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Merete Bø, 29, is passionate about her job. Blue-eyed and dark-haired, she speaks English fluently. She has been working with the owner, Jan Bruse Andersen, for the past three years. She is studying for a Wine and Spirit Education Trust diploma in England.
I was impressed by Merete's poise and professionalism. She confirmed that the big list isn't automatically presented to customers. Experience shows that most diners can't handle such a voluminous wine list and prefer to choose from the reduced list. But Merete gladly brings the big list when she senses that diners are knowledgeable about or interested in wine.
In fairness to Elysée, the reduced selection of 450 wines would be an excellent list in most other restaurants. But it is just a shadow of the real thing. For instance, the junior list has six Burgundy grands crus while the grande carte lists 90 grands crus from Chablis alone!
Given the sheer size of the wine list, most people planning to order from the big cellar first consult the wine list on Elysée's Web site, according to Andersen. This approach suits the restaurant as well; it gives Andersen and Marete time to find the wines in their labyrinthine cellars.
Merete plays a big role in a marketing campaign that centers on Elysée's fabulous wine cellar. "Park Hotel Vossevangen: Welcome to the new conference and seminar facilities of the wine and food hotel," reads the headline of a glossy brochure available at the reception desk. Inside the brochure, a picture shows Merete in the cellar holding a magnum of Pétrus. "Skattkammeret pa Park, the treasure trove at Park Hotel," the headline reads in Norwegian. In the photo, Merete kneels in a sea of bottles. Various appellations seem to be strewn randomly about.
What the photo doesn't reveal are the practical hurdles to get to the wines quickly. After my meal, I asked Merete to take me to the cellar for the wine check. She limps out the entrance of the restaurant. It turns out that Merete has a bad knee, the result of a soccer injury many years ago. Four operations haven't solved the problem. It hurts most in the spring, she reveals as she starts her trek down to the cellar.
As we leave the restaurant, we pass the reception area, walk through the atrium, cross over a little bridge that hangs above the seminar area, continue down a hallway, turn left, climb a circular stairway down two levels and continue down another passageway until we stop in front of a locked steel door. Merete takes out a key. I can hear the sound of a temperature-control system buzzing on the other side.
As we enter, I recognize the scene in the photo of the brochure. Thousands of bottles spread out chaotically in several rooms. Wines are stacked all over in bins, in wood boxes, in mixed cases and in single bottles on the floor. Appellations and vintages are mixed. The main organizational system to help track the location of the wines seems to be yellow, orange and purple Post-It notes that compete for space on the borders of the wooden wine bins.
What comes to mind is not a professional restaurant cellar but a wine collector's passion gone wild.
Jan Bruse Andersen began his career as a waiter. He bought one hotel in Voss, then a second one that he connected to the first to create a single property, the Park Hotel Vossevangen. He is about 60, dressed all in black and his black hair is shaded with gray.
Andersen started collecting Bordeaux in the 1980s. He wants Elysée to have the best wines that are imported in Norway. Merete estimated the value of the wine collection at around $3.4 million.
The selection and the reasonable prices of some wines--Andersen says his margins are low on the high-end wines; he might add $50 to a wine that cost him $200 to buy--help attract connoisseurs. Some diners want to buy wines from the list, but a law prevents the restaurant from selling bottles it hasn't first uncorked.
"I want the most expensive wines in the world to be the most inexpensive at Elysée," says Andersen.
Their Balancing Act
Voss is near the largest fjord in the world, a UNESCO-protected natural wonder that attracts a large number of tourists during the summer. This business is Andersen's bread and butter.
Tourists board ships in France or England and cruise around the fjords. The ship lets them off, and a bus takes them around the area, stopping at Elysée, where the visitors are served some simple food quickly, or the buffet smorgasbord. The week before I arrived, the kitchen had served meals to hundreds of cruise-ship tourists, and the exhausted chef was taking the night off when I dined at Elysée.
A few years ago, Elysée tried the gourmet concept, said Merete. But the experience was short-lived. "We do buffet food, and we can't also do gourmet. I wish we had a separate kitchen" to serve fine cuisine, she said.
Such a laudable concept isn't in the cards at this time, for a simple reason: Andersen can't count on individual diners interested in gourmet cuisine to sustain his business, at least not in the isolated area of Norway where he operates. The hotelier needs the money from the tourist trade and the business seminars held in the hotel's huge meeting rooms. So Elysée is a balancing act: the chartered ship and bus tourists on one side of the restaurant, and à la carte diners on the other.
It's a compromise that Andersen can't escape, he acknowledges, given that the tourist trade funds his passion for wine collecting.
With the wine list as the foundation, Andersen still aims at producing an outstanding wining and dining experience at Elysée, but it takes advance planning to make it happen. Some Norwegian customers who understand how the restaurant operates get much mileage out of their visits to Elysée, Andersen argues. They order wines and menus in advance, and Elysée gears up for these special events. Under certain circumstances, the kitchen is happy to prepare a special menu around specific wines.
I would happily return to Voss so I could enjoy the views, sightseeing and sports in this beautiful area. In winter, I can imagine that the restaurant would be cozy after a day of alpine or cross-country skiing. You can enjoy fine wine and good food as you look out on the frozen lake and the mountains.
But I would carefully plan my visit to Elysée. Otherwise I might end up next to hordes of hungry tourists chewing on a low-budget meal while the wait staff gives me the bad news.
"Sorry, but we can't find your wine tonight. You must order in advance."
Editor's postscript: Elysée did not win a Grand Award in 2006. However, we think it deserves attention from our wine-loving readers, and the restaurant continues to hold our Best of Award of Excellence. We admire the passion of owner Jan Bruse Andersen and the professionalism of sommelier Merete Bø, and encourage them to continue in their efforts to improve their restaurant. We hope they continue to be part of Wine Spectator's Restaurant Awards program.
Telephone: (011) 47-56-51-13-22
Fax: (011) 47-56-51-00-39
Web site: www.parkvoss.no
For inquires about the wine list, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cost: Entrées, $22-$30
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