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Famed for the wood-fired, Michelin-starred cooking at his eponymous Stockholm restaurant, Niklas has now brought his unique cooking style to London. He gives us a tour of the city where he made his name
It’s fair to say Niklas Ekstedt isn’t a city type. While he’s living in London now, at first he wanted to live in Cornwall and commute for his new gig at Ekstedt at The Yard, based at the Great Scotland Yard Hotel. ‘Originally, we were going to be opening in June,’ explains Niklas, who opened this month. ‘Back then, my wife didn’t want to stay behind in Stockholm with the kids, so we looked at living in Cornwall because both my sons surf and skateboard a lot, and we thought it might be possible for them to stay down there and I could commute.’
Not exactly practical – and it didn’t work out that way – but it was quite understandable when you consider Ekstedt’s love of the great outdoors, which comes from his upbringing in rural northern Sweden. And it was in Jämtland, central Sweden, that he first found fame with the acclaimed Niklas in the coastal city of Helsingborg.
Ten years in the Swedish capital has, however, attuned him to the benefits of city life, although if you’re based in Stockholm, urban and rural life are never that far apart. ‘Within less than half an hour, you’ll be out in the woods,’ he explains. ‘We live 20 minutes out – we’re actually the last stop on the northern line out of the city – but I have the forest right outside my door.
‘So, when I’m on my mountain bike, I’m in the woods within five minutes. I think the great thing about living in Stockholm is you’re so close to nature and the woods and the trees.’
For a man bringing ‘old Nordic’ cooking to London later this year, it’s good to know he remains so close to his culinary roots. Aside from a year or two in England – living in Hatfield when he was 12, due to his dad ‘working in a canoe factory’ – Niklas is very much a rural Swede, even deciding to stay north when his parents moved south. It meant those visits to Stockholm were almost otherworldly. ‘Stockholm has always been fascinating for me,’ he says. ‘My grandmother lived there, so we went to see her quite a bit. Coming into the big city I was always blinded by the lights, the people, the traffic.
‘My heart is always in the woods and the mountains, though. It’s where I’ll finish when I’m done with these Stockholm and London adventures, but every time I went to Stockholm, I was a bit like a kid in a candy store, not knowing what to do or see next with so many options.
‘I loved that there were so many stores where you could buy anything, and all these restaurants – I think, despite coming from the country, I always enjoyed the city.’ Although he’s spent so much time in Stockholm, it’s only recently, he feels, that he’s truly begun to get to know the local clientele. ‘Because Sweden didn’t really close down [when other countries were in lockdown], I’ve gone from this very international crowd to a very local crowd,’ he says. ‘I’d say it used to be maybe 80 per cent people that travelled in, but now it’s the opposite. If you hear someone speaking English or Spanish or anything, you go, “Oh, where are you guys from?”’
Niklas has spent the entire pandemic period in Stockholm. ‘I’ve been at home with my kids and I think we’ve changed. And this local crowd that embraced us, I think they kind of understood what we were doing,’ he says. ‘Because before a lot of them thought that we were this pretentious international crowd. You know, it’s a curtains closed, you can’t get in, kind of place.
But now we’re a place with regulars and locals. The city’s really come together tightly and neatly to help each other out in this very positive way. So while I was always kind of fascinated by Stockholm, now I really love it.’
Just as we’ve seen in cities in the UK, the neighbourhood restaurants in Stockholm have really come into their own on the food front. ‘They’ve bloomed,’ he says. ‘A lot of cafés, restaurants and bakeries have opened up in the residential areas, especially in the south of the city. It’s like our version of east London, I love it there – lots of very small independent restaurants, everyone doing their own unique thing. It’s not as slick as Michelin- starred restaurants but it’s more personal. We eat there all the time.’
Stockholm is a unique city. It’s made up of 14 islands and an awful lot of bridges, stretching out into an archipelago in the Baltic Sea. ‘Whenever we have friends to stay, we take them kayaking out in the archipelago,’ says Niklas. ‘It’s a really, really easy way to experience the archipelago and as long as you have a little bit of arm muscle, you’re okay – it’s like hiking a good hill. The amazing thing about it is that everything is open to the public – there are no private islands, so you’re allowed to land on any shore and bathe anywhere.’
