At Under, the World’s Largest Underwater Restaurant, Dinner Is Served with a Side of Marine Science

I’m sitting on the edge of ancient bedrock, feet dangling in the North Sea that washes Norway’s southern coast. Cold water slaps against my legs. Seaweed – red, green, bright, dark – dances in the water, twirling and spinning like lettuce in a salad spinner. Morten Michalsen reaches into the water and pulls out a wine-dark tuft. It resembles a tangle of moss. “Truffle seaweed,” he says. “Have you tried it?” I take a bite. The flavour is complex and ancient, the flavour of something long forgotten, dug up from the deep. He slips into the water and adjusts a scuba mask over his blond hair. His fins flip into the air, fluking like a whale. And then he is gone.

Michalsen is a jack-of-all-trades. Trained as a carpenter, he is also a forager, diver and handyman. Today, though, he is searching for limpets, the frilled conical shells that cling tenaciously to rocks at the shoreline, where land meets sea. They thrive at the threshold of two environments and can survive two weeks out of the water. Their teeth are among the strongest natural substance we know of, and they’re almost impossible for predators to pry off the rock. But Michalsen has a knife.

October 25, 2019
Morten Michalsen dives for sea kelp
Forager Morten Michalsen dives for sea kelp.

The first time I saw Michalsen we were both five metres below sea level. He was floating in the blue-green expanse, buffeted by surge. I was standing on the dry side of a 40-square-metre window, in the middle of the dining room at Under, which touts itself as the world’s largest underwater restaurant. It’s certainly the world’s most ambitious underwater dining experiment, designed by renowned architecture firm Snøhetta. (The restaurant opened last April, and it takes some planning to get a table.) Sheathed in concrete, it rises out of the sea like a slab of ice on a wintry shore. Stig Ubostad, who owns the restaurant with his brother Gaute, says it cost about 75 million Krone – CAD$11 million – to build.

It’s a bold endeavour: an international destination in the sleepy seaside district of Lindesnes, built into the sea at a time when oceans are rising, storms are becoming more violent and scientists are advising us to retreat from the shore. Engineers spent months testing models of the building in a wave pool in Madrid (there were more than a thousand different pressure-load parameters to consider). The result is a structure designed to withstand the intensity of a 200-year storm by diffusing the sea’s awesome power. Wave energy dissipates as it slides off rounded edges, and the underwater window has some give.

The view from the window of Under's dining room looks out into the sea

The sea’s blue-green glow lends the dining room an other-worldly light.

When you descend Under’s oak staircase to the dining room, what strikes you is the otherworldly blue-green light. It drenches the sleek tables and chairs made from pale oak sourced just a few kilometres away. Woven tiles on the walls and ceiling deaden the sound, mimicking the cotton-wool silence that fills a diver’s ears. Outside the window, silver-sided pollock swim in and out of a thick sugar-kelp forest; Ballan Wrasse suck bits of kelp into their mouths and spit them out again. A waiter pauses to watch a jellyfish pulse across the window: “Look at that bad boy.” Norwegian vocalist Ary sings huskily out of the speaker system: “If you ever reach the bottom of the sea / Don’t look for me, I will be dead, long ago.” The music and sway of the sea are hypnotic. It would be easy to spend days here, weeks here, and forget all passage of time.

Close-up view of Under's wooden deck
Under’s deck offers stunning views of the seaside district of Lindesnes.
Under’s deck offers stunning views of the seaside district of Lindesnes.

If Under can be described as an experiment, Nicolai Ellitsgaard and Trond Rafoss are its principal investigators. Chef Ellitsgaard has Michelin ambitions for his 10-strong kitchen; Rafoss, an ecologist and the restaurant’s scientific advisor, hopes diners will leave with a better understanding of the ocean and the ecosystems it sustains. Outside the restaurant, Rafoss is an associate professor at the University of Agder, and a research scientist at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research. He gets involved in start-ups and government-funded projects. He has advised the European Commission on plant health. Sometimes his wife complains, “Does everything have to be a project?”

