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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.