Eat. Pray. Gloves.
Huset restaurant in Svalbard was not only recommended to me by my friend who works in the Norwegian tourism industry, but keeps popping up in every book I read as the place to go for a meal in Longyearbyen if you have the kidney to sell to pay for it.
I have been living on coffee, instant soup, and flatbread for a week and a half at my February artist residency here at 78 degrees north. I’m starving myself to justify a two hundred and fifty dollar meal for one at what is hailed as the world’s northernmost fine restaurant. It doesn’t hurt that it also happens to have—inexplicably—one of the largest wine cellars in Europe.
It is high time to change out of my woolen underwear and into some fancier woolen underwear and have a delicious night out that doesn’t include cheese in a tube enjoyed in the IQ-depleting fumes of turpentine in my makeshift studio. I head out for the fifteen minute walk across the valley in sub-zero temperatures.
Huset, or “The House”, is a big, old building, quite isolated in a corner of the Longyear valley that used to be called Sverdrupsbyen. I say “used to be”, because at one time there was a larger group of buildings here that burned down during an unfortunate firefighting exercise in the 1980’s. Huset survived.
Originally built as a community house for miners in 1951, it has served the purpose of cafe, hospital, gymnasium, post office, church, schoolhouse, airline ticket counter, and emergency avalanche triage center. It now houses Huset Restaurant as well as a bar/cafe and a community center for private and public events.
The road from Galleri Svalbard to Huset is on a long, empty stretch of eerily lighted road that cuts directly through the valley. During the time I’ve been here, I have relaxed somewhat in regards to my fear of polar bears, as I learned that the last bear seen in town was a couple of years ago, and that I am obviously far more likely to be hit by a snowmobile than eaten by a predator. Despite this, I find myself recoiling at a few dark figures in the shadows that turn out to be Hyundais and Toyotas. I make it to the big white building, cheeks frozen and head pounding from the harsh Arctic wind despite my fur hat, but otherwise no worse for wear.
It’s always a bit strange going out for dinner on your own. I used to do it a lot in my younger years, but not so much lately. I enter Huset a bit self-consciously and it is, in fact, very much like entering a gym or community hall, with an odd little school-like coat room filled with the kind of serious outerwear you expect to find in this kind of place at this time of year. There is an elegantly furnished lobby that seems oddly out of place. The walls are covered with old black and white photographs of miners gamely posing for the camera while icebound in inhumane conditions. I find the bar to the left and I wonder where the restaurant might be. I climb some steps to investigate and walk straight into a room filled with twenty men who turn to look at me with a questioning stare. A large man with a deep baritone voice asks me what I am looking for.
I sputter that I am looking for the restaurant, before I am herded back down the steps and straight to the entrance to the restaurant tucked around a corner.
A petite blond Swede asks me my name and very graciously places me at a table with my back against the wall, a prime location to view the completely empty dining room.
Directly ahead of me, amidst the candles and the moss green and salmon pink decor, is an enormous, majestic bear mounted onto the wall.
“Hello there,” I think to myself.
“Hello,” says the bear, startling me. “I’m sorry I can’t come over to your table to join you, but I’m hung up right now.”
“OH! A funny bear, I see. I’m so sorry for your predicament but glad to have company here. What happened to you?”
The bear sighs. “In 1982 I was walking along the path between the church and the preschool and some asshole shot me.”
“Oh no! That’s terrible!” I exclaim. “Well, to be fair, you should have known better.”
The bear sighs, “Probably.”
The Swedish waitress reappears and presents me with my amuse-bouche.
The bear continues as I dig into my appetizer, “You know what the worst part of it was?”
“What?” I take a bite out of the seed bread with pickled cranberries.
“They ate me. The assholes ate me right here in this restaurant. And they played the song ‘Bjørnen Sover’ or ‘The Bear is Sleeping’ on a piano that used to be over in the corner there, and they carried me out and everyone had some. And now my entire hairy ass is plastered up on the wall.”
I gasp, “Oh my…I’m so sorry. But you do look good where you are.”
“I know,” he says. “They brush me once a month to keep me fluffy like this.”
My waitress is back with a glass of Chablis and my first course: smoked arctic char with egg white emulsion, cucumber caviar and dill chips.
