Norwegian Nutshells

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Make no mistake, Norway is a country
containing much in the way of spectacular natural beauty from fjords
to waterfalls to lush green valleys. It also has lovely, friendly
people. Those things are easy to come across when visiting Norway.
Less easy is finding reasonably priced, good food. Expensive,
mediocre-at-best food, no problem. Cheap food, good or bad, really
difficult. Then again, unlike Denmark & Sweden, I didn't really
go to Norway for the food – at least not as the principle draw.

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Coming from eating at multiple Michelin
stars in Denmark and knowing that Norway would be quite expensive, my
hope was to find reasonable, simple food as we ventured from Oslo to
the western fjords and Bergen. Oslo has some restaurants with good
reputations and Michelin stars, but none that appealed enough to
justify their associated lofty tariffs. The restaurant that I did
choose in Oslo, based on some internet research, but no
recommendations from anyone I knew personally, Solsiden, was well situated on
the shore of the Oslo fjord. Their specialty is the seafood plateau,
which I thought would offer a nice contrast to the complex dishes of
Copenhagen. A meal of simply prepared Norwegian shellfish sounded
like a good change of pace…and it might have been if it had
actually been good Norwegian shellfish as I had assumed it would have
been. We all know what happens when we assume. Priced per person (635NK or about $100pp) for
a minimum of two people, the plateau was large and more than enough
food for two or even three people. Quantity wasn't the issue. It was
billed as consisting of oysters, scallops, shrimp, lobster, mussels,
king crab and crab. Unfortunately for me, I didn't ask about the
food's origins until we received the platter. The lobster and shrimp
were from Canada and the oysters (2) were from France. I'm not sure
where the mussels or the crab were from, but the only things actually
from Norway was the king crab legs (2). It's not that any of it was
bad (though the lobster was not fully cooked), it just wasn't very
good. The bulk of the platter consisted of the shrimp, which were
small, unpeeled and head-on. I didn't bother peeling them. The shells
were soft enough to eat and it wasn't worth the effort to peel them.
It seemed that nearly all of the shrimp were roe-containing. I didn't
mind eating the roe, but I had to wonder about the wisdom of
harvesting all these breeding shrimp. My biggest issue with the
shrimp though was that I really wanted to taste and eat the rekker
or small Norwegian fjord shrimp, which I had heard so much about and had assumed would be on the platter.
Since we ordered the platter for two, we only received one French
oyster and one small scallop (sans anything but the adductor muscle)
each – disappointing. The platter was served with an aoli, a
mayonnaise and a cocktail sauce, none of which were very good. It did
not include drawn butter. Ultimately, the tastiest component of the
dinner was the mussels, which were served separately in a garlic,
parsley and white wine sauce, however, they were no better than any
other competently prepared mussel dish. With only one night in Oslo,
we didn't have a chance to explore any where else.

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The food didn't get better when we
ventured north to the small coastal town of Alesund. As one might
imagine of a Norwegian coastal town at the head of a major fjord,
boats are ubiquitous. I was told that there are more boats in Alesund
per capita than anywhere else in the world. While I don't know if
that is true or not, there certainly are plenty of them. Presumably
they fish with at least some of them. With the so-called “best
restaurant” in Alesund closed on Saturdays and Sundays (the days we
were there) we were recommended a seafood restaurant down by the
docks called XL Diner. Their specialty is bacalao and the only fresh
fish on the menu was farm-raised Norwegian salmon. They did offer a
cream-based fish soup that was actually quite tasty, but the bacalao
dishes were practically inedible. It's not that I don't like dried
cod. When well-prepared, it has a wonderful texture and the salt is
almost entirely mitigated. That was not so in either case here. The
cod was still quite salty with an unpleasant texture. The various
preparations were ascribed to a number of national identities, but
neither the Italianate or Norwegian varieties we tried proved edible
to me. The following night in Alesund as we waited between
Hurtigruten boats, we resorted to a Pan-Asian restaurant, which would
actually have been ok if it wasn't about 4 times what a similar
dinner would have cost in the US.

