There’s perhaps no more dramatic way to approach a place than on a speeding inflatable boat, bouncing atop the waves as freezing rain stings your face and sea eagles hover overhead. But for a restaurant as experimental as Kvitnes Gård, in a landscape as wild as Northern Norway’s Vesterålen archipelago, a grand entrance seems only appropriate.
As the boat pulls into a sheltered harbor, chef Halvar Ellingsen, dressed in rubber galoshes and a yellow raincoat, greets me from the shore. This 37-year-old culinary wizard is taking the New Nordic lessons of Denmark’s René Redzepi and Sweden’s Magnus Nilsson and pushing them to their logical extremes, way up here above the Arctic Circle.
“It’s a different kind of restaurant,” Ellingsen says of Kvitnes Gård. “We put restrictions on ourselves, and it forces us to get creative.” He sources nearly all of his ingredients from within arm’s reach, on an island that can feel about as accessible as Narnia. In order to try his wildly inventive fjord-to-fork cooking, you have to fly to one of the small airports in the Lofoten Islands, then hop on a bus, boat, or bike. (On the 28-mile bike ride from Sortland, the restaurant website cheerily notes, “You will enjoy breathtaking scenery and work up an appetite.”)
Now, though, he’s getting a much wider audience: The 130-year-old Hurtigruten cruise line has brought him on as a culinary ambassador, and he has helped design the Norway’s Coastal Kitchen menus for the line’s most famous itinerary, the Norwegian Coastal Express. Sailing up and down the coast from Bergen to Kirkenes, near the Russian and Finnish borders, the Coastal Express is a three-in-one line: a cargo ship that brings food, medicine, and mail to Norway’s remotest northern outposts; a ferry used by locals to, say, go to market or visit granny; and a cruise line that carries tourists along the coastal fjords and archipelagos. In recent years, the ship has also become a convenient way to taste the breadth of Norway’s underrated cuisine.
I’m set to sail south from the company’s birthplace in Stokmarknes, but before I see how Ellingsen has translated his cuisine for the cruise crowd, I want to dine at Kvitnes Gård, one of Scandinavia’s hottest restaurants, and see for myself how the country’s fjords and coastlines have inspired him.
We’re some 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, on a farm built by Ellingsen’s great-great-great-grandfather in 1855. The top of the world is an unforgiving environment, where the weather’s too cold and the soil’s too rocky to grow much. The sun doesn’t rise for three months out of the year.
“I started the whole thing because I was fed up with people talking about sustainability,” Ellingsen says, “because it doesn’t mean anything anymore.” Cradling a kid goat in his arms, he shows me around the farm, stopping to point out where his neighbors once found a Viking sword while plowing. History runs deep in these parts.
After a decade of cooking in Oslo’s top kitchens, Ellingsen returned, spending years rebuilding the farm and then opening his doors in February 2020—just in time for the world to shut down. “We closed then opened four times,” he recalls. On the plus side, the lockdown period gave the staff space and time to experiment. The farm swarms with workers from around the world who have been drawn to an island that Ellingsen calls “a forgotten place.” They tend beehives and greenhouses, harvest seaweed and berries, and care for a menagerie of sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, quail, rabbits, cows, and fluffy Mangalitsa pigs.
In the farmhouse dining room, late-night sun pours in through the windows. Beyond the obvious beauty, there are benefits to being this far north: That midnight sun makes the fruits and vegetables up here much, much sweeter.
Dinner starts with an artistic flourish: a ceramic whelk shell filled with chilled fava bean–pod broth and black currant–leaf oil. The bread, my server says almost apologetically, is made with flour from near Oslo, because wheat can only grow as far north as Trondheim, which is still nearly 600 miles south of here.
