South of Gamla Stan, across one of the city’s many bridges, lies Stockholm’s vibrant beating heart. Södermalm is achingly, effortlessly and unselfconsciously cool in the way only certain places can be. This is the city’s Soho where artists, musicians and writers pack into small and over-priced flats to compose their masterpieces. The shops are independent and boutique. The restaurants are ethnic and exotic. Cafés line the streets and music pours from open doorways – deep bass lines melding together and converging into a heavy morass that soundtracks your journey.
There is no pretence. There is no agenda. ‘Live and let live’ appears to be the philosophy that exudes from every corner. Closed doors tantalise with their potential secrets – you get the impression that the best nights are to be had in basements that do not advertise their wares. This is the sort of place where you have to be resident to truly appreciate it and we were merely visitors. And hungry ones at that.
Our desire to be as ‘free-range’ as possible when we travel cuts down our need to rely on guidebooks but sometimes it is impossible to ignore the lure of the Lonely Planet and that is exactly how we found ourselves in a Thai restaurant in the middle of Sweden’s capital.
Kho Phangan manages to skirt so very close to the realm of kitsch that it is amazing it doesn’t fall into a vast chasm of tackiness. This heavily decorated restaurant comes complete with a bamboo bar, UV lighting and even a table in a tuk tuk and yet somehow manages to maintain its dignity. It could be that tongue remains firmly in cheek and there is a nod of self-awareness. It might be because it is one of a kind and not part of a highly stylised chain of similar outlets. Or perhaps it is because the food is very, very good.
A half hour wait passed quickly at the well stocked bar which, in addition to three or four Thai beers, served the famous buckets of Mekong whisky and Red Bull, although at over forty pounds each we made do with a lager. As the minutes passed it became increasingly easy to forget that we were still in Scandinavia and not in an Asian beach hut and the level of detail aided this thought – the lighting, the drinks and even the sounds were reminiscent of Thailand and by the time our table was ready we were certainly ready to sample the food.
A complimentary salad, with a zingy lime juice and chilli dressing, served as an excellent appetiser while we perused the menu. One doesn’t go to a Thai restaurant to be surprised and, as expected, all the usual suspects were present including green and red curry and Pad Thai. Feeling as if I had probably consumed enough meat for at least a week (in the form of yet more hot dogs, and a steak the previous night), I went for a vegetable stir-fry with chilli and basil while the birthday girl chose a chicken curry. Both were delicious – capturing classical Thai flavours like lemongrass and ginger and delivering a hefty spice kick, enough to bring a few beads of sweat to the forehead. The vegetables were fabulously fresh and had been cooked for only a short amount of time, retaining a satisfying crunch. Delicately steamed plain white rice accompanied both dishes.
Knowing that a decadently tempting ice cream parlour lay in wait for us on the way back, we declined dessert, paid the bill and blinked our way back into the bright reality of early summer Sweden – the combination of strong Oriental beer, spicy food and UV lighting ensuring a few moments of confusion before we could head on our merry way.
I, like many others, have formed an inextricable link between holidays and ice cream. It is a foodstuff that I adore but doesn’t often appear on my radar and consequently makes only rare appearances in the freezer. But holidays provoke some sort of Pavlovian reaction within me and I begin to salivate at the merest thought of the good stuff.
Since day one we had been intrigued by a technique we had seen whereby an entire ice cream, complete with the top half inch of the cone, was dipped into warm, molten chocolate. On contact with the cold ice cream, the chocolate quickly hardened creating a crisp choco layer around the soft vanilla ice cream underneath. If it tasted half as good as it looked, it was bound to be achingly delicious. Coupled with this, the shop we chose made the enormous waffle cones fresh each day: a Heath Robinson style contraption in the window dribbled the mixture onto a hot plate which was then closed shut to cook the waffle. When it was ready and cool enough to handle whilst still being pliable, it was curled into a cone shape ready to be filled with soft vanilla ice cream.
When faced with such delicacies, it would be rude to merely dabble. Rather, the only course of action is to dive in headfirst and think about it later. It was this philosophy that saw me ordering two of the largest ice creams I have ever seen. Each one could easily have satisfied two people. They were dipped into the chocolate which, as expected, formed a dark brown shell around the light, white ice cream within.
We sat outside the shop, perched on the windowsill in front of the waffle maker and tucked into the behemoth frozen treats in our childlike hands. They were as tasty as they looked; soft ice cream with the unmistakeable taste of manufactured vanilla, a crisp cone with a faintly sweet note and a gentle bitterness from the dark chocolate. It was one of the great ice creams, a truly legendary dessert.
My steadfast determination to finish it saw me through to the end leaving me reeling like a child at Easter who has eaten too much chocolate before breakfast. I licked the final smudges of chocolate from my lips, tossed my napkin into the bin and rested a hand on my sore belly while my girlfriend, clutching the final quarter of a cone still filled with ice cream, admitted defeat. Even after all that I considered whether it would be foolhardy to do the gentlemanly thing and finish it for her. An audible groan from my stomach gave me my answer. We binned the remains before I could change my mind and ambled into the quickly cooling evening happy and sated.