Just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the tiny town of Järpen is a short flight and ninety minute drive from Stockholm. Åre, a ski town relatively uninhabited in the shoulder season between summer and snowfall, is its closest neighbor of any significance. And in this sparsely populated corner of northern Sweden is Fäviken Magasinet, now number 19 on the list of the world’s best restaurants. Seating only sixteen people per night, it may also be the world’s most remote and exclusive reservation.
I was in Stockholm with my cofounder Megan to represent our company Bitty Foods at an event that counted among its attendees the lead singer of ABBA and the Crown Princess Victoria. As with all work-related trips, I built in time for extracurricular activity. Usually centering on food, Sweden’s bonus day was no different, as I vowed that two of Fäviken’s sixteen seats would be ours.
My introduction to Fäviken came in the form of a glowing cookbook review, praising its purity and unique, almost bafflingly simple approach to food. When it arrived, I quickly realized that it would not be useful for dinner parties. After all, accessing ingredients indigenous to Northern Sweden (like “the burnt-out trunk of a spruce tree”–seriously) was impossible in San Francisco. Instead, it was rich and decadent food porn, beautifully photographed, and even more beautifully written. As an enthusiastic home cook, the advice from Magnus Nilsson, aka Fäviken’s chef and conceptualizer, to those foolishly trying to replicate the recipes exactly, resonated. That good cooking comes from intuition and passion, not by following instructions word for word, and that “If it tastes good, it is right.” After flipping through its pages I knew that I needed to see this place for myself. So when the opportunity finally presented itself, I sent a few possible dates to the Fäviken reservations team and was delighted when they confirmed our table.
An experience like Fäviken calls for a travel partner with a tolerance for things going sideways and equal enthusiasm for impulse decision-making. Each time I’ve taken a similarly random adventure, whether driving across the Spanish Pyrenees from San Sebastiàn to Andorra, or venturing five hours into the backcountry of southern India in a tiny car operated by a potbellied man named Babu, somehow I was with the perfect people each time. Fäviken was no different, and Megan was thrilled at the news. Others were puzzled at the idea of traveling that far only to travel still farther just for dinner, not to mention the expense. My response: I spend money on experiences, not stuff. My apartment is lovely but simple. I bought a used car that gets great gas mileage. My expenses are relatively low, and other than these adventures I am not a particularly extravagant person. Somewhere around 30 it became clear to me that the most precious limited asset is not money, it is time. I am fortunate that work takes me out of town and even the country frequently, and even more so that it is typically to great places. Visiting these great places has left me richer than any number of objects ever could.
Our professional obligations concluded, we boarded the flight north, and upon landing pointed our rented Audi A3 east. Lakes stretched beyond rolling hillsides dotted with Falun red painted farms. The greens and blues artificially saturated in their rises and falls were breathtaking over and over again. The terrain’s sense of endlessness and sparseness gave it anonymity; it would be the perfect place to start a new life, or live in secrecy. Few cars passed. I counted more cows than people.
Trained in Paris in the hallowed halls of Astrance and several well known restaurants in Sweden, Magnus Nilsson started his journey at the Fäviken estate in 2008. Hired first as the sommelier, shortly after his arrival he conceptualized the restaurant that now exists today, which features only ingredients foraged or hunted on the estate itself, or available within a short distance. That decision was born partially of necessity due to the bitterly cold winter months, but also positioned it as a one-of-a-kind destination worth the long trip.
Even with no detailed map and spotty GPS, we made it from Osterland’s tiny airport to Järpen with little trouble. After all, there weren’t enough roads to get lost. As we pulled up the unpaved path, we were greeted by a cluster of friendly red and white buildings. Flanked by two low cauldrons blazing with cheerful logs, the restaurant’s entrance opened to reveal a tall lanky man who took our bags and led us up to our room in the building next door. Eating at the restaurant also meant staying there, as the nearest accommodations were 30 minutes away (and who wants to do that after several hours of drink pairings?) and taxi drivers are not exactly in abundance. Dorm-style with doors differentiated by painted animal heads, in our case a weasel, the rooms were sparse but comfortable. Twin beds flanked the two sides of the room, covered in heavy faux fur blankets. Communal bathrooms and a sauna overlooking the entrance to the restaurant were just down the hall.
Built on 20,000 acres of unspoiled arctic land, Fäviken is part farm, part restaurant, and part hunting lodge. Originally constructed in 1745, its first life was as a dairy farm. Photos of the women who worked there hang in the restaurant’s entrance alongside vintage butter molds carved intricately in local wood. The decor consists almost entirely of relics from the estate’s heritage, with yokes hanging on the stairways and butter churners tucked into corners. A 100 year old ice cream maker from its dairy farm days later starred in one of the more memorable dessert courses.
