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Hunting for the ‘New Nordic’

  • One of the two sailing yachts chartered by a group of 12 friends for a summer cruise among Norway's Lofoten Islands.

  • Fiskesuppe, a hearty fish soup, is one of the national dishes of Norway. (Jim Reiman photograph)

  • Chef Bent Stiansen's book, based on his work at his Oslo restaurant.

  • Pan seared cod loin with Jerusalem artichokes and braised fennel, from Statholdergaarden, in Oslo.



For the Valley News
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

This summer, I joined friends on a sailing adventure in Norway, a “bare boat” charter of two 51-foot sailing yachts that the 12 of us would provision and man for two weeks inside the Arctic Circle.

We cast off on the summer solstice from Tromso Harbor, Norway’s northernmost large city and pointed our bows toward the remote fjords and snow-capped mountains of the Lofoten Islands. From here on, the sun would never set, providing us with lengthy days of exploring and cruising.

Sailing was only part of my interest in the trip. I’m an adequate deckhand, but my real contribution is that I don’t get seasick and I can prepare a good meal under sail at a 30-degree angle. I also wanted to find my grandmother’s ancestral home in Oslo, and I was determined to taste the offerings of some great restaurants along the way.

Having spent my life in the restaurant business, including restaurants in Woodstock and Lebanon, I’m always interested in food trends. I knew that New Nordic Cuisine (NNC) was hot, or, more appropriately, “cool,” and this trip to Norway would give me a great opportunity to experience it firsthand.

Nordic cuisine had risen to prominence in the 1990s, at such restaurants as Aquavit, in New York City, but the NNC movement gathered steam with a meeting of chefs in Oslo and a subsequent manifesto, published in 2004.

Although NNC’s emphasis on fresh, local food would sound familiar to foodies around the world, at first, many prominent chefs were outspokenly critical of it, saying the trend was inspired by elitist chefs trying to impress food writers with their notoriety rather than with thoughtfully prepared, delicious food. Yet food movements as enduring as NNC succeed on more than just trendy ideas. Noma, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Copenhagen founded by leading NNC proponents Claus Meyer and Rene Redzepi, was rated by Restaurant Magazine as the best restaurant in the world in 2010, ’11, ’12 and ’14.

Although Noma has since closed, NNC has inspired a number of top restaurants in major cities around the world, notably Ekstedt, in Stockholm, Geranium in Copenhagen, and two restaurants I went to in Norway, Lyskervet, in Bergen, and Statholdergaarden, a Michelin one-star in Oslo.

In 1992, my restaurant partner and I joined International Slow Food. The organization promoted buying sustainable, locally grown, organic produce and products. Each year we would attend the annual convention in Italy and meet with restaurant owners, food producers, farmers and winemakers from around the world. The Slow Food movement countered fast food and the industrialization of the production and consumption of food. Within a few years “localvore” and “farm-to-table” dinners were becoming very popular in our country. I believe this also marked the beginning of New Nordic Cuisine.

Meyer and Redzepi, along with Swedish-trained chef Marcus Samuelsson and Gunnar Karl Gislason (chef and founder of Dill in Reykjavik, Iceland), have succeeded because they had a clear vision. They set rules and standards and adhered to them. Meyer and Redzepi’s 2004 manifesto sums up the mission of New Nordic Cuisine. Simply stated, it said that food should “express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics associated with the region … and use ingredients and products whose characteristics are particularly excellent in the Nordic Climate.” They set out to transform the dining experience of their Nordic heritage, and in the process caught the attention of the restaurant world.

My own Nordic culinary quest began in Brooklyn, N.Y. I’d heard of Claus Meyer’s new place in Greenpoint called NorMan. Its culinary school and restaurant share space in the A/D/O design studio. Primarily stainless steel and glass, the sparkling centerpiece is its open kitchen. The second floor bar overlooks the kitchen, and the dining room has communal wooden tables. Starting with “designer” cocktails and snack selections at the bar, we ordered smorgasbord style, beginning with bread.

Bread is big in Nordic cuisine and we sampled barley, Oland wheat bread and rye, all freshly baked right in front of us. Spread with seasoned sweet butters, the bread was beyond belief, robust and packed with flavor, a perfect complement to sweet and sour pickled radishes. Salt cod croquettes followed, served with creamy aioli of chopped chilies and cucumber. The roasted carrots with sea buckthorn and sunflower seeds elevated carrots to a new level.

Over the next few hours our group of 10 exuberantly shared our selections, and agreed that NorMan was a winner. Every taste was clean, fresh and flavorful, and every dish was a picture. My appetite was whetted. I was ready for more. Next stop, Norway.

It took me 10 hours to fly from JFK to Oslo, and ultimately, Tromso where I joined my crew — 250 miles above the Arctic Circle. We provisioned and prepared the boats and spent the first few days sailing due north toward Nordkapp, appropriately named as it is the northernmost point of land in Norway. We then headed southwest to the Lofoten Islands, and to the beautiful port town of Henningsvaer. There, a lovely restaurant, Fiskekrogen, graced us with our first meal off the boat.

Six slightly scruffy and very hungry sailors salivated over a tempting menu consisting almost exclusively of local seafood. I started with Fiskesuppe, a thick creamy soup redolent of cod stock, simmered with root vegetables and leeks and served with slivers of seared cod, then drizzled with fresh chive oil.

