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Robert Appelbaum
Pontus! Served Me Frozen Crab – But Maybe It’s
Okay Being Thirty Years Behind The Times

The other day, my wife Marion and I were strolling with a friend around the city centre of Stockholm. As
we came toward Stureplan, the posh entertainment and shopping district of the city, we passed by a
restaurant called
Pontus! owned and run by a famous chef named Pontus Frithof. I had heard about the
place before, by reputation one of the top restaurants in town, a hangout for the fashionable set late into
the night and certainly among the very best spots for seafood. From the outside the restaurant looked fine,
not quite so assuming or intimidating as I expected. It was just a corner restaurant, with a modern décor
and dim edgy lighting inside.

By coincidence, a few days later I received an email from Bookatable.com (how I got on their mailing list I
don’t know) offering me a two-for-one deal if I booked online for the Seafood Bar (also called the Raw Bar)
section of the restaurant. The hitch, as it turned out, was that we had to eat early, and finish before 19:15.
That was when the early bird specials ran out. Marion and I decided to give it a go anyway. So we ended
up once again, as in the travels I documented in
Dishing It Out, visiting a city (for we had moved out of
Stockholm several months earlier) with no other intention than, on a limited budget, checking out a
restaurant. And we spent several hours in Stockholm not doing much of anything except hanging about,
waiting for the time when we could show up and eat.

So, eventually, we showed up, and disappointment came quickly. What I hadn’t realised until we got
there, for my Swedish is imperfect, is that I had signed on to sample the bento box (bentolåda). If I had paid
more attention to the flyer I received I would have noticed a quote from Mr Frithof himself, ‘Sushi and
sashimi have long been close to my heart’, and I would realised that the offer I was signing onto was two-
for-one bento box dinner consisting of ‘nigiri, maki, sashimi and tempura’. The problem was that unlike
me Marion does not like sushi – raw fish has no appeal for her. And then there would come another
problem, too, for the nigiri, maki, sashimi and tempura would not be very good.

We passed into the restaurant from the bar. As in many Swedish restaurants, there was no one to greet the
customer at the door. Somehow, one is supposed to enter a large strange dim room and know what to do
and where to go. In this case we had to ask at the bar, and the bartender had to motion us toward a dark
corridor off to the side, down which we hesitantly made our way until we found ourselves at the entrance
of a light airy dining room – where again there was no one to greet us. A waiter looked up from computer
screen at the caisse, however, and took our name and genially showed us to our table.

We sat by an open window in light, bright elegant room with marble tables. In the middle of the room there
was a large square white ‘seafood bar,’ where one could sit at the counter and eat, and where a couple of
line cooks held forth. Two tables down from us a well dressed elderly couple were serving themselves
from a two-tiered seafood platter, mounted with boiled small prawns and cold mussels, and trying to pick
delicately at halves of boiled lobster served in the shell. They were not entirely successful. Next to us was
a group of four young men who ordered dishes like fish soup and toast skagen, a Swedish dish of boiled
peeled shrimp doused with a dill-mayonnaise-based dressing and heaped on a piece of toast. The boys
were actually more interested in drinking than in eating. They started with beers, then went on to wine (a
Chablis), Champagne (Bollinger’s, the house specialty), and then on to a couple rounds of whiskey sours.
Eventually a couple in their late thirties came to sit at the table beside us; they ordered six oysters on the
half shell, a small plate of seared sashimi and a small plate of Swedish fish roe. They were very quiet but
they smiled into each other’s eyes the whole time and they washed down their food with tap water.

Marion and I had the Pontus! bentolåda, which normally cost 345 SEK each, about £32 UK. It was a very
good deal to get two of these for the price of one: six individual nigiri, a tuna, a salmon, a mackerel, a
squid and a snapper or something similar; a maki with avocado and some kind of shellfish inside, perhaps
crab, and a smear of spicy mayonnaise; a small salad; a small square of rice, a bit of tempura – large
prawn, asparagus and salsify; a small square of sashimi, with raw salmon and other kinds of fish.

