Trondheim - Havfruen

 

Famed for its dramatic landscape of ineffable beauty, Norway is a land of majestic mountains softened by serene valleys, with a rugged West coast pummeled by the waves of the wild Atlantic and penetrated by glimmering fjords of stillness. It is the land where the insomniac can bask in the summer midnight sun, and where the metaphysical poet can contemplate the arctic winter sky illuminated by nothing but exquisite Northern lights.

Interestingly, the remarkable contrast in Norway’s topography and seasonal skyscape manifests itself also in the country's food culture. This is a country where Pizza Grandiosa reigns as the de facto national food for the culinary-challenged or the time-pressed, as well as a country that ranks second behind France in the prestigious Bocuse d’Or—a competition founded by legendary French chef Paul Bocuse and regarded as the culinary olympiads by top chefs around the world.

Dining in Norway has indeed evolved since the days of herring and porridge. Today, Norway is a nation with an increasingly sophisticated palate and a growing culinary trend that emphasizes the concept of kortreist, or using locally produced ingredients to ensure peak freshness and flavour. Intent on making their own culinary history while building on the past, talented chefs around Norway seek to reinvent traditional Norwegian fish and game dishes with innovative and sometimes exotic techniques.

Among the many glittering stars in Norway’s gastronomical firmament, the Havfruen Fiskerestaurant in Trondheim is likely the current North star. Situated on the picturesque wharves, the Havfruen is housed in one of the colourful wooden structures that serve as the poster child of Norway’s medieval capital. Inside the restaurant, rustic wooden beams and ultra modern furniture combine to exude an understated charm.

As Trondheim’s most exclusive seafood restaurant, the Havfruen naturally excels in the preparation of harvests from the deep blue sea. In place of the traditional à la carte concept, Havfruen offers its patrons an eight-course menu from which one can order as few or as many dishes as one desires. To reflect the seasonal nature of ingredients, the menu changes frequently and spotlights a selected ingredient each month. For instance, January features juicy and tender scallop or the veritable fruit de mer, June marks the arrival of shoals of wild salmon into the fjords, and December celebrates the oyster or “passion fruit of the sea”, once a popular fare among the fearless Vikings as evidenced by heaps of oyster shells discovered in Viking graves.

As I perused the menu, I noticed several exotic terms that were clearly not of Norwegian origin. With an impeccable yet relaxed professionalism, the wait staff graciously satisfied my curiosity regarding certain ingredients and preparation techniques. It was by no means easy but I eventually decided on a three-course meal. While waiting for the arrival of my first course, I looked out of the window and enjoyed a view of the Nid River, where after the 1030 Battle of Stiklestad the body of St. Olav was rowed back by his compatriots and buried in a place that became the sacred site of Nidaros Cathedral. The grey Northern sky looked dim and misty, and what remained of the day’s obscure light barely illuminated everything in sight.

“Here is whale carpaccio with onion marmalade and rock salt,” said the waiter as he set down a small plate in front of me. When I shot him a questioning look, he explained that it was the amuse-bouche offered by the restaurant. Although I had read about whales being preyed upon by lusty carnivores, I was hardly prepared to take part in this controversy. To eat or not to eat was the dilemma, since I would be ridden with guilt either way. I finally took a bite of the crimson meat, because wasting it would have been a heavier burden on my soul. It was rather tender and tasted faintly of fish, reminding me of sashimi but decidedly more substantial in texture.

“And here you have the Sei Maluka with braised baby bok choi, tomato sambal and crispy ginger,” announced the waiter as he brought me the first course. Apparently, the wait staff at Havfruen has memorized the menu by heart and recites the name of each dish as effortlessly in Norwegian as in English. This was an Indonesian style fish cake, in this case made of coalfish. Fragrantly spiced and lightly fried, it was still steaming when I cut a piece with my fork and knife. Somehow, the tropical flavour of this dish generated a much needed, albeit imagined, warmth in this chilly Nordic evening.

Just as I finished the last tasty morsel of the fish cake and was ready for more, the waiter arrived with my main dish—cod with pan-fried okra, aubergine bunani, and pepper and garlic rice. Cod, or torsk in Norwegian, is known as the national fish of Norway. Expertly prepared by the chefs at Havfruen, the piece on my plate had a crispy and flavourful skin covering the tender and delicately-seasoned flesh, made perfect by the orange curry sauce with a slight kick. What I really relished, however, was the aubergine bunani—thick, plump slabs marinated with oriental herbs and pan-fried with butter. It melted in my mouth and left a lingering subtle taste characteristic of the aubergine.

With the night falling, it was growing steadily dimmer in the restaurant and I adjusted my camera settings for my final course—chocolate and blueberry fondant with mascarpone and vanilla ice cream and orange jam. Photographing this dessert required much self-restraint: while looking through the view finder, I was unduly distracted by wafts of decadent chocolate, as if it was melting in a bain marie right in front of me. Not caring so much for the photo anymore, I quickly pressed the shutter and set my camera aside. When I pierced the fondant with my fork, sinfully dark chocolate oozed out of the thin crust like molten lava, the heavenly taste of warm bittersweetness ended my memorable meal on a perfect note.