Cedar Lewisohn hit the streets of Stavanger running and found that in this Norwegian town, famous for its mountains and fjords, any fin is possible.
Slightly blurry eyed, I’ve made it to Heathrow on time and I’m all checked in and ready to fly. Feeling fly, I decide to check out The Perfectionist, Heston Blumenthal’s new airport gastro-diner. Scrambled eggs on toast. Good start to the day.
Stavanger time. Arrived at the apartment I’m staying in and there are some basic foodstuffs there waiting for me, which is very sweet. I have some bread, butter and ‘stabbur-makrell’ which is basically mackerel and tomato paste from a funky little yellow tin. I’ve never had it before, but it’s good. Like a slightly tangy, fishy, thick tomato sauce. I’ll have to try and find some back in London.
Fish & Cow restaurant. I meet with Martyn Reed and James Finucane, organizers of the NU ART project which takes place around Stavanger. It’s fantastic to catch up and delve into some hardcore street art gossip. Fish & Cow is the sibling of Stavanger’s more upscale, Michelin-starred Renaa. The meal and service are both excellent. Jonathan Lundgren, the maître d’, took amazing care of us. He could be the Miles Davis of sommeliers; with his attention to detail and laid back air, he never missed a beat.
We started luxuriously with some Crispt e Michel brut champagne. But, as Martyn pointed out, it is a luxury and quality that is very accessible in high-earning Norway. The appetiser which followed was actually something of a showstopper: Sterling White halibut cream with dried kelp, radishes, cucumber flower and chives – an extremely light and aromatic dish. The radishes provided just enough acidic zing to match the smooth firm texture of the mousse. We all agreed, it was gone far too quickly, washed down with Chablis Laroche.
The next course was equally as good, and also great fun – Sashimi of fjord trout and scallops from Hitra, horseradish, cep mushrooms, soya sauce and edible flowers. Seafood in Norway is a big deal. The cold, clear waters up towards the Arctic produce some of the best fish in the world, and the Norwegians pride themselves on the high quality of their produce – rightly so, judging by this dish. The simple presentation also showed confidence in allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves. The wide fat lines and sheen on the mountain trout matched with the creamy white scallops sat elegantly on the plate, set off by the green leaves and purple-blue flowers, as much an aesthetic experience as a gastronomic one. This dish was washed down with a Riesling Buntandstein, 2015 Pflüger – sharp and dry, with a subtle fizz on the tongue, it was probably my favourite wine of the evening. Next came the lamb, baked breast of, with potato purée, summer vegetables and jus, served with red wine: Brolo Campofiorin Masi 2011, Veneto. The meat was cooked and seasoned perfectly. The portion size was also generous enough to fill us all up, but not so big as to feel overwhelming. We three diners were extremely happy, and if I’m honest, slightly drunk at this point. The lamb’s presentation was both sophisticated and rustic. At one point, Fish & Cow’s head chef, Mads Henrik E. Smedberg, came by the table to say hello and check how we were enjoying our meal – a nice touch.
Desert was organic milk ice cream, muesli, brown cheese caramel and raspberries. Brunost (brown cheese) is a traditional Norwegian goat’s cheese – its sweet, caramel-like flavour added to the slightly sour ice cream. The dish was also very pleasant to look at. The dessert wine, Vendemia Tardia Moscatel Chivite 2009, which was fresh and fruity, also complemented this final course well. We staggered out of Fish & Cow, full up and happy. You can’t ask for much more from a meal.