The following course is an avalanche of tiny bites. Forest-inspired snacks—prosciutto-like salted reindeer neck, mushroom-shaped barley crisps filled with moose and porcinis—emerge on a bed of evergreen branches. A bowl of shells and pebbles contains camouflaged “things from the sea”: a seaweed tart with fermented trout and grated duck yolk, a rye tart with sea urchin and raw shrimp, a trompe l’oeil squid-ink cracker with smoked cod.
Ellingsen points to the shoreline, where he harvests truffle-flavored seaweed. “One of the Hurtigruten captains drives 10 meters from shore,” he says, “and we had to tell him to stop blowing the horn so he didn’t scare the animals on the farm.” Like many folks in these parts, he grew up with these ships, as familiar as the mailman on your street. He remembers hearing the Coastal Express whistle ring out during his boyhood afternoons; when a new ship would enter service, he’d behold the red, white, and black behemoth with as much wonder as other kids might look at a sports car or a fighter jet.
Hurtigruten is a lifeline for the people here, and it’s easy to see why a partnership with a brand as iconically Norwegian as stave churches and Edvard Munch’s The Scream would appeal to Ellingsen. After all, he has built a pilgrimage-worthy restaurant simply by being an enthusiastic cheerleader for ingredients and producers that would never have otherwise been on the global culinary radar.
“I’m trying to incorporate my friends into the whole system,” he says. He gets his reindeer, for instance, from a female Sámi herder who has since been featured on the Netflix kids’ show Waffles + Mochi, while his stockfish and cherry-rhubarb cider are sourced from nearby purveyors. When offered the chance to introduce these friends and their products to an even more steady stream of guests on Hurtigruten, the partnership was a no-brainer.
Back to my dinner: The next course is grilled minke whale, served with black garlic purée and yeast sauce, followed by dry-aged, hay-roasted halibut with fermented mackerel sauce, and then lamb-neck lollipops. One of the most delicious courses is the simplest: fried lamb testicles served in what looks like a rawhide coin purse that turns out to be, well, their original carrying case.
We end the night with shots from Ellingsen’s “house pharmacy,” a lineup of spirits infused with everything from cloudberries to pine sprouts to the blood of Odin. (That last one is just an herbal concoction, though you never know in these parts!) Those remedies come in handy as I crawl into my bed in one of the farmhouse’s 15 guest rooms. The sun is still blazing, well after 10 p.m., but I drift off to sleep with visions of Odin dancing in my head.
The next morning’s impressive breakfast spread includes smoked arctic char, lamb liver pâté, and cured skrei cod roe. It’s a fitting farewell, as I head toward Sortland, where I board Hurtigruten’s southbound Norwegian Coastal Express. Our first stop, less than two hours later, is Stokmarknes, a bustling town of around 3,000 people that’s home to Hurtigruten’s museum, which opened a sleek new building in 2021, centered around the 1956 MS Finnmarken, a 266-foot-long retired vessel that ranks as one of the world’s largest indoor museum pieces. The ship sits in a purpose-built, glass-fronted box, which makes it look like a mint-condition model ship still in its packaging.
Back on board my cruise ship, the MS Nordkapp, I tackle an itinerary that’s full of food-related activities, from learning how to cure salmon using Viking Age techniques to sampling golden, barrel-aged aquavit. What’s more, every fishing village and fjord tells some unique tale from Norwegian culinary history. Take Trollfjord, where 3,000-foot-tall cliff walls rise like bookends. In 1890, these now-serene waters were the site of one of the most famous food fights in Nordic history. When arctic cod migrated up the fjord, steam-powered fishing vessels blocked the mouth with their nets, leading to an all-out battle with traditional fishermen in rowboats, fought with axes and oars and scorching water from the steamers’ boilers. The old-school guys won out in the end, and I toast to their legacy by stopping at the onboard ice cream parlor for a scoop of stockfish ice cream. (Yes, it contains cod.)
