"Ohhh, you're going to be in Norway on February 14...did you plan it that way?"
I forgot how many people asked me that question, so it must've been a lot. Or at least three. And the answer is no, although I'd be lying if I didn't find it just a wee bit exciting that for the first time in my life I'd have a legitimate reason to do something Valentine's Day-y on Valentine's Day. The last time I remember participating in the holiday was in elementary school, second or third grade, when the front of every kid's desk featured a pocket made of red construction paper, cut-out hearts, and doilies not-so-dexterously bound by gobs of Elmer's glue, in which every other kid would drop a card. And you had to make a card (and to most kids "make a card" means "rip apart a perforated sheet of cards") for every classmate; imagine the trauma of turning over your Valentine's Day folder and having nothing fall out. Forever alone. That's a bit heavy for an eight-year-old.
So past the age of requirement, I didn't have much reason to celebrate Valentine's Day. But here it was! I got to celebrate it! With Kåre! And we started off by indulging in one of our greatest, more carnal desires....
SLEEP. SO MUCH SLEEP. (That's what you thought I was going to say, right? Good.) Irresponsibly large amounts of it. Not unlatching myself from my pillow until 3 or 4 p.m. "Oh, is it lunch time? But...but I'm sleeping. Lunch doesn't beat sleep."
Actually, Kare probably did eat some sort of snack around lunch time because his furnace-like body burns calories like crazy, but I didn't because my body is like a stagnant lake thick with algae.
We acknowledged the 14th by not really acknowledging it. The plan: Uh...what plan? But I did give him a gift: a fluffy white Poofy, quite like this one I made five years ago. Poofy plushies, based on my old comic Adventures in Poofyville (the content of the comic is about as creative as its title), aren't that difficult to make, but I almost never make them these days because they take too much time (I mostly made them in high school when I had too much time). Poofy plushies aren't about the end result as much as the effort they represent. ...Except I just said they're not difficult to make. Um. Wait. I mean, they're full of my precious finger sweat from all the hand sewing; that's gotta count for some signification amount of affection.
Kåre also had an affectionate gesture up his sleeve. He's no noob.
"Man, if we missed lunch, should we just wait until dinner?" I asked. "We don't have any plans, right?"
"Ah..." Kåre hesitated. "We do have plans. We're going to Potato Basement."
By "Potato Basement" he meant Potetkjelleren, which better translates to Potato Celler, but we think Potato Basement sounds funnier. Potetkjelleren, named so because it's located in a former potato celler, is one of Bergen's most well regarded restaurants (one of the top three, says Kåre), as was shown when Bergens Tidende readers voted it Best Restaurant in Bergen last year. Although the restaurant's humble name might imply otherwise, it's a special occasion type of place. Kåre pointed it out to me before while walking around the city center, but I never suspected that he would've made reservations before I arrived. My lack of expectations plus Kåre's smooth moves = EVERYONE IS A WINNER!
We actually did need to eat something real before dinner, but not so much so we'd spoil our appetites. So I suggested a hot dog snack.
Trekrokeren is a popular hot dog ("pølse" in Norwegian) stand in the city center (Morten says it's "probably the only really good street food here") with a helpful quad-lingual menu in German, Spanish, French, and English for tourists like me. Their ten-item menu goes like so:
- Cheese sausage, with cheese and bacon
- Jagdwurst (wild game sausage), with herbal spices and pepper
- San Francisco sausage, with garlic and chili
- Smoked bratwust, with marjoram, caraway seeds, and curry
- Hot chili sausage, with extra strong chili and pepper
- Frankfurter sausage, with onion and allspice
- Reindeer sausage, with juniper berries and venison spices
- Kabanossi sausage, with cayenne pepper and garlic
- Krakauer sausage, with numeg and garlic
- Sausage meat of lamb, spices from the Provence, includes garlic
I corrected most of the menu's little grammatical errors and inconsistent wording, but I left the final one intact because it was too charming. Like one person had translated the first nine, went off to get a coffee, then someone else with a more tenuous understanding of English syntax took a peek at the unfinished project and thought, "I'll give it a go. How do you say 'lamb sausage' in English?...ah, yes..."
