine used to say that he always ate pickled herring on the eve of Yom Kippur so he could suck the juices out of his beard the following day, and that always sort of put me off. There might even be a book in that. It was quite traumatic, you know. But there are other starters too, like venison carpaccio or beetroot in warm beer batter or cured beef tartar, all of which have one great virtue: they are not herring.
The menu advises that you share a collection of cold starters (at about £6 a go) and graze tapas-style, or follow the more conventional route of starter and then hot main (£10 or so). We go the conventional route, and Suzanne and I, ignoring the herring — how do you account for that? — both opt for something called Toast Skagen (with prawns and crayfish). This turns out to be a kind of prawn cocktail on toast, but you know what? A good prawn cocktail is bloody marvellous and this is bloody marvellous, too. The prawns are sweet and juicy and fishy, as is the crayfish, while the mayonnaise (obviously homemade) is not only silky as anything but clean-tasting rather than overpowering. Delicious. Smooth and fresh. Ann has the gravadlax with mustard sauce and toast. The gravadlax is wonderful — very fat, very glossy, good and peaty, not veneered. ‘It’s superb,’ she says. She might, she continues, even forgive the Ikea crockery, not that she’s ever been to Ikea. What? Never? Ann, you really haven’t lived unless you’ve been to Ikea and gone totally doolally buying six wicker baskets you don’t need and don’t want for £1…. ‘No. Not sold,’ she says. She can be very stubborn, Ann.
Next I have the fillet of venison with gingerbread sauce, shallots and fennel. The venison is tender as anything and pink as anything, just as I like it. Tastes brilliant, too. The gingerbread sauce sounds a little weird but works very well, while the shallots and fennel are combined with chopped apple, giving it a lovely chutneyish kind of feel. Ann has the herbed zander (a sort of perch, I think) with hasselback potatoes that look like little hedgehogs. She is well happy. ‘Very nice, again.’ Suzanne has the ‘lax pudding’. This comes as a giant lasagne-ish wodge of salmon layered with egg and onion and cream. ‘I’ll never eat it all,’ she says, while eating it all. She then calls me the next day to say she thinks she is suffering from ‘lax retention’. What? ‘I’ve put on four pounds. Overnight!’
We finish off with a Valronha chocolate fondant (£5.50, good) and a blueberry mousse with white chocolate lingonberries (£4.50, bland). When I mention to the waiter that there didn’t appear to be any lingonberries in it, and I’m curious about this thing called the ‘lingonberry’, he sweetly brings me a bowl of them (they’re like cranberries). He’s nice, the waiter, quite charming, although the restaurant does get busy and towards the end he does appear to lose it. We had to agitate for the bill, agitate to pay it and then had to seek out our own coats, which isn’t the end of the world, I admit, and not that distressing, but I’m thinking I might get a book out of that, too.
Upper Glas obviously uses first-rate ingredients and it’s good value too, I think. This isn’t the kind of place that is going to blow your socks off exactly, but it’s terribly nice. Suzanne describes it as ‘very sedate in a bicycling royals kind of way’. I think I kind of get what she means, but can’t be sure. She can be very surreal, Suzanne. Still, I think better of Swedish cuisine than I did and really hope Upper Glas survives, if only as a tribute to inspirational, warm-hearted Fannies everywhere.
Upper Glas, First Floor, The Mall, 359 Upper Street, N1. Tel: 020 7359 1932.