When it comes to hysteria about new Nordic cuisine, poor old Norway has rather been languishing in the shadow of Sweden and Denmark. And while Oslo might be starting to make the odd wave with restaurants such as Maaemo and Fauna, the country’s second-largest city has been more known for its (admittedly breathtaking) fjords than its food.
However, a couple of new restaurant arrivals in Bergen have me hurtling over there before you can say fiskesuppe. But before we get to where it’s all light and modernity, I’m determined to check out some of the old-timers: joints whose lugubrious wood-panelled rooms and curious menus could star in the spooky folk tales so beloved of the country.
Down at the waterfront, at the Bryggen, a complex of tiny alleyways and pavements made from wood, is where you can get to grips with old Bergen (so much so that the area has been given Unesco World Heritage status). It’s worth fighting your way through the tour groups – Bergen is a favourite spot for cruise-ship layovers and there are times when you feel as though you’re drowning in pastel leisurewear – and seeking out the likes of Bryggen Tracteursted. Here, we have our first taste of the city’s famous fiskesuppe – a wonderfully comforting, creamy cross between a soup and a stew, served up in a wood-lined and frescoed interior that looks like it hasn’t changed since the locals barred their front doors against trolls.
Bryggeloftet & Stueneis equally atmospherically gloomy: in its upstairs room, looking out onto the boats in the harbour, we blot out the 21st century while eating moose, cloudberries and wolf-fish – a lot nicer than they sound and served in portions designed to equip you for the fiercest Norwegian winter. We hang fire on the whale, though: that’s a step too far for us.
Slowly, we start to unpack the city’s secrets, wandering away from the crowds at the famous fishmarket on the Bryggen – though it’s worth visiting for photo opportunities and goggling at an array of fresh and cured fish, tanks of seafood and endless permutations of fish eggs, smoked fish and mayonnaise; but locals dismiss it as expensive and one for the tourists. We begin to unearth treasures untouched by the cruisers: after a trip up the dramatic funicular railway, we find backstreets lined with colourful wooden houses, vintage stores and delicious cafes like Krof og Krinkel Bokcafé.
Its walls lined with books, the little cafe’s air is scented with spice from its excellent home-baking (squidgy carrot cake and cinnamon rolls, both unmissable). Or Jacob’s, where sommelier Joseph di Blasi introduces us to some of the natural wines he’s so passionate about: pure Mosel riesling, juicy and fresh, and funky biodynamic reds. The sophistication of the cellar and the kitchen here belie the joint’s somewhat functional appearance – it hides its gastro light under a pub-shaped bushel. A hugely pleasurable piece of serendipity.
But for me, the star turns are recent additions to the city, ones with their sights set firmly on Norway’s future rather than its past. Cute Restaurant 1877, with its chandeliers and brick walls, is more Brooklyn than Bergen; the young owners look pleasingly bemused when I suggest this. The tiny menu comes on wax-sealed parchment and delivers some astonishingly fine cooking. I’m still pining for the lobster dish: tender and sweet, straight from the local crystal waters and served on a pool of Jerusalem artichoke cream.
Even the bread and butter are special. Plated on one of the old barrel staves the owners found when renovating their corner of the historic markethall building, the butter is whipped until almost white and the bread is made from sourdough that’s ‘older than our restaurant’.
Restaurant 1877 may be my favourite restaurant in Bergen, but the one that looks set for international acclaim is Lysverket (pictured above). Its gorgeous location alone – in the art gallery of the same name, overlooking a fountain-laced park – makes it worth seeking out.
But the cooking of Christopher Haatuft (ex Per Se chef in New York) is fragrant with ambition: tiny potato noisettes scattered with shaved salt cod and looking like decorative snails; pearlescent scallops with dashi; more lobster, this time with a gnocco made from its coral; and an aromatic bisque, rich and intense with the shells of sea creatures. All ingredients are foraged or local to haunting effect.
Lysverket is co-owned by musician Fredrik Saroea so at the end of the evening, the lights dim, the cocktail shakers fire into action, a DJ cranks up the sounds and Bergen’s beautiful people come out to play. There’s not an inch of pastel leisurewear to be seen. This is the real Bergen, and, as Christopher Haatuft says, it’s not neo-Nordic, it’s neo-fjordic.
Marina O’Loughlin is the Guardian Weekend’s incognito restaurant critic. She flew to Norway with easyJet, courtesy of Innovation Norway UK and stayed at the Grand Hotel Terminus. For more info on Bergen, see visitbergen.com.
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