For today’s travelling diner, springing across the Nordics is a thing of extreme pleasure. It’s an experience that offers up the time-honoured flavours of smoke and meat at Ekstedt, Stockholm, a restaurant feted for its bare-bones open-fire cooking; submissive seven-hour eating marathons at Alchemist in Copenhagen, during which the worlds of stage drama, art, and cuisine collide in a single sitting; and the chance to plunge below the surface at Under, Norway, where the combination restaurant and marine biology research outpost sits, incredibly, on the seabed.
The latest addition to this Scandinavian lineup is Iris, a sustainably driven restaurant from chef Anika Madsen slam-bang in the middle of Norway’s Hardangerfjord — an area lauded for its waterfalls and blue ice, juts of rock cantilevering above transparent lakes, and large clusters of fruit trees, many of which flavour the area’s cider. “This is among the most beautiful surroundings you can find in Norway,” Madsen tells SHARP.
If you follow certain Instagram accounts, you’ve doubtlessly already seen “Salmon Eye,” the striking, four-level structure in which Iris sits, defined by its plating of silver scales and spherical, slightly oblique shape. It calls to mind a vast, practical prop for some sci-fi epic, or perhaps a Mentos mint, primed to hit the dark surface of a Diet Coke. To reach the restaurant, diners must follow a string of steps to the village of Rosendal and board a boat to Madsen’s house on the island of Sniltsveitøy (where the chef relocated after stints in Copenhagen kitchens including Roxie and Fasangården), before being whisked out to the restaurant. It’s a procession that has also done the rounds on social media, drawing comparisons to Mark Mylod’s recent pitch-black comedy, The Menu.
As is the case with many hyper-imaginative chefs, Madsen’s food is often beside the point. Instead, Iris focuses on addressing challenges to the global food system using the largely untapped potential of marine life. It’s less about what’s on the plate, and more about using that plate as a medium for abstract storytelling. Comparisons may be drawn to Eleven Madison Park in New York, where chef Daniel Humm has similarly flipped the script, and created menus influenced by both the city’s history and the minimalist artworks of painter Lucio Fontana. At Narisawa in Tokyo, “satoyama” — expanses where inhospitable mountains give way to arable land — are reimagined as elegant dishes. And at Alchemist, the high-concept venue in Copenhagen’s industrial zone (and “one of the best experiences in the world,” that is “hard not to be inspired by,” says Madsen), the bill of fare is described as “holistic cuisine,” a relentless evening of eating and drinking paired with ruminations on the issues of the day. A coffin-shaped chocolate bar, for instance, may raise the concern of child labour in the chocolate industry, or an arrangement of moon jellyfish, showered with beach herbs, may spotlight the invasive species’ impact in the North and Baltic seas.
It follows, then, that Iris — also a restaurant with high ambitions — not only details the techniques and ingredients at play in each of its dishes, but also the wider themes that suffuse them. The restaurant’s “expedition dining” experience offers a no-choice menu spanning 18 courses, many of which utilize sustainable produce from nearby. There are also no vegan, vegetarian, or allergy-friendly options due to the limitations of sourcing hyper-local produce. But this is what the restaurant hoped for; to bring guests to the ingredients rather than the other way around.
Every sitting begins with a film that explains how the restaurant is counteracting food waste. “We knew we wanted to create an immersive experience,” Madsen says. “One that leveraged several elements in addition to the food and drink: proximity to the nature, water, and elements.” One plating, “Weeds of the Sea,” fashions tagliatelle-like strands from cuttlefish — a cephalopod booming in numbers — enlivened with a dashi-butter sauce made from Norwegian kelp, unripe strawberries, lovage, and grilled celeriac. Another dish, “Feeding the Future,” highlights alternative food sources for carnivorous fish by presenting an oceanic tableau of fried baby salmon alongside insect protein, green algae, and mycelium.
Salmon Eye itself doubles as a visitor centre for the aquaculture industry, an idea borrowed from Eide Fjordbruk, a carbon-neutral company in Norway heightening awareness of renewable fishing practices. There’s similar sustainability on show here, and a particularly standout dish (an arrangement of juniper-smoked blue mussels, with beach crab bouillon, and blanched rockweed) was created solely using ingredients found within a 500-metre radius of the restaurant.
Beyond seafood, Iris plucks produce from the land, whether this be sheep’s milk, local cider, or wild game. Madsen’s reindeer tartare — plated alongside pickled capers and grilled leeks — showcases a meat with a carbon footprint significantly smaller than beef. “It’s always been close to my heart to lift lesser-known sustainable ingredients into the spotlight,” Madsen explained earlier this year. “If I discover an ingredient that will lead to a greener future, I’m not afraid to push boundaries. But, to convince people to love it, it needs to be truly delicious.”
Iris, sitting pretty behind Salmon Eye’s stainless-steel scales, is undoubtedly beautiful, but it has also faced criticisms of contradiction and hypocrisy since it opened in June. How can a restaurant pushing an agenda of sustainability be true to its cause, after all, when it has an allure reeling in diners from every corner of the globe?
“The fact that people fly in to dine at Iris is not sustainable,” Madsen says. “But innovation requires inspiration. The ripple effect is what inspires action. When the world’s leading minds gather for climate conferences, the flights may not be sustainable, but if it compels world leaders to take action, we make progress. And we hope that everyone who comes to Iris and Salmon Eye leaves with a desire for sustainable change.”