Almost directly west of Oslo some eight hours by curvy mountain road or an equally windy journey by train, Bergen is Norway’s second largest city and the gateway to one of the world’s magical natural treasure regions: Norway’s Fjord country. Whether it’s the expansive Sognefjord and its claustrophobic narrow side fjords or the equally impressive, more majestic Hardangerfjord, every where you look everything is stunning and there is water everywhere. The drive around the fjords to and from Bergen is a non stop adventure of tunnels, twists, turns, waterfalls, breathtaking vistas, mountain passes, goats on the wall, and then everything else an amusement park might throw into a ride. Except this is the real deal. Yes, Norway is expensive and the tolls for the roads are everywhere. However, in order to construct and maintain these roads for our benefit, tolls are needed. And they seem to spend that money wisely.
Obviously, the fjords are the highlight here in Western Norway. You’ll eat well, if expensively exploring the fjords. One dinner in Ulvik was a satisfactory buffet spread at a most scenic hotel, with the price tag of a high end dinner in Paris for smoked salmon and edible steam table cuisine. A lunch in the tiny town of Vik (not right next to Ulvik…) presented the opportunity for a needed capuccino and to taste the region’s cheese: Gamalost. A dark orange skimmed cow’s milk cheese aged roughly a month, Gamalost is very stiff and chalky with a not altogether pleasant, sour taste.
But there is some special food and certainly special beer to be found in Bergen. With a metropolitan population at 391,000, much of the dining in this city focuses on, you guessed it, the tourists. The tourists come by the masses every day to see the fjords or on cruise ships the size of Bergen for day trip stop. Bergen has some lovely parks and is the home town of Edvard Grieg.
That usually is an asterisk for the tourists who stick to the funicular that takes you up a mountain for a knockout panoramic view of Bergen and the Bergen Fjord, and to the ticky-tack wharf area that makes Pier 39 seem designed for locals. The wharf area, known as Bryggen, is where you can sample fresh seafood not prepared with care in the fish market, then cross the street where McDonald’s and various Irish pubs await your arrival.
I will admit, I did something I never would usually do unless in complete dire circumstances. I ate at T.G.I. Friday’s in Bergen. After two weeks of traveling and much more to come, a hectic late afternoon arrival into town, rental car issues, and feeling far from my best, I just wanted a green salad. Sometimes you don’t want to bother searching far and wide for local cuisine, something I do as a profession.
With that out of the way, there are three essential stops for a dining and drinking tour in Bergen. With only one afternoon and one evening in town, I only made it to two. Hanne Pa Høyden is a television celebrity in Norway and influential in day to day organic, seasonal cooking, like Alice Waters for the U.S. She wasn’t there during my dinner visit, but I’m told Høyden actually does cook, unlike Waters.
Dinners come in fixed price packages with the categories of weeds, herring, soup, fish, meat, cheese, and dessert, which in this case was a raspberry degustation (plain, as sorbet, and as a silky custard). One summer evening the weeds were sprouts with tiny mozzarella spheres and a rye granita. The herring was far from just a pickled assortment. Here, you receive herring mousse to spread on the terrific spelt bread with herring eggs and sliced radishes. The soup was the more autumnal pumpkin, nothing special. Pumpkin showed up in butternut squash form later as the sauce for the superb, simple fish course, with hake the featured fish.
Best, however was a starter of the silky soft whale carpaccio, simply topped with some wildflowers and the ubiquitous dill. The filet of beef was hyped by the server, but turned out to be soul-sucking leather. For some blissful reason, possibly fate, the beef ran out after our one order, and we received the same preparation, in whale steak form. It was beautifully medium rare. With a sour cream dollop, I’ll take whale steak over beef steak any day. Perfect.
I can’t lie, whale is a terrific meat. In theory I should feel good about that? Despite being known as a very endangered species, our waiter said the whales off the coast of Iceland are actually bad. They prowl on the other sea life there, depleting the ecosystem, and thus need to be controlled. That made me feel better…
The other primary must try dining stop in town I’m told is Jacob’s Bar and Kjøkken, another outpost of New Norwegian-Seasonal cooking.
Now, an abbreviated version of The Chalkboard, Bergen Version:
Dish of Bergen: Whale Carpaccio with Dill and Flowers, Hanne pa Høyden
The dish that taught me of the merits of eating whale…before you protest, understand that whale is eaten everywhere in Norway. And it’s considered a necessary animal to eat to control the marine population. Here, it is a stellar, simple carpaccio, served thick instead of sliced thin. With a dash of dill and some floral notes, the dish receives nothing except the highest of praise.
The Concept of Bergen: Local, Local, Local
From the apple chips made in Alvik, the apple wine from Hardanger, and the birch and spruce shoots foraged in the hills featured at Høyden’s to the spectacular array of Norwegian brews on draught and by the bottle at Henrik’s, the pride in Norwegian ingredients is very evident in Bergen, away from the touristy spots. Yes, the concept is a cliché now in the U.S. It’s far from a tired, abused concept here.
Cocktail of Bergen? Coffee?
Sorry, need a rain check on those. Somebody was a little lazy at this point of the trip…which tends to happen when you’re between Copenhagen and Moscow.
Beer or Wine?
Don’t even think of visiting Bergen without sampling some of Norway’s craft brews. There is no better place in the country, honestly, than Henrik’s to do so with its 40 some taps. Nogne ø and Aegir are the studs, and the Lervig Rye IPA from Stavanger was the underdog surprise. The place was tranquil when we were there, a zen temple meets a cozy pub, where beer is Buddhism.
World renowned craft brewers to make frequent appearances, along with Brewdog, Green Flash, you get the idea…Every city needs a Henrik’s. And yes, Henrik would be…Henrik Ibsen. The bar is across the street from the National Theatre and the statue of the famous playwright.
Since you’re curious who won the beer tasting. The Lervig Rye IPA won the bronze, silver to the Nogne ø IPA, and the gold…Aegir’s Sunbel Porter.
Restaurant of Bergen: Hanne Pa Høyden
The experience is far from flawless with fluctuations in pacing and several dishes, including the aforementioned steak, underwhelming. Tucked away in a residential area near lots of construction, Høyden has a hard time attracting those tourists away from the Bryggen. It’s a shame, but it’s reality. Any restaurant this devoted to the art of pure, enlightened cooking deserves attention. Even more so, every restaurant should serve Høyden’s spelt bread with green garlic butter. Absolutely incredible.
Symbol of Bergen
And a closing thought from Bergen…