I'd like to say we went to Copenhagen on a quest to discover my roots. My grandfather (who I absolutely adore) is Danish, which makes me a quarter Dane. That doesn't sound like much, but it's far more than a mutt like me can claim otherwise. Or…
I could have said that the decision to go was one based on aesthetics. I'm a huge fan of their architecture and design work; love their books, films and TV shows too. Or that it started with my curiosity to find out why the Danes are the happiest people in the world, as they are routinely polled. I do find that interesting.
But c'mon, we all know why a self-proclaimed food nerd would want to visit Copenhagen - Noma.
Luckily, Copenhagen has far more to offer than just one restaurant, especially for foodies. As the hype for Noma has grown over the years, many of the chefs who worked for René Redzepi have opened their own successful restaurants in the city, turning Denmark's tiny capital into a full-on culinary destination. Over the course of four days, Dorothy and I would try our fair share of them, in an effort to better understand this "New Nordic" movement.
We arrived in Copenhagen on Monday morning. The sun was brightly shining, a welcome respite after three days of rain and cold in Iceland. We took a taxi to our hotel, dropped off our things and rushed to make our lunch reservation at Restaurant Schønneman. Established in 1877, Schønneman is one of Copenhagen's oldest restaurants. It's only open for lunch, serves traditional Danish dishes such as smørrebrød and herring, and strongly encourages you to drink chilled schnapps until you're warm and fuzzy inside. I was eager to sample their smørrebrød after falling in love with the open faced sandwiches at Bar Tartine in San Francisco. Dorothy and I shared four different kinds, including one named after René Redzepi. It was a great meal and a wonderful introduction to Copenhagen.
Afterwards, we walked to Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world. I hadn't ridden a roller coaster in years and relished the opportunity. Between rides we found time to get accosted by a peacock and eat cotton candy. It felt like being a kid again (perhaps because we were engulfed by them). As the sun set, we strolled back to our hotel, smiling at the bicycle traffic (bikes outnumber cars in Copenhagen), then watched the sky put on a show of colors from our balcony. It was the perfect cap to our first day in Denmark. I went to bed eager to go to sleep but unable to do so out of sheer excitement…
Because tomorrow...tomorrow we would finally eat at Noma.
Noma is a two Michelin starred restaurant run by chef René Redzepi. It's currently ranked the number one restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine, an honor they have held 4 of the past 5 years (They briefly relinquished the title in 2013 to El Celler De Can Roca, the year we visited them). Not only is René widely considered the most influential chef in the gastronomic community, he was once included in Time Magazine's list of 100 most influential people in the world, period. He turned foraging into a catch phrase, started the New Nordic movement, and singlehandedly turned Copenhagen into a tourist destination. Suffice it to say this restaurant has been on my bucket list for years.
So…what did we think? Well…
Upon arrival, the thing we noticed immediately was the service. At Noma, we weren't greeted by a maitre d, or anyone traditionally front of house. We were greeted, and seated, by one of the chefs. Likewise, every dish we would be served in the course of this three plus hour meal would come from a chef. No, we weren't VIP. This is how they treat everyone. And it's awesome.
Now, I realize that Noma has some built in advantages here, especially in comparison to restaurants in New York City. Denmark's labor laws allow them to keep stages (intern chefs) year round without compensation. And talented chefs from all over the globe come to work for René for free, knowing the experience they gain outweighs this cost (and does wonders for their resume, too). But having the chef who actually prepared the dish describe it to you is far more meaningful than the words of a server disconnected from the process.
What's more, the chefs were universally friendly, resulting in service that felt relaxed and enjoyable. We were worried that with all the accolades, Noma would feel stiff and formal but it was actually quite the opposite. The atmosphere was loose and fun, allowing us to enjoy the setting as well as the food. Speaking of which…
The food was incredible. Again, we came in with preconceived notions. We knew that Noma was responsible for the New Nordic movement, which focuses on local products and clean flavors, and is often labeled an avant-garde restaurant. We were worried that this ideology would come at the expense of taste. Plus, René is known for being provocative when it comes to his dishes, serving insects and wild plants to challenge your preconceived notions of what food is. Were we bound to be repulsed along the way?
The answer was a resounding no. While we were served insects twice in the early goings (beef tartare with ants and a danish pancake filled with crickets), we were never grossed out. In fact, the courses invigorated us. It's not until you bite into one of these dishes that you realize what René has managed to accomplish here. He's not serving you these insects for shock value, he's serving them to show they can be delicious.
There were several highlights throughout the meal. A mahogany clam, hundreds of years old. Pickled and smoked quails egg (see above), with an intense smoky flavor that rivaled memories of Etxebarri. Turbot and nasturtium with cream and wood sorrel, my favorite of the day and perhaps the year. And then there was the stunningly beautiful rhubarb and sorrel dessert (see below), the rhubarb shaped into red rose petals. If the meal had ended there, I would have felt complete. Luckily, there were still two desserts left, plus a slew of post-meal snacks to go along with our freshly brewed coffee.