“How is it?” asks the bear.
“Oh, it’s delicious,” I say. “And this butter they serve with these little sourdough bread bits…”
“To die for,” he finishes. “They burn and caramelize the butter before whipping it into some cream and molding it into a giant goddamn egg and placing it on that rock like that. Fucking genius.”
All of a sudden, I can hear singing. The sound of a full throated men’s chorus echoes down the hall and into the restaurant. I understand.
“The men I saw upstairs!” I exclaim, “They are a chorus group!”
“They practice here every Friday,” the bear says. “They always look delicious.”
The sound of the chorus settles over the room, drowning out Dinah Washington on the speakers. I call over the waitress and tell her it would be quite alright for her to turn down the music so we can hear the choir. I assume that none of the other non-existent guests will complain. The bear and I listen to the choir for a while, and neither of us speak. The sound fills the room like oxygen in a mine shaft, entering every corner and buoying us instantly. We gaze out the window beyond the reflections of the candles.
The restaurant slowly begins to fill up. The choir has stopped singing and Dinah is now back and mad about a boy. Two couples come in and sit at my right, while another couple sits closer to the bear.
“Well, they’re not sleeping with each other,” the bear says of the latter.
“What? How can you tell?”
“I just can. They look miserable. That other couple looks good, though. Happy.” Another couple walks in, along with a party of three women who look like friends on a girl’s trip. They all have matching blond hair, one of them with bangs.
“I bet she regrets those bangs,” the bear says.
“You’re so catty, “ I laugh as the waitress brings out the next course. Chicken liver pate rolled in dried cranberry powder, with a dollop of porcini and cranberry cream, placed on oxtail crisps and topped with a salted macaron. Also, a glass of Riesling.
“Oh my god,” I say when I taste it. “This is delicious,”
“Just wait for the cod.”
Just then, a family walks in. Nothing extraordinary, per se, except for the teenaged daughter, who is missing an arm. She is wearing a delicately embellished cashmere sweater with the sleeve rolled up over the stump.
“Hello, Snack!” exclaims the bear.
“Shhhh. That’s not funny. I wonder what happened to her? I think that’s pretty bold to expose her arm like that. I’d like to think that if I lost an arm, I’d be badass enough to wear that.”
“We can find out. I’ve got friends,” the bear winks.
“Don’t joke about that. Really, what do you think? Gun accident? Mauled by a wild animal? Gangrene resulting from frostbite?”
The bear shrugs.
The waitress has brought a glass of hard apple cider as well as the cod, the latter covered in celery and horseradish foam, dried apple bits and roasted hazelnuts, and decorated with roasted sunroot chips.
“You’re right. This is good,” I say. “I suppose that all these proteins can be found here or in northern Norway; the Arctic char, the cod, the chicken…”
“…and the reindeer,” finishes the bear.
Before long the juicy reindeer main course appears, with a pear puree, potato dumpling and charred onions. A Nebbiola d’Alba accompanies it.
“So what does bear taste like?” I ask between bites of reindeer. “Not that I would want to eat a polar bear, mind you. Just curious.”
The bear thinks for a moment before he answers.
“Naturally, these days, not many polar bears are shot, let alone shot with the intention to eat us. In any case, it would be a mistake to eat bears like me, as our meat is quite contaminated, due to our position on top of the marine food chain around here. Toxins in the ocean are a part of our system —in the seals we eat and the fish they eat. Because of this, any bear killed is sent to Tromsø, in northern Norway, and tested for traces of lead and mercury before being sent back to a restaurant that might want to prepare the meat—if we prove to be safe for consumption. For good measure, they make you sign a waiver before eating us.”
“So you’re saying you taste like chicken.”
“Probably,” shrugs the bear.
Dessert consists of a glass of Recioto di Soave, cloudberry sorbet on an almond base, caramel cream, fennel cookie, and a meringue.
I sit back, entirely full. “Well, this was amazing but I’m a bit disappointed I didn’t get to try any seal, despite the toxins,” I say.
“Leave the seal for the bears,” the bear says. “Besides, you don’t want to smell like seal fat on your walk home across the valley.”
My eyes widen.
“Just kidding, my friend. Just stay away from the preschool and the church. I’ll have your back tonight.”