Rafoss has spent much of his career in agriculture and is an expert on invasive species, but the sea has always been part of his life. From an ecologist’s perspective, land and sea are closely connected. Changes in one ecosystem spill into the other. At Under, Rafoss works closely with Ellitsgaard. “I text him every week about something new,” says the chef. “Can I eat this? What about this?” Ellitsgaard’s hyperlocal menu features all kinds of wild creatures and fermented, distilled creations that most diners have never encountered: the limpets and many varieties of seaweed that Michalsen forages at the shore; nearby forest finds such as mosses, pine cones and even decomposing leaves. Ellitsgaard also uses bycatch and overlooked cuts like monkfish cheeks that otherwise go to waste.

An exterior view of the restaurant Under rising out of the ocean
The restaurant appears to rise up from the depths of the ocean.

Under’s offsite test kitchen is an unlikely combination of gleaming lab equipment (glass bulbs, still pots) and old-fashioned carving tools. There are branches with the bark still clinging to them and sawdust on the floor. In one corner, you might see one sous-chef whittling wood or curing wooden bowls in a dehydrator; in another, Patrik Hemstrøm – “our fermentation master” – grows microbes at carefully calibrated rates and temperatures. A third sous-chef might be distilling the essence of green strawberries in a gleaming Heidolph rotary evaporator.

Ellitsgaard’s work dovetails nicely with one of Rafoss’ larger ambitions: to help shift the global fishery away from its reliance on top predators like tuna and salmon. Even in ocean-adjacent Norway, menus rely heavily on two top-of-the-food-chain species: cod and salmon. “It’s most embarrassing,” says Stig. Seaweeds and molluscs require far less energy to feed us. One of Rafoss’ grad students has been working on a project to make seaweed farming more efficient. “The chef and his team are good partners because they can make more of this food available,” says Rafoss, referring to the kitchen’s experiments that can turn a barely edible ingredient – like leathery sugar kelp – into something truly wonderful.

Michalsen collects seaweed from Under’s walls
Michalsen collects seaweed from Under’s walls, which double as an artificial reef.
Michalsen collects seaweed from Under’s walls, which double as an artificial reef.

Unadorned and streamlined above the water, Under is a fluttering garden of vibrant sea lettuces and jellyfish below the surface. On the watery side of the dining room, Michalsen fastens a suction cup to the window to stop the surge from carrying him away as he wipes it clean. A few metres over, a small starfish uses the same strategy to stay in place. Michalsen and the starfish move slowly across, lifting the green algae that has accumulated on the window’s surface.

Meanwhile, Rafoss waits on the dry side for Michalsen to reach the surveillance camera next to the window, which live-streams the ecosystem. Rafoss peers out at the sea creatures. “See the shimmering in the water mass?” he asks, delight crinkling his eyes and rounding his cheeks. “That’s the freshwater mixing with the salt. From the rains last night.”

Rafoss first met the Ubostad brothers, fourth-generation hoteliers from the neighbouring municipality of Lyngdal, when Rafoss and Gaute got involved in another experimental project: a tunnel around Kvåsfossen waterfall that extends the wild-salmon migration by 15 kilometres up the Lygna River. Visitors can view salmon through four large windows, or walk 60 metres into the mountain to watch the fish hurl themselves from pool to higher pool as the water rushes noisily down.

Decaying leaves and moss in a giant bulb
Squat lobster served on a bed of seaweed
Decaying leaves and mosses from the nearby forest floor are distilled into a silky sauce.
Squat lobster served on a bed of seaweed.

The scientist liked the idea of working with Under to change the way guests – and the larger public – relate to the ocean. Training wait staff to act as wildlife interpreters in the dining room is one strategy. Live-streaming sea life is another. A public competition to identify species on the live stream will launch later this fall. Rafoss wants to use the data to teach a computer algorithm to identify and monitor species 24/7. He also monitors diners via social media. He’s interested in how often they share, but also what they share: “Do they share species knowledge?”

Next year, Under plans to open an interpretation centre where visitors will be able to learn about the diversity and abundance at the shoreline. Both of Rafoss’ parents were educators. “As a scientist, the more understanding the guests have of the ocean, of the ecosystem – that’s the main success factor for me.”