We left Noma giddy and stuffed to the gills. It was raining outside but we returned to our hotel on foot anyway, desperately hoping to walk off our meal. After all, dinner was in three hours.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Dorothy and I often learn valuable lessons during our trips that impact the way we plan future travel. Well, the lesson I learned in Copenhagen was the need for balance. As my interest in food has grown over the years, I've admittedly gotten carried away with my reservations. It would be easy to blame social media. I follow the exploits of several foodie jet setters on twitter and instagram, and their never-ending quests to visit every gastronomic temple on the globe is fun to watch from afar. Perhaps it's only natural that I try to match their itineraries when seeking out our own culinary adventures. But the truth is, they aren't the ones making these bookings, I am. And I should have known better than to follow up lunch at Noma with dinner at Kadeau.
It's not just about the caloric intake either, although trust me when I say eating two tasting menus back to back is a calorie bomb on the digestive system. Or about the price tag, although checks from these Michelin starred restaurants do quickly add up. For us, it's simply this - when you schedule all of these amazing meals together, back to back to back, they inevitably become less special. You begin to take all of the creativity and execution for granted. The dishes start blending together.
Which is not to say we didn't love this second meal at Kadeau, because we absolutely did. Initially, we had planned on visiting them in their natural habitat, on the tiny island of Bornholm (where by all accounts the dining experience matches acclaimed destination restaurants such as the Willows Inn, Faviken, etc). But the original Kadeau had not expanded to its summer hours yet and was only open on the weekend. So instead, we headed to their Copenhagen outpost, which earned it's first Michelin star in 2013, to see what the fuss is about. Plenty, as it would turn out.
The restaurant follows a similar format as Noma - a flurry of snacks, followed by the official courses. Also like Noma, they offer juice pairings along with the traditional wine pairings. (Before Noma, I had never tried a juice pairing. I enjoyed the one at Noma so much I did one two days later at Geranium). However, Kadeau had one key difference in their offerings that saved us - the choice between a 4 course tasting and an 8 course tasting. We of course took the lesser 4 course option (although we enjoyed the meal so much we added a dish). All of the food was superb. I loved both the turbot (see above) and the squid dishes, but a surprise highlight was the new onions, which our sever recommended us adding.
Speaking of which, our server was awesome. We were hesitant to do another wine pairing, so he helped us pick out a couple of glasses that would go with our meal…then added a few more on the house. And it wasn't just the generous pours, he also offered to write us a list of other restaurants to check out - not the Michelin starred touristic ones, but cool hole in the wall places where the locals go to get great food. Finally, at end of the night, he called us a cab and chatted with us until it arrived. That my friends, is great service.
Still, as we stumbled into the cab and called it a night, we were more exhausted then elated, feeling we had survived an endurance contest.
On Wednesday, we slept in. We didn't even bother with lunch, opting to grab some snacks from the convenience store next to our hotel. Our initial plan was to take a day trip to see Kronberg Castle, but instead we decided to spend our afternoon exploring Copenhagen by foot and save the castle for Thursday. This decision was not without its repercussions. We would have to cancel one of our remaining restaurant reservations (either Amass or Geranium) in order to accommodate this schedule shift. But we didn't want to repeat of we'd just been through anyway, and that's exactly what a lunch at Geranium, dinner at Amass plan would have been. Lesson learned.
By the time we exited our hotel it was nearly 4pm. We hadn't just lost our morning, we'd lost half the afternoon, too. No matter, we were determined to enjoy what was left of it. We took a ferry ride to see the Little Mermaid statue by Hans Christian Anderson, walked atop the fortress walls at Kastellet (see above), and took a stroll through colorful Nyhavn, snapping photos along the way. Then we hopped in a cab and headed for our next meal, dinner at Relae.
In many ways, Relae was the perfect restaurant for us that night. For one, they serve an abbreviated tasting menu, just four courses, with the option for one snack and a cheese supplement. This was a welcome relief after Tuesday's assault on our stomachs. Secondly, the simplicity of Christian Pluglisi's cooking was also a nice change of pace. Chef Puglisi is known for only using a few ingredients with each dish, resulting in a cuisine that is straightforward and focused. Finally, the ambience and service here was extremely casual. Although both Noma and Kadeau felt relaxed, at the end of the day, they are still fine dining establishments, with all the bells and whistles that brings. We needed something low key and Relae hit the spot.
The highlight of the night was the opening course, a squid noodle dish served with spring onions and dried shrimps. We also loved the finale (see above), a vanilla ice cream with raspberry and caramelized mustard that reminded us of the desserts Fabian von Hauske makes at Contra in NYC.
