Spend a Night At One Of Sweden's Most Magical Matbars

An evening in search of traditional flavors yields the unexpected.

July 14, 2017 ● 5 min read

By Lulu McAllister Churchill | Photograph via Emma Larsson for Sydsvenskan 

I had begun to have the usual cravings.

Plump golfball-sized meatballs in gravy with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce, open-faced sandwiches with sweet little shrimp and onion and thinly sliced hardboiled eggs, licorice ice cream, cardamom-laced pastries. I craved Sweden.

My half-Swede, wine-slinging husband also hankered for the comfort foods of his childhood and wanted to comb through whatever new wine bars had popped up since our last visit. In the week before we were set to arrive in Scandinavia, we received an email from my husband’s cousin in Malmö, Jens, singing the praises of one place in particular. 

Lyran Matbar, he insisted, was one of the best spots in town, known for its natural wines and nestled in the diverse Möllevången neighborhood of Malmö. Matbar translates roughly to something along the lines of “gastropub,” but Lyran has a sophisticated and enigmatic menu — it's really more of a long, poetically abstracted list of local, seasonal ingredients. 

I was curious, even if it was potentially more complicated than the rustic, familiar, and traditional meals I originally had in mind for our stay, but, one doesn't take such enthusiastic directives from Jens lightly. And so, we made a date with the chef’s counter — where we would soon come face to face with the impish grin of chef Jörgen Lloyd, popping up between presentations of all the playful, delicious creatures of his imagination.

Lyran was already warm and buzzing when we blew in for an early dinner reservation. Having passed through the lingering briskness of Scandinavian springtime on our walk through Malmö, we hung our hats (and scarves, and jackets...) and pulled up to the counter, basking gratefully in the ambient heat of the restaurant’s open kitchen. We watched one cook shave large, thin disks off a giant mushroom; behind us, a smartly dressed man swirled around the dining room with flasks of cloudy, colorful drinking vinegars and ciders; a handful of other cooks clustered near the stoves with their backs to us, absorbed in the last few minutes of preparation before show time. Shoulder to shoulder with them stood Jörgen.

Aside from a crisp chef’s coat, the native Swede appears with the soft edges of the salt-of-the-earth, both in trimmings and expression. As has become the quintessentially Nordic practice (adopted and imitated around the world), he forages for the food himself in nearby forests and riverways around southern Sweden; his sandy blond mop of hair looks as though it has been tousled by the unforgiving wind off the rugged Swedish coast, and set into place by early morning mist descending on a hidden field of potentially edible greens. His wizened eyes tell the story of a man who has routinely spent hours squinting after precious ingredients in favorite corners of the forest, only to fixate with equal intensity on the same treasures being bandied about a narrow kitchen space a few hours later.

Jörgen has cooked professionally for the last 20 years at no major kitchen in particular, but has become known in this vibrant corner of Sweden for capturing the diverse culinary influences of the rapidly evolving community around him through the lens of these seasonal findings. To begin the meal, he tops delicate homemade flax seed crackers with miniature bright green nosegays of nasturtium leaf and tender, sweet little buds of early spring. 

There is a brand of Swedish minimalism to his process that Jörgen says borders on “melancholic” —it seems that to focus on a handful of ingredients (some of which were historically consumed out of desperation or necessity) and forging them into something poetic, passionate, and revelatory can be a somber mission. That first plate of greens on crackers? It's more than a pretty amuse: it evokes the sturdiness of hearty winter seeds giving way to the exuberance and levity of the first verdant breath of springtime — a sentiment every Swede holds understandably close to the heart.

What emerges from his small kitchen is a product of “mood, produce, weather, and season,” he says. His relationship with this environment and the forceful pull of the seasons in this part of the world has become intuitive; he looks pleased when we've devoured the crackers, like we’ve all unearthed some distant childhood nostalgia together.

“What I really appreciate with Jörgen and Lyran is the constant creativity,” writes Johannes Kjellgren in Malmö’s edition of Nöjesguiden, a local cultural guide. “He talks for hours about food and beverages. He tells stories about vegetables and meat he has received through local suppliers or mushrooms and greens he picked himself, about how the courses can change form over a week, almost as if they were living their own lives. After each visit to Lyran, I have felt: 'This is the best I've eaten here.’”

A plate of those very thinly sliced large disks of field mushrooms appears, each round dotted with an emulsion of the mushroom’s gills—first fermented in Japanese soy sauce—and served with toasted sesame seeds and grated mature local goat cheese. Jörgen is drawn particularly to strange mushrooms, and he considers this dish somewhat of a signature, with levers that change slightly from night to night; he swaps in whichever seeds and mushrooms are available that day. On this particular occasion, giant maitakes offer the flexibility for a more playful preparation. He instructs us to pick it up with our hands, to eat it like a Swedish taco.

The adventure proceeds bite by bite, the kitchen now juggling multiple courses at once for the lively dining room. A dish of white asparagus in homemade sprouted almond milk with rapeseed oil emerges, decorated with flirty purple violets and meaty little Portuguese olives. The dance of sweet and salty alongside the balance of soft and edgy bitter extends all the way until the very last munsbit (“tasty little bite” in Swedish).

Immediately following an intriguing drinking vinegar by Frukt Stereo, one of the top five things I’ve eaten all year appears before me: charred leek centers, braised in buttermilk with anchovy filets and young verbena leaves. It is the meal's centerpiece, for good reason. The leek, anchovy, and buttermilk turn up the volume on the umami, tempered precisely by the lemony nerve of the slender verbena leaves laid in tandem with the small, salty fish filets. When I look down at the empty plate moments later, my heart clamors for the fleeting memory of what just transpired. Looking back up, Jörgen is there to remove the plates himself. He’s beaming; he knows that last dish is a winner. “Hemskt gott,” I declare. Awfully good. “Hemskt gott!” he agrees, nodding.

Then comes the super savory twice-cooked pork rib, glazed with a naturally sweet langoustine reduction, accompanied by celery root purée and dusted with dried tarragon. Jörgen buys the economical langoustine shells to make a basic stock, which he reduces considerably into a naturally sweet, earthy sauce to complement the tender meat. Magical yes, but also resourceful.

Last to grace the counter is a rhubarb sorbet with milk chocolate crumbles covered in a thick, snowy quilt of unsweetened whipped cream and a dusting of lakris (licorice) powder. Once again, Jörgen bridges the dark, wintery note of the licorice with the juicy, red notes of the imminent summer.

How much joy and discovery eludes us if we seek only our own nostalgia in the food of others? At Lyran, one man’s wealth of food memories, for a few exciting hours, fully supplanted my previous longing for relics of comfort, the highlights of meals with my adopted Swedish family. Taken as the articulate, unexpected text of southern Swedish experience that it was, I received infinitely more joy from the distinct culinary footprint of a stranger—far more than I would have by feebly cobbling my own past experiences into a meal.

You may not be able to go home again, but perhaps, when the door is open and we’re willing, we can enter someone else’s. Maybe that’s all a craving really is: just knocking and knocking and waiting to be let in.