I was tempted to order the fried cod tongues served with pickled cucumbers and radish for my entree but, instead, chose something more conventional — pan-seared halibut with potato terrine, buttered cabbage, stewed mussels and mussel veloute. It was perfectly fresh, perfectly cooked and perfectly delicious.

We learned that the chef used only local fish and meat, and that the produce was from root cellars, rather than farmed fields. (There is very little tillable land in the Lofoten Islands.) Cabbage, carrots, parsnips, turnips, potatoes, onions and even fried seaweed accompanied fresh prawns, cod, halibut, mussels and, surprisingly, smoked whale, which no one ordered.

Never too full for dessert, we sampled several, including brown cheese custard with lingonberries and meringue. To summarize, Fiskekrogen served traditional Norwegian fare executed by a talented chef showcasing local foods. It was truly excellent.

Over the next week we sailed around the majestic and beautiful Lofotens, pointing north and east toward our home port in Tromso. Along the way, I prepared my own version of Fiskesuppe for the crew. Despite the confines of the ship’s galley, I was pleased with my effort: There was none left over, which I took as a compliment.

Back in Tromso, we packed our sea bags, said our goodbyes and headed in different directions. Wobbly sea legs and all, I flew on to Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, and checked into my Airbnb apartment. Bergen wraps around Sogneford fjord, the longest and deepest in Norway. It is a UNESCO World Heritage City and home to beautifully restored buildings dating back to the days when Bergen was center of the Hanseatic League’s trading empire in the 14th- to 17th-centuries.

Bergen is also home to Lysverket, a cutting edge restaurant. The very next night, as luck would have it, I found a spot at the bar for dinner.

The main dining room offers a four- or seven-course tasting menu that changes daily, while the bar menu offers light appetizers and a few entrees from the dinner menu. I decided on the bar menu.

Right off the bat, the drinks menu was a stunner. Spectacular cocktails using fresh juices, house-made syrups and bitters. I started with a Nordic version of a French 75, with aquavit instead of gin, prosecco instead of Champagne and pickled currants in place of a lemon twist. It was refreshing and delicious. The wine menu boasted a good selection of wines and Norwegian craft beers.

I started by ordering one of Lysverket’s signature dishes: seared scallop accompanied by grilled turnip salad with elderflower vinaigrette. The large caramelized scallop was sweet and perfectly cooked, revealing the nearly raw, translucent center. My second “tasting” was pan-seared cod with braised cabbage and sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) in a shellfish reduction. The cabbage was tangy and buttery, and the cod and sunchokes matched perfectly.

Chef-owner Christopher Haatuft refers to his style of cooking as “neo-fjordic,” explaining that fjords are distinctly Norwegian, and his preparation of food, sourced exclusively from local meat, fish and vegetables is what makes Lysverket distinctly Neo-Nordic. For the most part I was impressed with how much could be done with limited ingredients, but wasn’t fully on board with the minimalist approach.

My trip to Norway could not be complete without seeing the countryside, so before I’d left Vermont I’d booked a seven-hour train ride from Bergen to Oslo over the mountainous spine of Norway. I’d also done my homework about Oslo’s finest restaurants and was headed straight to the one-star Michelin, Statholdergaarden, in Old Oslo. Chef-owner, Bent Stiansen’s Michelin star has been shining longer than any other Michelin rated restaurant in Norway — 18 years.

Even though I arrived unannounced, he was gracious enough to meet with me and he explained that while he was respectful of the direction some Norwegian chefs were taking, he favored integrating the more balanced flavors and intensity of classic French cuisine. It’s the marriage of his classical French training and his passion for local, seasonal Norwegian food that distinguishes his cuisine at Statholdergaarden. Although I chose the more modest option of a six-course seasonal menu, Stiansen thought I should taste some of his most special dishes. Before I knew it, my six courses expanded to a generous 10.

Over the next four hours I tasted some truly extraordinary food. Stiansen works magic with Norway’s abundant seafood. Lump crabmeat with an Asian flair of red chili oil was elegantly served in a feathery light potato pastry cup. Perfectly sautéed prawns followed, enhanced with fresh herbs and a flavorful shimp consommé.

The last entree, a tender lamb fillet with a lamb brisket croquette was also exceptional. And when dessert came in the shape of a delicate flower of fresh berries, sweet and buttery cream and a strawberry gelee, I gladly signed on the dotted line to be a new devotee of NNC.

I’ve enjoyed great restaurants in the U.S., Europe and Asia, many of which have Michelin ratings, but I would have to choose Statholdergaarden as my most memorable dinner. The flavors, from first to last were bright and fresh, each course flawlessly composed and exquisitely presented. I should also add that before each dish arrived, knowledgeable servers described everything and suggested excellent wine pairings. As I was leaving, Stiansen gave me a signed copy of his beautiful coffee table book. Yes, it’s in Norwegian, but no matter, the pictures are worth 10,000 words. At home now in Barnard, as I turn its pages I can revisit Norway in all its beauty and bounty on land and sea. I know it won’t be long before I return. There is so much more to see, and taste.

Barnard resident Jim Reiman co-founded The Prince and the Pauper restaurant in Woodstock and Three Tomatoes in Lebanon, among other restaurants in the Upper Valley and elsewhere in Vermont. He retired from the restaurant business in 2015.

Correction

Fiskesuppe is one of the national dishes of Norway. An earlier version of a photo caption with this story incorrectly described where the hearty fish soup of cod, potato, leeks and carrots is especially treasured.