Anyhoo, the selection of hot dogs is considerably more interesting than what I've seen in New York, where I eat hot dogs almost never because there are so many other things I'd rather eat. It's not like I'm not a fan of hot dogs at all—I'd be happy to snorf down a Chilean-style hot dog anytime, and I think bacon-wrapped hot dogs are very good things—but local institutions like Gray's Papaya and Papaya Dog don't fill me with glee. (Does this mean I'll never be a true New Yorker? Sniffle.)
But back to Norwegian hot dogs. A major advantage Scandinavian hot dogs have over American hot dogs is that Scandinavian hot dogs commonly come topped with fried onion bits, also known as cronions (this sounds like a perfect name to me), in Norwegian called sprøstekt løk ("crispy fried onions"). This is like my favorite hot dog topping ever, I found out after eating hot dogs in Iceland. I have no idea why we don't see more mobs of people here holding up angry signs and clenched fists (unless the person only has one hand, in which case, angry sign or clenched fist) demanding fried onions on every serving of bunned log meat. That's what I would do if I were the type of person who organized mobs for unimportant causes. (For more about Norwegian hot dogs, read this post at My Little Norway.)
Remember how I said I just wanted a little snack before dinner? Well. I also wanted to try a bunch of things. And thus we ended up with three hot dogs. But I underestimated their collective heft. Googling around for hot dog packages tells me that the hot dogs I'm accustomed to weigh two to three ounces each, a snack-able size. Trekroneren's sausages are 150 grams (and in some cases 250 grams) and my lack of metric-conversion-fu didn't immediately calculate that to its American weight of 5.3 ounces. Which isn't really a snack size. Especially when you have three of them. Perhaps the 45 NOK pricetag (about $8.30) should've given the size away, but I'm not much better at converting kroner to dollars on the fly than I am at converting grams to ounces.
We tried the cheese sausage, reindeer, and krakauer with topping choices of raw onions, fried onions, ketchup, and mustard. I tried the raw onions for fun, but fried is obviously superior for the crunchy goodness. I was happy to find that the sausage had some crunch on its own; the skin had a pronounced pop to it that I didn't find in most other hot dogs. Thumbs up for snappy casing.
I'm afraid I can't tell you much more about the hot dogs, though, because I got a bit distracted. I mean, I know I liked them, and if you visit Bergen you should definitely try them. But something in the hot dogs triggered a Level 9 allergic reaction (on a scale of one to ten; I haven't reached ten because I think that'd be death) and while we walked around the backstreets of Bergen nibbling on the hot dogs, my lungs became increasingly constricted and gurgly-sounding, resulting in my increasingly sluggish gait and brain processes.
- I recall admiring this sign before breathing fail really kicked in. It's a particularly good sign, right? Right.
Some background about these allergic reactions: I didn't start having reactions to food until last fall or so. I'm not sure what triggered them after 25 years of not having any problems—maybe it was all that...eating and generally unhealthy lifestyle—but as I had reached Level 9 a few times before the hot dog incident and had described them to Kåre in emails, he was already aware of them and thus not totally taken off guard. Except he sort of was since he had never actually seen one in motion before, and it's troubling to see your girlfriend, or anyone, struggling to breath. In my head, they go a little something like this: "Oof, breathing is a little funny...feels a little swollen under my tongue...mm, man, it is really hard to breath, I better sit down...okay, I can't really talk, I have to focus all my energy on breathing...ah god, how did breathing become so difficult...jeez it's like breathing through a crumpled straw...my heart is beating like nuts, I think it's going to explode...my face feels like it's burning...all this breathing is giving me a headache."