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Chef Hanne Frosta of Hanne Pa Hoyden 

Fortunately, we moved on to Bergen, a
lovely city with a fair bit of history and quite a few restaurants. I
was also lucky to contact an old eGullet friend from Bergen,
Christopher Haatuft, an accomplished cook in his own right.
Christopher grew up in Bergen and developed much of his cooking chops
there. He spent the past year or so cooking at the Norwegian Embassy
in Paris and is shortly heading to N.Y. to be a sous chef at Blue
Hill at Stone Barns. He knows food and steered us to two excellent
restaurants in Bergen. The first, Jacob's Bar & Kokkern serves
modern influenced, but well grounded  cooking using a
preponderance of Norwegian ingredients. They focus on seafood and use only fresh, locally caught fish, avoiding any farmed or imported seafood. The food was creative, well
prepared and very tasty. Like the rest of Norway, it wasn't particularly cheap,
but it was, for Norway, a very good value and well worth the money spent. The following day, we had
a late lunch at Hanne Pa Hoyden, Bergen's answer to noma. In fact,
the chef owner, Hanne Frosta and some of her staff have cooked at
noma. Hanne Pa Hoyden, is a true Slow Food restaurant, using only the finest ingredients from Norway. Like noma, the restaurant is crafting a New
Scandinavian cuisine and though not as elaborately prepared as the
dishes at noma, the dishes are quite tasty and satisfying. One aspect
quite unique to Hanne Pa Hoyden is that the only wine they serve is
wine made at and by the restaurant. Since grapes don't grow in
Norway, the wines are not grape wines. We sampled a number of wines
made from such produce as sea buckthorn, rhubarb and other local
fruits and vegetables. Though somewhat one dimensional, they were
very tasty and provided wonderful pairings for the food as they were
not generally high alcohol and contained sufficient acid structures.
In both restaurants, dishes utilizing seasonal fresh mackeral stood
out. The one at Hanne Pa Hoyden and been cooked on the flat top in a
coating of spelt, providing a wonderfully crunchy exterior. Prior to
this trip, I had never been a huge fan of mackeral, but the examples
eaten at these two restaurants and that at AOC in Copenhagen were
amongst the best dishes of the trip, completely opening my eyes and
mouth to the greatness of the fish.

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The remainder of our Norwegian eating
experience was unremarkable as we took the scenery rich extended
journey back to Oslo called Norway in a Nutshell. Like the bulk of
our Norwegian experience, it was rich on sights and weak on food.

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The funny thing is that Norway is not
without extremely competent chefs, including several Bocuse D'Or
winners. With a few exceptions like those in Bergen, it doesn't
appear to entertain much of a creative restaurant culture. Perhaps
that is because of the high cost of everything or perhaps many of the
better restaurants are simply not very well known outside of Norway.
It may also be that most restaurants, especially in the areas we
visited cater to tourists and don't really need to be very good.
There is no doubt there is good food to be found there, but it can be somewhat hard to find. During my pre-trip research, I couldn't really
come across any really must-visit recommendations. I was hoping to
try Geier Skeie's upcoming restaurant and the famous Bagatelle, but
the former hasn't opened yet and the latter closed over the past
year. Ultimately, though, given the exorbitant cost of food and the
difficulty finding the better places, Norway is not a legitimate culinary
destination. That is not to say that it is not worth visitingr, however. The
scenery of the fjords, the rich Viking and Hanseatic history and
cultural stops such as the Edvard Munch Museum, The Viking Ship
Museum and the Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo and the Edvard Grieg
House in Bergen are well worth experiencing.  


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One Response to Norwegian Nutshells

  1. Every once in awhile travels take us where food isn’t the reason to go. This sounds incredibly beautiful, so you’ll have to feast with your eyes for the time being. From the looks of it, not so hard.
    Enjoy!

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