When it was suggested I visit the Norwegian Canning museum, I have to admit I had some trepidations. An entire museum dedicated to canned fish? Really? To my surprise, however, it was actually fascinating. Between the 1890s and the 1960s, before Stavanger made any money from oil, exporting tinned fish was the city’s major industry. I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the museum by curator Piers Crocker, a man, it’s fair to say, who knows his sardines. The museum still has functioning smoking rooms, where sprats are cooked up and can be eaten by visitors as they tour the collection. Still warm from the medieval-looking ovens, the tiny fish are a perfect snack, a little crunchy and with a distinctive wood-smoked flavour. I was fascinated by the many year’s-worth of labels designed for the tins of fish. These were often made for specific markets around the world, a couple of my favorites being the Haile Selassie I, Crown Prince of Ethiopia sardines and the kosher-friendly sardines packed under the supervision of an Oslo Rabbi. Piers gave me a tin of King Oscar’s sardines, which I had for lunch.
Dinner at Mondo, in Sandnes, a town around 20 minutes’ drive from Stavenger. Mondo is a fairly new restaurant, and they have obviously paid close attention to the design details of the venue. If you want to experience Nordic chic, this is the place. Everything from the copper covered tables and leather beer mats to the icy white and natural, earthy-toned stoneware plates and bowls screamed Scandinavian elegance. The food could best be described as modern European with an Asian twist. Overall, the meal and service were very good, with the highlight being dessert: a Madeleine cake, with popcorn, fresh cheese, vanilla, summer berries and poured, salted caramel.
I checked out some natural wonders on a cruise tour of the Rødne fjord. I was attempting to channel Caspar David Friedrich but kept coming up Charlie Brown.
Oysters and fish soup for lunch at Fisktorget, by Stavanger harbour, washed down with a glass of dry white. Life could be worse.
Had a walk around the food festival. I brought some reindeer meat with blueberry to take home. I really wanted to try some of the local boiled potato and meat dumplings, called coumpa, but I was too full from lunch. Next time.
I was very excited about going for dinner at Sabi Omakase, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I love sushi, and secondly, I’d heard sushi masterchef Roger Asakil Joya’s restaurant is a must for any foodie visiting Stavanger. The food, approximately 18 dishes, is served to just 9 people, all sitting at a bar watching the sushi being prepared. Even though this is something of a high-end food experience, having the chef right there in front of you means you can ask all those nagging sushi-related questions fairly informally. I learned all sorts; from how to grow fresh wasabi to the secrets of a good sushi knife. The food itself was spectacular. We started off with a palate-cleanser of suimono with cockles. Apart from one prawn dish, the sushi we ate was exclusively nigiri (hand-squeezed rice and fish). The first sushi was cod with shio kombu, fished from the North Sea. This had a very gentle flavour, allowing the texture of the rice to come through and it crumbled pleasingly in the mouth. We were instructed to eat the sushi with our hands, not chopsticks. I’ve never thought about the order sushi is eaten in before, but in retrospect, it does appear that we started with more subtle flavours, which increased in intensity as we went along. That, basically, means graduating from whitefish to pink and then red. Each bite was delectable. I was sitting next to a group of lads fresh in town from Oslo. They were keen to discuss the UK’s recent Brexit vote, Norway of course being a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), but not the EU. The Oslo boys had some fairly strong opinions, and what with the Thomas Morey Chardonnay 2014, Bruno Paillard Blanc de Blancs 2004, Meinklang Foam 2014, Schatzel Kabinett Riesling, Kirin Ichiban beer and champagne, the conversation was delivered with ‘passion’. But back to the food – a couple of highlights included the foie gras miso with Japanese white and brown miso, the Chinese eel (eel fishing is banned in Norway), and everyone was very excited by the whale sushi. The taste was meaty but milder than I expected. The Oslo boys told me whale is a very special treat in Norway. The reindeer from the Finnmark plateau also brought sighs of delight from around the room. The flavour, here, was full on gamey. It’s clear that what Chef Roger is doing, by taking ingredients local to Norway and combining them with the highest standards of traditional sushi making, is a unique and positive development. The meal ended with white sesame ice cream with tapioca and silken tofu. After the intense sushi, this provided a perfect light and refreshing end to an amazing meal.
Prawns and a brown bread roll at the airport. Sparkling water.
all photos © Cedar Lewisohn