On dry land, Niklas recommends booking a bike to get around what is a comparatively small capital city of 975,000 inhabitants. ‘It’s kind of small and easy to get around, and they’ve invested a lot in cycle lanes, too,’ he says. ‘There’s tonnes of things to visit, like gardens and palaces and castles. One museum I find interesting is Livrustkammaren; it’s been around since the 1600s and tells the story of Swedish history through the royal family. I would also definitely go to the Fotomuseum [one of the world’s largest photography museums] and, just outside the city, you’ve got Ulriksdal Palace, which was an old residential palace for one of the royal family, but is now open to the public. It has its own restaurant which does really good Nordic cuisine.
‘Then, of course, you have the most famous museum in Stockholm, the Vasa Museum,’ he continues. ‘It’s an old war ship that sunk in the 1600s, but because of the waters in the Baltic Sea it was very well preserved, so they brought it up in the Fifties and turned it into a museum. It’s like the most touristy thing to do in Stockholm. My kids were studying it at school and I realised I’d never been there, so I went recently and it was just stunning.’
The pandemic hasn’t slowed down the growth of the food scene in Stockholm. ‘There’s so many new places popping up,’ says Niklas.
‘But of course, we have our favourites. There’s a restaurant called Babette that we regularly go back to – that’s super nice. And you have to visit the bakeries,’ he advises. ‘If you want to try the real Swedish experience go to Bageri Petrus. The baker likes his days off, so you need to check the opening hours, but it’s a really good bakery.’
Indeed, closing time can be confusing for many visitors to Stockholm, especially in summer due to the constant light of the midnight sun. ‘The sun doesn’t set and it’s a bit surreal going to a nightclub on a bright day and then coming out in the morning to find it’s still sunny outside,’ says Niklas. ‘The nightlife is very strong in Stockholm. It’s a friendly atmosphere, people are really happy and we always have a good time. When we used to have staff parties before our summer break, we’d always have a big party night that ended up with us swimming in the Baltic Sea at six in the morning.’
But it’s not just a summer city, Niklas insists – as long as you can brave the chill. ‘I’ve always loved Stockholm in the really cold winters, when everything was frozen,’ he says. ‘When it’s cold like that, it’s like a giant skating rink and you can skate far out on the archipelago. You can also go skiing in the city – it’s just such a cool city in the winter with all that snow and ice.’
And his favourite way to warm-up afterwards? ‘I think it’d probably be just vodka and an ice bath,’ laughs Niklas, proving the sauna-plus-ice thing isn’t just a tourist cliché. ‘That’s something really fun to do. You have a sauna and then they drill a hole in the ice and you jump in!’ Clearly a cool city, in every sense.
This Korean place does the best kimchi in town. It has been on the same spot in the Vasastan neighbourhood for 40 years and it’s run exclusively by women. Perfect for traditional Korean dishes like their classic bibimbap, dumplings and bulgogi with a great Korean barbecue to share. A true gem. Luntmakargatan 65, 00 46 8 673 3225
An excellent wine bar and restaurant also in Vasastan, where all the best restaurants are. It’s cosy and relaxed and they do delicious pizzas cooked in their wood oven alongside a menu of daily changing small plates. The wine bar has a great list and is perfect for casual dining. Roslagsgatan 6, 00 46 8 5090 2224
Set on a rooftop, this is one of the few places where you can get a good view of the whole city. It’s Italian leaning – lobster ravioli, chanterelle gnocchi – not all that Swedish, but we all love it up there. The bar serves up a concise menu focusing on fresh takes on the classics. Malmskillnadsgatan 38B, 00 46 8 4800 4398
My favourite place to go with family and friends at the weekend. It’s really fun and has a really good list of cocktails. The menu revolves around locally sourced and sustainable meat and barbecue dishes. Tulegatan 24, 00 46 8 612 6550
Words by Alex Mead.
This interview was taken from the October 2021 issue of Food and Travel magazine. To subscribe today, click here.
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