As we pass Svolvær, I look out toward the Fiskerkona (Fisherman’s Wife) monument, which depicts a woman waiting for her husband to return from the treacherous seas. Sailing past the Lofoten Islands, my eyes are drawn to triangular fish-drying racks, or hjell, standing strong against the wind. That bracing sea air is hell on your skin, but it does wonders for cod, transforming it into stockfish, which becomes as hard and brittle as drywall. The racks can get pungent, but as locals in Lofoten like to say, lukter penger—it smells like money.
The racks remind me of something Ellingsen said on the farm: “We try to do old things in a new way.” His regimen of fermenting, pickling, salting, and canning is born of the local necessity for preservation as a means of survival. For the people here, though, the practice also became an economic driver. They took something abundant (cod), transformed it into an exportable commodity (stockfish) by harnessing the wind and the sun, and invented a staple ingredient that fueled centuries of nautical exploration.
Farther south, we stop at Kristiansand, well-known for its klippfisk, which is basically salted stockfish. On the dock, I join a small tour bus that’s hitting the Atlantic Ocean Road, a series of causeways and arcing bridges featured in the most recent James Bond film, No Time to Die. At an unassuming tavern called Bjartmars Favorittkro, I try bacalao, a rich stew that shares a name with the salt cod dishes I know from my Italian-American upbringing. It’s a cross-cultural mashup in a bowl: In the 17th century, the Norwegians started exporting dried cod to the Mediterranean, and the onions, tomatoes, chilies, garlic, and olives they received in return became key ingredients in the dish.
In a way, Ellingsen’s cooking reads like a rejection of this import-heavy style of cooking. Why use truffles from France, he might say, when you can get the same earthiness from a red algae that’s abundant on these shores? Who needs jamón ibérico when you can cure reindeer? Hurtigruten also tries to follow this approach. Norway’s Coastal Kitchen sources ingredients from area fishers, farmers, cheesemakers, brewers, distillers, and more; when the first call for purveyors went out, there were about 200 replies, with 32 ultimately making the cut. (The program works with more than 50 producers today.)
During my final meal at the ship’s à la carte restaurant, Kysten, it’s immediately apparent that Ellingsen’s vision hasn’t been diluted in the transfer. His menu is filled with “short-traveled” delicacies, such as Bottarga Borealis, air-dried cod roe similar to what you’d find in the Mediterranean; rakfisk, fish that is quick-fermented in a barrel before Christmas; and, most especially, sea urchin. In Norway, urchins are considered a spiky pest, as their ravenous appetites destroy oxygen-generating kelp forests. The only solution? Fight back with our forks.
“We wanted to bring people to Halvar and bring [Ellingsen’s] legacy and mindset onboard,” culinary director Øistein Nilsen tells me as he serves the chef’s kid goat tartare with seaweed mayonnaise and Jerusalem artichokes. “We send our employees to his farm, and they get to know how he works and then bring it back and come to the table with stories.”
Next comes a velvety soup made from Jerusalem artichokes, accompanied by a split moose bone brimming with unctuous marrow. This dish was conceptualized by another ambassador, Astrid Regine Nässlander, who butchers and cures moose that’s hunted on her tiny island of Steigen. Something as visceral as a moose bone on your plate playfully skirts the line between Viking Age and Michelin-worthy—but what it certainly isn’t is a food you’d expect to find on a cruise ship. I’m impressed by Hurtigruten’s daring embrace of its nation’s history and culture.
My main course is a comforting baked celeriac with fried yeast, sugar kelp, and smoked butter sauce. These humble ingredients take me back to the farm, and Ellingsen’s root cellar, where he uses juniper boughs to keep out the mice, just as his ancestors might have. It’s a dish that’s at once innovative and soulful, born out of generations of coaxing flavor from the simplest elements.
I’ve spent the week tasting the briny, earthy, sweet flavors of the Norwegian coast, and as our ship pulls into port in Bergen, I realize that, even after traveling about 1,000 miles as Odin’s ravens fly, I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are so many more fjords to explore, so many more ingredients to taste, so many more ancient tales to learn from storytellers like Halvar Ellingsen.