A good deal, let me repeat: and if you ordered the bento box during regular hours you still might think,
given the cost of things in Stockholm, that you had paid a high but not unreasonable price. Yet at a
restaurant that is supposed to be among the leaders in Stockholm’s culinary scene, and that encourages
the consumption of Bollinger’s and other pricey wines and spirits, and that after all is not cheap, one
would expect a lot better. The only two pieces of fish that stood out on the bento plate was an unctuous
freshly cut coin of raw scallop, served among the assorted sashimi, and an almost equally unctuous and
tasty rectangle of raw squid, served among the sushi, on a rectangle of seasoned rice. The rest of the fish
tasted tired. The salmon – served equally as a sushi and as the major ingredient among the sashimi – had
been doused in lemon juice and had taken on a cloying citrus flavour. The tuna sushi was tasteless. The
mackerel was tasty and sweet, but it too had been marinated in lemon juice, for too long, and the acid
had cooked the fish through; it seemed more like a mackerel ceviche than a piece of freshly seasoned
freshly cut fish. As for the condiments, the wasabi was weak, the threads of daikon radish served along
with the sashimi was watery, the ginger was tough and pallid and the dipping sauces were ordinary.

The bento box as a whole lacked what one would expect from a good and ambitious Japanese restaurant.
It lacked imagination. It lacked artistry and Zen. The box itself was so ordinary it might not have been out
of place as a tray for an airplane dinner. The sushi itself were prepared inexpertly, with too little rice, the
rice too dry, the fish too warm and awkwardly cut, the seasoning too heavy-handed when it came to acids
and too light-handed when it came to essentials like wasabi; and none of the sushi, apart from the squid,
gave you the fatty delight of the sea that a bite of good sushi is supposed to give you. Meanwhile, the salad
was an inauthentic little hodgepodge of greens, whose flavour for me was overwhelmed by sprigs of fresh
cilantro: it was simply not a Japanese salad. And the tempura came in a poorly prepared and cooked
batter; it was not made, it appeared, with cold carbonated water, or applied ever so lightly, in chunks, to
the foods that were cooked in it. The product came out heavy, stodgy, oily and hard rather than light,
delicate, and crispy; it came out like the batter you might get on a bad piece of southern fried chicken.

Through all this I marshaled on, just as I would if I were picnicking on a plastic container of mixed sushi
bought from a supermarket take-out; it was raw and marinated fish with rice and sweetened vinegar,
always a pleasure, even when mediocre. But Marion would eat nothing but the stodgy tempura. I gave her
some of mine but she was still feeling neglected and making me feel that it was my fault that she was
feeling neglected, so I asked the waiter if he could bring us an order of the soft-shell crab tempura.
Marion brightened up. We had had soft shell crab together in Chicago several years ago, in a very trendy,
rock-n-roll sort of sushi restaurant on the Near North Side, and Marion thought that the soft shell crab
was one of the best dishes she had tasted, ever. And it is true, the dish is a rare delicacy, sweet and
crunchy, prepared from a young crab when it has just moulted, and the exoskeleton surrounding it
crackles to the bite, letting in the oozy crab butter flavour.

The dish came, featuring a very large soft shell crab, fried in the same tempura batter as our other dishes,
the largest soft shell crab I had ever seen. I took a taste. Marion took a taste. Marion had another taste and
insisted I had another taste too. When you bit into the crab you could taste fried batter and water and
only very slightly the flavour of crabmeat. The crab had been frozen. We didn’t know when, we didn’t how
and we didn’t know why, but this soft shell crab had been frozen, just like the soft shell crab you can get
in Asian markets in Sweden, along with the packaged of frozen prawns and pot stickers. These frozen
goods have their uses, but they have no place in a restaurant of standing, and they had no place here, in
an establishment that calls itself a ‘Raw Bar’.

On reflection it occurred to me that this ‘Raw Bar’ had in fact a very small menu and very few actually raw
ingredients. You can sample it
here. It occurred to me too that there were no daily specials, and no
accounting at all, actually, of where the fish we ate came from, or when or how. We were served tuna,
which is not at all natural to Scandinavia and which it is hard to get of any decent quality, let alone sushi
quality, in the Stockholm area. Why serve it? And why not serve sushi made with local fish, or to put it
another way some local fish besides Scandinavia’s ubiquitous bland farmed salmon? We were served from
a menu that didn’t change for months, regardless of the season and regardless of what actually may have
come in off the boats in some dockland in Sweden and available at the peak of freshness. Cheap sushi
restaurants all over Sweden do this too, of course, but Pontus! is supposed to be different. We had been
able to sample fresh oyster, at least, at Pontus!, but apparently there was only one kind of oyster, and
perhaps even always the same kind of oyster (even in July, a month without an ‘r,’ remember), of unknown
provenance or grade. And one thing we were not able to get in this ‘Raw Bar’ that featured oysters was
sushi with oyster – which was unfortunate, because sushi with oyster, in any of the several variations that
the dish can take, raw, cooked or marinated, bare or sauced, nigiri or rolled, is, in my experience, one of
the best kinds of sushi there are.

       
      

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