I've been to some doctors (and am still going to one), but no one has yet to figure out what's wrong, as it doesn't seem like I have any major food allergies (which I figured out already or else my reactions would flare up more often). By that, I mean I'm not allergic to hot dogs in general; most of the time when I eat one, there's no consequence. Hell, I ate one last night. Another example: The last time I had an allergic reaction this bad, it was from eating pizza. I know I'm not allergic to pizza; it seemed to be a one-time thing. I'm not avoiding any food, even if every meal may potentially lead to lung malfunction (these things happen less than once a month). At my doctor's suggestion I've been keeping a food diary for the past few weeks to keep track of reactions, and I carry around an Epi-Pen just in case I think the only thing that can save me is a jab of adrenaline.
Experience has told me that this whole thing stretches out to about a 30 minute period. It feels like it'll never end, but peeking at my watch and knowing it will end at a certain time makes me feel better. While I was thinking "Just 20 more minutes...just 15 more minutes..." I'm sure Kåre, despite his calm demeanor, was thinking something more like, "Oh god oh god oh god oh god don't die..."
We sat on some stone bench things outside since I couldn't really drag myself to the nearby mall, Galleriet. Except I probably should've since it was really cold outside. Kåre squeezed my hand as I squeezed my lungs. Eventually I decided to use one of my Epi-Pens, except I honestly couldn't tell if it did anything, either because I used it wrong or my reaction was already near its end. (Before that, I wondered what it felt like to have the Epi-Pen needle in your thigh. Answer: If you need to use an Epi-Pen, your body is too busy feeling like crap from the allergic reaction to care about a needle.)
So...it eventually passed, but I had a lingering headache from lack of airflow and stuff. We hobbled to Galleriet where Kåre helped me buy some antihistamines, then we sat by a little cafe so I could work on shoving more Norwegian oxygen into my body. Also, because Kåre needed some coffee. He also got a little cake bite, but my appetite hadn't returned yet.
"Will you be alright for dinner?" Kåre still looked worried. Understandably.
"Yeah, I'll be fine! Totally fine. I always return back to normal. Hope you weren't too scared." I'm sure Kåre was totally scared.
We killed some time before dinner by browsing Lerøy Mat, a specialty grocery store in Galleriet's basement. It's not as large as some other supermarket chains, but my impression is that it has a more diverse selection of products. (I think they sold Jif peanut butter and maybe Fluff. Even though I've never bought Jif or Fluff before, seeing them outside the US makes me wonder if I should be buying them, because what kind of American doesn't eat Jif or Fluff? ...That's not a real question, I'm sure lots of red-blooded Americans life fruitful lives without either. But on second thought, think of all the people who life fruitful lives with both. Also, Fluffernutters are great.) I took loads of photos to use in a yet-to-be-written Serious Eats post about items from a Norwegian grocery store, so I'm not going to describe them now. You'll read about them on Serious Eats someday maybe.
(Random: How fantastic is the photo on Lerøy Mat's "About Us" page? Long haired manager dude gets all the ladeez. Motherly ladeez.)
And finally, it was Valentine's Day dinner time at Potetkjelleren (which is right next to Trekroneren, convenient if you want to do the hot-dog-and-nice-dinner thing). Descend down a few chunky uneven steps and you're in the formerly-a-potato-cellar space. It's an intimate, candle-lit setting, although not as lonely as the photo above. There were maybe six tables in our room, with more tables in the adjacent room. (Yup, this potato cellar had two rooms. It must've been the talk of the potato-celler town, lush with a gabillion potatoes.) The curved brick walls-turned-ceiling felt cozy, and the uneven stone-tile floor felt like we were dining in a space once reserved for potatoes.
The prix fix menu—labeled a Valentine's Day menu (or Valentinemeny)—gave options for a three to six-course dinner. Since the menu had two choices each for appetizers, entrees, and desserts, we went with the three-course so we could share everything on the menu. I can't imagine getting the six-course unless I hadn't eaten for two days or were infected with tapeworm.
