Editor's note: Every restaurant that is considered for a Wine Spectator Grand Award undergoes a rigorous inspection. The inspector dines at the restaurant, anonymously if possible, and then meets the owner and sommelier for an interview in the wine cellar.
This year, Elysée, the restaurant in the Park Hotel Vossevangen in Norway, submitted an extraordinary wine list, which as of this summer offered 4,500 selections. But wine alone is not sufficient; a Grand Award restaurant must deliver outstanding food, impeccable service and attractive decor. We sent Per-Henrik Mansson, former Wine Spectator senior editor and now a freelance writer based in Paris, to make the Grand Award inspection. Here is his report:
From the modern reception area of the 130-room Park Hotel Vossevangen, I could see a waitress light some candles in the lobby of Elysée. The Scandinavian touch, I thought.
I was ready for a good meal and some serious wine. I had been on the road for nearly 12 hours, since 9 a.m. when I left my apartment in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. The first leg took me from Charles de Gaulle International Airport to Oslo Lufthavn, an architectural treasure of glass, steel and wood that seems suspended in the air. The country has flair. Elysée could be great.
I caught another flight to Bergen. We headed north, along the jagged coastline, and landed in a fairy-tale landscape of fjords and islands covered with pine trees. The restaurant is another 60 miles north of Bergen. The train trip there takes about one hour and goes through some 40 tunnels to arrive in Voss, a well-known ski resort of 14,000 people that sits at the crossroads of two fjords popular with international tourists.
I walked down Main Street in a cold breeze and drizzle. Snow covered the fjäll, or mountains, on each side of Lake Vang, which spread in front of the hotel.
As I waited for the elevator at the Park Hotel Vossevangen, I saw signs of wear and tear: The elevator doors were dented. In the room, I took out my computer and attempted to plug it into the first outlet I saw. It fell out of the wall. I left it dangling by the wires. I tried another outlet, and it worked.
The hotel is said to include some renovated rooms, and one section is more modern than the other. I was apparently in the older section, where the dated decor featured washed-out yellow walls, worn-out carpet and faux Tex-Mex, brick-colored bed covers with suns and Aztec signs. Nonetheless, the view of the surrounding mountains and lake was exhilarating.
I walked out on the terrace. A parking lot separated the hotel from the lakeshore. On the blacktop, five faded letters: BUSES. Two large ones were parked in the lot.
At 8 p.m. I headed down to the restaurant. As I approached, I could see that it was busy. My expectations rose: This place is popular.
Then the scene came into focus. Sixty senior citizens were finishing a buffet meal. The smorgasbord--salads, cold meats and smoked fish--was spread on a large table in the middle of the restaurant. It had the ambiance of a retirement home. My heart sank as I made the connection between the diners and the buses outside.
A waitress wearing a white apron guided me down a few stairs past balding men and white-haired ladies. A dozen tables had views of the lake and the mountains through some large windows. I was the only diner in this section.
The aging decor was uninspiring: a red wall-to-wall carpet, brasserie lamps, wood-paneled walls. I sat in a chair covered in green denim. Some wooden chairs were bright red. Nice silver cutlery and Riedel glasses--the restaurant line, not Vinum--graced the table, which was covered with a starched white tablecloth.
I went up to look at the buffet. Bits and pieces of food had been spilled on the tablecloth, but the selections of smoked fish seemed good.
I went back to my table. I wanted a glass of wine right away and asked for the wine list. Soon, a woman wearing a dark-blue suit and sporting shoulder-length black hair approached me.
"Do you have a selection of wines by the glass?" I asked.
"Not really. We have a house wine. A Languedoc, I think."
"I want a white," I told her.
"I'll see what we've got." A few minutes later she was back with a bottle of 2002 Entre-deux-Mers. It was the only white served by the glass, she said. She poured some. It was a bit oaky to my taste, but I was thirsty. She filled up the glass.
I was looking forward to finding something rare and delicious from the restaurant's huge wine selection. After all, this is why the editors in New York had sent me all the way to Norway. But the list she brought me was small and flimsy; the selections were printed on pages that were inserted in plastic folders. I subsequently learned the list contained 450 selections, but I just held the "wine list" in my hand, too stunned to open it.
"This is your wine list?"
"It's the wine list we have."
Did I come all the way to Norway for this? Did the guys in New York get it wrong? Then, another thought crossed my mind: Did the restaurant send us a bogus list?
"Don't you have another list?" I asked.
"Yes, we do," she replied. "But it's unavailable."
"What do you mean it is unavailable?"
"We have a list with 4,500 selections. We have 45,000 bottles."
"Are the wines not on the premises?" I asked. "Is this why you don't want to show me the list?"
"No, the wines are here, in three rooms underneath the restaurant. But we only give out this smaller list."
"But I want to see the big list."
"I can bring it to you," she replied calmly. "But you can't order from it."
"But I am from out of town, and I want to drink from the big list," I pleaded.
"I can show you the cellar. I have the key," she said finally, offering a glimmer of hope. "But you have to call in advance to order from the big list. I can't find the wines down there. Only the sommelier and the owner can find the wines."
She explained that the sommelier, Merete Bø, was off for the evening but volunteered to call her and ask her to come in.
A few minutes later she delivered the full wine list: a 112-page, single-spaced printout that looked like a legal brief. No index. No leather-bound list, only page after page of names listing the great wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhône, Piedmont, Tuscany, Spain, Germany and other regions.
"Merete will be here in 15 minutes," she said.
Continued on page 2
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