Story and photos By Bo Zaunders
Vigeland Park courtesy M. Angelakis and Fisheries Museum courtesy Visit Bergen
Before us lay an array of tiny morsels – the beginning of a 9-course dinner each paired with an appropriate wine, starting with champagne.
I noted pickled green tomatoes with cabbage and cucumbers, homemade pancetta, and a miniscule dish of fresh whale with pickled gooseberry, which, given its size, may have constituted about one tenth of millionth of what might have been an 150-ton animal.
“Beyond fabulous,” exclaimed Roxie, my wife, assessing our third course, a langoustine ravioli, which followed a tomato salad with mussels and clams, and which, in turn, was supplanted by a pork terrine, after which came hake with roasted fennel, and chicken with oyster mushrooms. Needless to say, as we approached the cheese course, and then strawberries with chervil sorbet and yoghurt, we were gratified indeed.
This grande bouffe took place not in a French movie but at Lysverket, a new Bergen restaurant. As a culinary destination, Norway is hotter than ever. A Norwegian chef, Ørjan Johannessen, just won this year’s prestigious Bocuse d’Or award in Lyon – becoming the fifth Norwegian thus honored.
Our stay in Norway this past summer was at the end of July, which, though at the height of the tourist season, is not an ideal time for exploring good restaurants since several are closed for vacation. Still, between a few days in Oslo and a couple of days in Bergen, we managed to do quite well.
A little bit of Scandinavia unexpectedly presented itself when we were still at New York’s Kennedy Airport and about to take off for Oslo. We were flying Norwegian Air for the first time and, as I looked out the window, I saw the face of Edward Munch (most famous for painting “The Scream”) covering the entire tail fin of the plane. “Fin Art,” in other words, a refreshing new design scheme by Norwegian Air, which, I learned, features portraits of important historical figures, not only from Norway but also from Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Apparently, seeing whom you get on the tail of your airplane is now part of the fun of flying Norwegian, which, I understand, is the third largest low-cost carrier in Europe.
Coming back to Oslo felt a little like a homecoming. Here were all the familiar places: The Opera, rather like an architect-cum-sculpture park with its stark white surfaces and a roof that gently slopes all the way to the water’s edge; the ever-more popular Aker Brygge, now competing with the Opera roof as everybody’s favorite promenade; the amazing Vigeland sculpture park; and, not least Tjuvholmen (more about that later).
As for culinary exploits, our first meal in the capital was an early light dinner at Grønne Kjøkken (the “green kitchen”), a friendly little café in central Oslo, described as a heaven for foodies who love healthy, local, and organic food. As I guzzled down the ecological tomato soup of the day, Roxie dug into the house energisalat, energy salad. The soup had a nice touch of ginger, and the salad, topped with gravlax, looked delicious. The menu was scribbled on big blackboards, and left no doubt about the green pitch. Even the omelet was ecological.
As it turned out, energy salad became part of next day’s dinner also.
A circuitous route, including a 30-minute ferry ride down Oslofjord, had taken us to Helleviktangen, a restaurant housed in a charming manor house, with a park, beach and its own pier. Here we met with Bente Westergaard, who has worked with organic food since 1973, written a book on the subject (titled “Grønn Gourmet”), and took over the running of Helleviktangen in 2008.
While the salad was being prepared, she told us about herself and of her passion for good, healthy fare. “The colors must be great,” she said pointing out that the use of different colored vegetables serves two purposes. Not only does it make for a more esthetically pleasing plate design, but also, more importantly, for a more balanced, more nutritious meal. So, like an artist with his paints, Bente fills her palette with multicolored vegetables.
Needless to say, the salad, when it arrived, did not lack color. It was delicious. As were the desserts: carrot cake and a date cake with chocolate glaze.
Before taking our leave, we asked Bente to tell us about some of her favorite dishes. Her eyes took on a dreamy expression as she went into a description of the organically- raised salmon served most of the summer, the accompanying new potatoes and her yellow sauce, with saffron, white wine, crème fraiche, and asparagus. Another favorite was comfit of duck with sweet potato purée and orange sauce. Who knows, maybe one day she’ll be willing to share the recipe with the readers of LuxuryWeb.
A funny thing happened on the way to our Oslo hotel room. The elevator had a huge portrait of a woman’s face, apparently a still photo. Suddenly, and much to our amazement, the woman in the picture winked at us.
We had just checked in at The Thief, a new luxury hotel (so named because of its location on Tjuvholmen, the Thief Island). This was just one of the many encounters we had with hotel art taken to new levels.
A crouching bronze figure greeted us at the entrance; Richard Price’s painting “The Horse Thief” on a floor-to-ceiling canvas stood next to the reception desk, and by the window nearby reared a multicolored bird sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle. It felt rather like being in an up-to-the-minute art museum, a sentiment that proved justified. Not only do guests enjoy free admission to its next-door neighbor, the Astrup Fernley Museum of Modern Art, the hotel is able to borrow artwork from the museum’s permanent collection.
We spent much of the afternoon wandering around in the museum. Situated at the point where the city stretches into Oslofjord, the setting – like that of the hotel – could not have been more propitious. Designed by the Italian architect Renzio Piano, it consists of three pavilions separated by a canal, but joined by a glass roof, shaped like a sail. The museum also includes a sculpture park next to the water’s edge, overlooking the fjord as well as part of the city center.
Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Jeffrey Barney, Robert Gober, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, and so on – they were all there, in generous space and in natural light filtering through the glass ceiling.