To start, some complementary sourdough bread with very spreadable creamy butter. Chewy, sufficiently moist. Good stuff.
Next, a preliminary bite in the form of halibut and potato purée, in what Diana dubbed "shoe-spoons." (The crazy spoon does enhance the experience.) This reminded me that I need to eat more brandade de morue, and in general people ought to mash fish and potato together more often—it tastes great. It's like mashed potatoes...with fish in it. Surely, you couldn't figure that out without me telling you. The descriptions are only going to go downhill from here.
First course: lobster soup. It tasted like creamy lobstery soup!..and now we move on...
Other first course: "Variation on trout, apple, and lemon," which ended up being a plate of vividly orange-pink chunks of raw trout (I can't recall if it was cured; the flavor was quite faint) accompanied by sweet bits of lemon and apple preserves, a quenelle of super smooth and light apple ice cream, and microgreens. This was my favorite dish of the night—light, clean, fresh flavors, not too fussy.
Entrée: cod, petit pois, and beurre blanc. Fish is lovely, but peas win over my heart. Even more than cake! And bacon! Few other things are as refreshingly sweet and vegetal. I'd happily eat a bowl of the accompanying pea purée topped with porky bits and a sprinkling of un-pulverized peas. The pea shoots on top were a nice touch, too. Those tendril-y dudes don't get enough attention.
Entrée, part II: veal cheek, gnocchi, sauce bordelaise. The veal was a most moist and tender meat chunk, the sort that sort of just melts when you poke it with a fork. The gnocchi were a bit heavy for my tastes, but that's ok because we had another carb come to the rescue...
POTATOES! Small, nubular, lightly salted potatoes, with a thin, crisp skin and smooth, creamy flesh. I'm not positive what kind of potatoes these were, but they look like amandine potatoes. Potatoes like these make me think I really need to extend my potato-eating outside those of the deep fried stick variety, a chance I'd surely get if I spent more time in Norway; "The potato is the cornerstone of the Norwegian dinner," according to Kåre.
Dessert: Blood orange, yogurt ice cream, and ginger. The description on the menu left out a few other details, like all the other stuff on the plate that I can't tell you much about (crushed meringue? pistachio? chocolate blops?), but overall it was a fun dessert of assorted creamy, fruity, crunchy, and creamy bits.
The other kind of dessert: Cheese plate with apricot preserves and nutbread. Kåre and I share similar feelings about cheese, in that we're...not that into it. :C But we gave it a go anyway, nibbling at each of the five cheeses, meaning that a perfectly good cheese plate was probably wasted on us. Of course, we like cheese, just not all kinds. My favorite cheeses are fresh cheeses or the creamy, gooey sort—I suppose I'm more about texture than flavor.
The three-course meal will set you back 515 NOK, about $95 (or with wine pairings, 995 NOK, about $183). (They also serve dishes à la carte, but if you're not too picky it's a better deal to order the prix fixe.) That's enough to make some of New York City's best restaurants look reasonable, but remember that you're in a city where a small burger can set you back $20. Few other fine dining restaurants can offer you Potetkjelleren's coveted trio of features: friendly service; a quiet, casual, cozy environment; and a history steeped in potato storage.
We left with happy bellies into a quiet night featuring a beautiful, unexpected display of light snowfall. (If you ever wonder what kind of seemingly dumb googling I do for these posts, I just tried to figure out if there was a more specific word than "light snowfall" to describe the weather, but "flurry" was too weak and "snowstorm" seemed too strong—and then I gave up. I bet one of these Norwegian words would do the trick.) My eight-year-old self may have preferred a pile of mandatory Valentine's Day cards, but for my 25-year-old self, this was just perfect, near-death allergic reactions and all.
Kong Oscars Gate 5, 5017 Bergen, Norway (map)
Facebook page (You may notice that I left a message on their wall; alas, a message that was never replied to. :( Well, at least they liked my comment.)