If we had any qualms about our dinner at Relae, it came not from the food or the service but the location. Relae is in a sketchier part of town, which recently has become trendy. Ordinarily, this is not an issue with us (the neighborhood reminded us of Echo Park in LA, where we nearly bought a house). But when the restaurant called us a cab, we waited 15-20 minutes for it to arrive, only to watch helplessly through the window as the cabbie stopped, surveyed the scene and left.
As Relae called us another cab, I decided to go outside and wait, so I could make sure they stopped this time. I quickly saw the source of the trouble. A hooded thug with a bandana covering his face had set up shop outside the restaurant. He sat with two teenage girls on the bumper of a car, acting like he owned the block and hurling obscenities at anyone in his vicinity. My wife certainly didn't feel comfortable standing next to him and neither did I when he started eyeing my camera bag. We went in and told our server, who said this unsavory character was a reoccurring problem for them but there wasn't much they could do about it. If we wanted a cab, perhaps we should walk down to another block and try our luck there.
This was at night. In a foreign city. In a sketchy neighborhood. With a shady ass mofo standing between us and the sidewalk. Forgive me for not taking them up on that offer.
Finally, another cab arrived, 45 minutes after we had finished our meal. We made it back to our hotel safe and sound, but this ignorant individual dampened an otherwise great experience.
My wife Dorothy is an actress. She's also a big fan of theatre and loves all things Shakespeare. So visiting Kronberg Castle, the setting for Shakespeare's revered tragedy Hamlet, was a no brainer. We took a train to the quaint little town of Helsingør, where we emerged to gorgeous weather, the sun finally out again after two days of intermittent rain.
We took a quick stroll around the grounds, then went inside, exploring the chapel and casements underground. Afterwards, we returned to town for a quick snack at Brostræde Fløde-Is, the oldest ice cream shop in Denmark, before catching a train back to Copenhagen. Brostræde Fløde-Is fills freshly baked handmade cones with your choice of ice cream, then top it with whipped cream, warm jam and a flødeboll (chocolate covered marshmallow). It was, quite simply, the best ice cream cone we'd ever eaten.
For our final meal in Copenhagen, we chose to have dinner at Geranium. This two Michelin starred eatery is probably the most well known restaurant in Denmark outside of Noma, and is currently ranked forty-second in the world according to Restaurant Magazine. But that's not why we picked it. No, we chose Geranium because of Monica Lopez, a talented young chef we met at Atera in NYC. Monica spoke glowingly of her time staging at Geranium, where she learned a ton, loved the cuisine, and fell head over heels for Paul Feybesse, a young Frenchman also working in the kitchen. The two are now engaged and live in Paris (we'd visit them two days later at Restaurant AT). We were going to Geranium on her recommendation.
Geranium is a prime example of "food as art". The space itself is like something out of a modern art museum, beautiful and sleek. And then there's the Chef. Rasmus Kofoed is the only person who's ever won all three Bocuse d'Or trophies, the culinary equivalent of the Olympics. And eating this meal, we could clearly see why. The presentation of his dishes were stunning. Even the opening snacks served in the lounge were tiny works of art....
Only none of them were very tasty, at least not at first. Five snacks came and went, and I started to worry. Was this a case of the emperor has no clothes, all style and no substance? Luckily, our next snack was the "Charred Potato" & Milk Butter. Smoky and delicious. I breathed a sigh of relief.
After the snacks ended, we were seated at our table overlooking impressive window views of the city. In contrast to the snacks, we loved most of the courses we were served. Highlights included a "Dillstone" with fermented vegetables, a playful "Razorclam" dish served to us in the Geranium kitchen (next to Rasmus's Bocuse d'Or trophies), and an exquisite dessert - rhubarb served with bees wax ice cream. But for us, the showstopper was the Grilled Langoustine (see above), fresh from the cold North Atlantic ocean, flame torched in front of us and laid in a field of Christmas tree branches. Definitely one of the most memorable dishes of our trip.
In hindsight, we might have chosen Amass, a new restaurant from Matt Orlando, the former Chef de cuisine of Noma, over Geranium. Matt, himself a native southern Californian, has by all accounts created a new, enjoyable take on food that isn't strictly Nordic. The decor of the restaurant matches the informal atmosphere, with an open floor plan and a graffiti wall. This is a far cry from the stiff formality of Geranium. While we enjoy the theatre that comes with great fine dining establishments, Amass sounds more our speed - a fun and casual vibe to go along with exceptional food.
Still, as we took in a gorgeous sunset from our Geranium table (see above), I couldn't help but feel it was a fitting conclusion to our time in Copenhagen. No, we didn't get to see, do, or even eat everything we wanted on this trip. And to be honest, I'm not sure if a repeat visit is in the cards. There's so many other places on our bucket list. But how could we be disappointed? Look at that view.
To see all my photos from our trip to Copenhagen, visit the album on Flickr. Additionally, I've created a separate album for each of the following meals: Restaurant Schønneman, Noma, Kadeau, Relae, and Geranium.