Ellitsgaard got the idea for the first course at Under while he was foraging for seaweed with his girlfriend, Cathrine Møll. Ellitsgaard is Danish – he first came to Norway in 2011 to work at the acclaimed restaurant Måltid – but Møll grew up 40 minutes away, in Mandal, where they now live. She wondered if he could try cooking the conical shells that clung to the rocks by the shore.

“I’d seen them many times, but I’d never thought about them. I didn’t even know their name,” he recalled. Møll told him breastfeeding women used them as a natural remedy for sore nipples. Locals called them titty shells. He called Rafoss. Did he know anything about titty shells? Were they edible?

Nicolai Ellitsgaard harvests seaweed
Nicolai Ellitsgaard harvests seaweed (one of the evening’s dishes is a dessert comprised of five different kinds).
Nicolai Ellitsgaard harvests seaweed (one of the evening’s dishes is a dessert comprised of five different kinds).

Rafoss, who has a much more buttoned-up manner than Ellitsgaard, had no idea what the chef was talking about. Ellitsgaard sent him a photo. “Ah,” replied Rafoss, “You mean limpets.” Yes, they were edible, but very rubbery and tough. It took many hours before the kitchen finally nailed the dish: a purée of limpet “mixed together with cream and butter and shallots,” hidden inside a crisp edible shell lacquered with vegetable paint. It’s served on a rock set in a pool of wet sand.

“To me it makes sense that the first thing you will eat in the restaurant is something that comes from the shoreline,” Ellitsgaard says. Michalsen now collects 300 limpets for the restaurant each week.

I think of high-end restaurants the way I think of haute-couture houses. Most of what is developed in them isn’t relevant to mass culture, although the occasional idea trickles down. Overall, the meal at Under feels pretty radical. A dessert of five seaweeds – one of them crisp and sweet “like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes,” says Ellitsgaard – is fascinating, but its bold, briny flavours may challenge some diners.

One of my favourite dishes on the menu is a confit of cod loin, served with birch-bark oil and a “forest undergrowth sauce.” The menu description is quite literal: The kitchen uses the underlayer of leaves that has been decomposing for several years and is well on its way to becoming humus. Darkened leaves and mosses are stuffed into a large glass bulb, spun in the evaporator and boiled with chicken stock. The forest tea is then distilled into a clear broth that tastes hauntingly of the forest floor. As seasons and weather change, the flavour changes, too. “You don’t know how a sauce will turn out because it depends on whether it was raining the day before, or whether it was dry,” says George Papazoccharias, who, with Arnold Egelid and Patrik Hemstrøm, worked closely with Ellitsgaard to design Under’s menu.

Ellitsgaard plates cod loin with birch-bark oil and “forest undergrowth sauce”
Ellitsgaard plates cod loin with birch-bark oil and “forest undergrowth sauce”.
A pile of fresh crabs
Ellitsgaard plates cod loin with birch-bark oil and “forest undergrowth sauce”.
Crabs fresh from the sea.

In the midst of all this – the experimental cooking, the startling architecture, the ambitious citizen science projects – the restaurant has changed the people who work in it. Staff spend their days off free diving and spearfishing or pulling lobster pots out of the fjords on Gaute’s new fishing boat. “If I wasn’t an entrepreneur,” says Gaute, “I would be a fisherman.” Everyone has – or has developed – a deep connection to the sea.

Ellitsgaard grumbles that he doesn’t have enough time to forage anymore: “For me, foraging is like therapy.” Still, the chef manages to get into the woods two or three times a week. The trunk of his car holds hip waders, a fly-fishing rod and a mushroom basket from Møll’s grandmother. Several staff have experimented with living off the land and water. “You learn to have respect for nature, to have respect for the sea,” says Stig. “It makes you reflect that you are just one small part.”

Michalsen surfaces with a handful of seaweed. The water slides off his shoulders; the wake radiates out in concentric white circles. He climbs out onto the rocks.

Like the limpets that will be served tonight, like Norway itself, Under sits on the threshold of two worlds. Thresholds are places of vulnerability and instability. We are warned not to cross them. In this, ancient folk- storytellers and IPCC scientists agree: They are places of danger. But they are also places of change and possibility. Under reminds us that the ocean’s future depends on us, and that the reverse is also true: We depend on the sea.

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