Copenhagen on a plate
Don’t ask for Danish pastries at Lagkagehuset, a popular bakery chain. In Denmark, they are called Vienna Bread (wienerbrød). (Martin Llado/LPI)
The term “new Nordic cuisine” is setting hearts aflutter on the international food scene, and any gourmand worth their salt (French fleur de sel, preferably) is placing Copenhagen high on their food-fancying holiday itinerary.
The Danish capital is home to the world's number one restaurant Noma, taking the top spot in the S Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants rankings in both 2010 and 2011. Copenhagen is also home to 10 Michelin-starred restaurants and the best young chef, Rasmus Kofoed, gold medallist at the prestigious Bocuse d'Or.
So what has taken this city from its humdrum pork-and-potatoes tradition to culinary dynamo, and what exactly does “new Nordic cuisine” mean? Chief responsibility for the spotlight now shining Copenhagen's way lies with the city's young chefs, many of who have apprenticed with some of the most influential chefs in the world.
These chefs have taken their experience and combined it with a passion for Denmark's local raw ingredients - its excellent pork, game, seafood, root vegetables and berries - and a reverence for the seasons. Taken to extremes, this means Noma's owner-chef René Redzepi eschews all non-indigenous produce in his creations (no olive oil for example, and no tomatoes), plays with modest, often-overlooked ingredients (pulses and grains) and forages for herbs and plants. Ingredients are skilfully prepared but technique never overshadows flavour.
The day after Noma won the title of world's best restaurant in 2010, 100,000 people attempted to make a table reservation. The restaurant does around 75 covers a day, five days a week. In other words: landing a reservation is the equivalent of winning the food-lovers' lottery.
If you do get lucky, you are in for a sensory treat: familiar ingredients are used alongside intriguing Nordic delicacies such as reindeer moss from Finland, Icelandic skyr (similar to strained yoghurt) and sea buckthorn berries. Vegetables feature as dessert (beetroot granita, for example). And there are loads of edible greenery; Noma explains that at their venue “greens take up more room on the plate than is common at gourmet restaurants”. Flavours are fresh and clean on both the plate and palate.
Diners choose between seven or 12 courses and there is a comprehensive wine list or a wine-matching menu (there is also a wonderfully executed juice menu). Service is exemplary -- with the chefs delivering many of the dishes -- the décor is elegantly rustic and the atmosphere warm and convivial, not fussy and formal. At meal's end you may be offered a tour of the kitchen, where you can see the hard work that goes into such gastronomic genius.
For all the hype surrounding Noma and new Nordic cuisine, however, this is clearly not how the average Dane eats every day. So where can you go in Copenhagen to get a more prosaic picture of dining, Danish style?
Near-unpronounceable smørrebrød is Denmark's famed open sandwich. It generally consists of a slice of rye bread topped, for example, with roast beef, smoked salmon, pickled herring, liver pate, or fried fish fillet and finished with a variety of garnishes. The final sculptured product often looks too good to eat and it is usually only served at lunchtime. Top spots for a fix include traditional Schønnemann and contemporary Aamanns, the latter offering takeaway and a restaurant. Try to pronounce smørrebrød as "SMUHR-bruth", but do not feel bad if your pronunciation does not match a native Dane’s.
With a dozen outlets around town including at the airport, on Strøget and next door to the tourist office, Lagkagehuset is a bakery chain selling all the buttery, carb-loading treats you could dream of. Rugbrød (rye bread) is a must-try, but you are probably here for the sweet pastries. Note that while they are called “Danish pastries” around the world, in Denmark they re known as wienerbrød (literally, “Vienna bread”).
In Copenhagen's hip “Meatpacking District”, the fish-focused Kødbyens Fiskebar has been generating lots of heat since it opened in mid-2009 and is a favourite of Noma's Redzepi. The menu lists the provenance of all its seafood, from Greenlandic snowcrab to Danish Limfjord oysters and mussels. This is also a good spot to sample Danish white wine.
Classic Danish street food is the pølser (hot dog in a bun), sold from the ubiquitous pølser vogn (hot-dog cart). At the Andersen Bakery hot-dog kiosk, across from the main train station, fast food goes upmarket. Made from organic pork sausage, Bornholm mustard and a chanterelle sauce, Andersen's “Grand Danois” hot dog is quite possibly Denmark's finest.