After our pre-dinner sauna, we joined the other guests, which that night totaled twelve. The group was varied; a chef from London, a couple from Amsterdam, and two groups of Swedish locals. Upon sitting in chairs softly covered in dark gray sheepskins, we were presented with a number of their signature appetizers. Highlights included crispy pig’s blood croustades filled with pig’s blood custard and briny wild trout roe, fried pigs head with tarragon salt and rhubarb, a creamy mussel dip with linseed crisps, and single strips of cured pork that melted like butter, all coupled with a surprising local rhubarb wine that complimented each bite perfectly.
As a designer, I was perhaps most impressed by how handily the restaurant took constraints and used them as advantages, doing so much with so little. The region’s difficult conditions coupled with its short growing season mean preservation and creativity are doubly important, and from the root cellar built into a nearby hill to the food itself, Fäviken rose to the occasion.
Rather than recount every course (for those that are into the detailed play-by-play, try this detailed recap), I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, though special mention needs to be made of a few standouts. The king crab with almost burnt cream was perhaps the best bite of food I’ve ever had, incredibly sweet and pure. The scallop, lightly cooked in its shell over burning juniper branches and meant to be eaten like an oyster was divine. Colostrum was served in light as air sugary cups that disintegrated the moment they hit the tongue. Nothing was fussy or overwrought or precious as it so often is at high end restaurants. The dishes were well composed but spartan. There was nothing extra or superfluous about the presentation. The service was nearly invisible and the best I’ve experienced. Wine glasses were kept full, cutlery was changed, and dishes were cleared, but never with the coordinated intensity and stress in places of similar caliber.
After our cozy meal, we walked outside into shocking cold with Executive Chef Jesper Karlsson for a tour of the facilities wrapped in woolen blankets. Once our eyes adjusted to the dark, the perfect northern sky emerged and the Milky Way burned clearer and brighter than I’ve ever seen it. The chill was quickly forgotten. He showed us the root cellar, where the entire store of ingredients to sustain the restaurant in the long winter months is kept. And the meat refrigerator, where eight freshly butchered, massive moose hung on hooks alongside grouse and ducks, all hunted on the grounds of the estate just days before.
The last stop was the kitchen, which was simple yet modern and featured a looming countdown-style clock, the only nod to the effort and coordination required to put together such a meal.
So rarely does a place live up to your expectations. In this case, it exceeded them. The meal was the single best of my life, and I’ve clocked a significant number of Michelin Stars. The real beauty of the experience, because it was far more than a meal, was the local narrative it so effortlessly expressed. The service, the space, the food all reflected perfectly its place. The heavy fur jacket Magnus wears while hunting and foraging hangs on the wall of the lodge, giving the impression that he just walked in from the wild moments ago with a fresh kill. The bar is trimmed in moose fur. Nothing is wasted, perhaps because when living in these challenging conditions, waste is not an option.
The next morning, I woke at sunrise and decided to take advantage of the quiet to walk around the property in hopes of spotting a moose. The temperature dropped precipitously overnight, making it a chilly stroll down to the lake and into the woods. While I didn’t spot any wildlife, the stillness and silence around the lake, the complete absence of human existence, with the exception of a small wooden dock, is something I’ve encountered only in remote southern Tanzania and camping in Yellowstone’s backcountry. A single day in this magical, quiet place was not nearly enough.
After a trip to the sauna to warm up, armed with a single cup french press, we walked back over to the restaurant for breakfast. The expected, like eggs and porridge and cloudberry preserves, balanced the unexpected; a terrine of trout covered in brown butter and pate of game hen meant to be smeared on incredible freshly baked bread, and local cheese coupled with sliced moose heart. The slightly overloud traditional local folk music from dinner was replaced with distant Fleet Foxes. Delighting in each bite, the tiny square windows revealed the first snow of the year, first falling slowly and then more furiously. Perfectly sunny the day before, it arrived as a reminder of the impending and punishing winter just as we had to say goodbye.
Eating great food, much less finishing the best meal of your life at a special place like Fäviken, is like reaching the last page of a favorite book or film and feeling the sadness and inevitability of its ending. Completely transported back to a simpler time, I was a little heartbroken to reenter reality knowing I likely wouldn’t be back soon, if ever. The Fäviken we’d experienced would likely not be the same next time, as most of the world’s most incredible remote places change once the word of their existence gets out. But even now, I surge with gratitude that I got to see it at all. That for me and just eleven other people that day, that world was ours and ours alone.