Previously in Oslo, we visited Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin, an exceptional seafood restaurant just across the narrow canal from where we were staying. Recalling its excellent French oysters and Norwegian king crab, we decided to go back.
There, by the entrance, was the crab and oyster tank just as I remembered it. I was struck by how large the place was, and noted once again the unobstructed view of the kitchen and the charcoal grill, used by the chefs to add a subtle, caramelized taste to the food.
For dinner we started with an appetizer of salmon and king crab, enhanced with burnt leek and horseradish. Then came grilled cod, with a delectable pea purée risotto and garlic with mussel stock. In conclusion, we indulged in a white chocolate cake with raspberry filling. All quite satisfactory, although, I missed a little that giant crab from our first visit, which, before consumed, was held up for our inspection by former chef Jakob.
Oslo City Hall, with its two functional towers, has long been a familiar sight, but I had little idea of what it was like inside. I took a tour, and was truly amazed. An abundance of art treasures everywhere - huge murals, mostly by Henrik Sørensen, and even a large original painting by Edward Munch.
The construction of the building began in 1930 but, because of the war, wasn’t completed until 20 years later. Poignantly, one of the murals, painted by Alf Rolfsen, is called “Occupation Suite,” and stretches the length of an entire wall in the vast central hall.
Our stay in Oslo also included a visit to Bygdøy, the nearby peninsula that holds some of the city’s most popular museums, including the Fram Museum, which houses and is named after the world’s most famous polar ship. Paying it a visit, I became intrigued with the story of Norwegian polar expeditions and the explorers involved, such as Fridjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen, Otto Svedrup.
The view was spectacular. Below us lay the Opera House, the inner Oslo fjord, and much of the city. A tram ride and short walk along a winding road had taken us to Ekeberg Restaurant, for yet another dinner.
From an earlier visit I recalled some outstanding steamed mussels. So why not try the mussel soup, with truffles and chives? Excellent! And the Riesling that came with it was a perfect match. Then, as Roxie enjoyed a veal steak, I dug into the recommended fish of the day, monkfish, with sun-dried tomatoes, potatoes, and carrot purée.
Finally, for me, a chocolate mousse cake with strawberries and ice cream.
Bergen also felt a little like a homecoming. Here, again, was the spectacular Bryggen, with its row of steeply gabled warehouses, recalling Bergen’s medieval past and prominence as a Hanseatic hub; here was the famous fish market, livelier than ever; and over there was the Fløybanen funicular, offering far-reaching views of the city.
As always, when in Bergen, I spent some time re-acquainting myself with Bryggen, diving into its narrow wood-floored courtyards, gazing at loading lofts, and taking note of newly opened shops, artist’s studios, and restaurants. In Bryggen I also revisited the Hanseatic Museum for fascinating insights into what this place was like from the time the German merchants settled there in 1360.
Not far from Bryggen the Norwegian Fisheries Museum just opened, showcasing Norway’s fishing industry through the ages. A short ride on the tiny Beffen ferry, and we were there, learning about the lives of fishermen, coastal culture, boats, whaling, sealing, and other things, including the invention of cod-liver oil in 1854. This being child-friendly Scandinavia, I wasn’t surprised to see a number of fun interactive exhibits specifically for children. Most charming of all might have been the scene outside: a dozen or so preschoolers circling the main building in tiny canoes, provided by the museum.
Back to Lysverket, where we enjoyed the scrumptious 9-course dinner. The force behind this eatery is Christopher Haatuft, a native of Bergen and a chef with some of the world’s best restaurants on his resume, including Aliena, Per Se, and Blue Hill in the USA. We missed him, but met briefly with Fredrik Saroea, co-founder of Lysverket, a member of a famous electronic rock band, and, generally, a colorful personality. We also got to know the sommelier, John Miller from South Dakota, whose passion for organic wine was unmistakable.
Finally, in Bergen, we lunched at what is often referred to as one of Norway’s best seafood restaurants. It's called Cornelius, and situated in the archipelago half an hour’s boat ride from the city (see Cornelius in the restaurants section). Appropriately, it sits on a quay overlooking a fjord, and boasts a small sea farm. As we stepped onto the dock, I saw fish swirling in a water tank, and just a few feet away stood a shellfish tower. Minutes later, we found ourselves in an airy upstairs room, served Prosecco and beach crab soup. Enter: Alf Roald Saetre, better known as the “Shellfish Man,” regaling us and our fellow passengers with stories about how the restaurant started and about the wild adventures of his grandfather Alf Cornelius.
The fish of the day according to the restaurant’s famous “Meterological Menu” was ling, so that’s what we had. Caught at the mouth of the fjord, it was oven-baked, and came with Pommes Anna, a sauce with smoked ham, shallots caramelized in butter, and a purée of carrots. As for wine, Roxie opted for Poully Fume, and I chose a Barbera D’Asti.
Halfway through the meal we were joined by chef Steffen Romerheim, who told us a little about when fish reached their ultimate flavor. Thus, in late fall you get Skrei (which is cod at its peak). In fall you also get red fish. With spring comes tusk from the head of the fjord, and June brings spotted wolf fish all the way from the Bering Sea. Asked about salmon, Steffen surprised us, mentioning that, for appetizers, Cornelius smokes one ton of salmon each year.
We were chatting with a couple we met on the boat over and were savoring a sumptuous homemade lemon cake when in the adjoining dining room things began to stir. Hulda Bjork Gardasrdottir, a well-known Icelandic soprano, was about to sing for a group of cruise ship passengers.
Then into our room came the sound of a heartrending song by Edward Grieg, wafting through the open window and spreading across the fjord outside.
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