Imagine you are a mushroom. What do you dream of? In the not-so-distant past, the lucky few would have been shipped off to France and pressed into the service of haute cuisine, minced into a dainty duxelles. Or perhaps would have gone out in style, drowned in cream and Cognac.
But the world of fine dining has changed while you’ve been lazing in the shade, mushroom. You’re the main event now. (Suck it, rib eye.) You’re a hen of the woods. A gnarled, noble, many-limbed and meaty beast, growing fat as an actual chicken on the cold Danish forest floor. Here comes a famous foraging chef to pluck you from obscurity, tote you gingerly back to his kitchen, age you like a steak, and make you a star. Two weeks of rest deepens your fungal funk. Now you’re ready to be pan-roasted and presented whole tableside. Shown off like some truffle-studded poulet de Bresse or the finest Dover sole. You sit on an inky purée of Gotland truffles and rich mushroom broth. You’re adorned with a garland of shaved truffles and crunchy blades of wild sorrel. This is the life, baby. You ain’t just a salad or a side dish anymore!
The crusading chef and ennobler of vegetables in question is, of course, René Redzepi. His restaurant is Noma, in the dockside Christianshavn district of Copenhagen, Denmark. Redzepi has become well-known in the past few years for doing things like slowly sautéing winter-hardened year-old “vintage” carrots from the marshy fields of Lammefjord in goat’s butter and chamomile. Or serving a plump and perfect shelled langoustine clinging to the face of a large, warm stone—as if it had just washed ashore on this rock dotted with barnacles made of emulsified oyster and parsley and dusted with toasted rye.
You’d need to have been living under one of these beach stones to have missed the news: Noma is the best restaurant in the world. Actually, it works better if you shout it: THE BEST RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD! Then imagine an entire country of beaming Danes high-fiving each other from the upright seats of their fixed-gear bicycles, looking even more apple-cheeked, well-adjusted, and handsome than they normally do, while in other quarters of the Continent, the French shrug long-sufferingly and disgruntled Spaniards shake their fists and rattle their nitrous-oxide canisters, wondering who this northern upstart is that’s stolen their culinary limelight.
For two years running, Noma has held the top ranking in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, a poll of international opinion-shapers and professional food nerds (full disclosure: I vote in the thing). Redzepi’s trick is balancing rigorous austerity with freewheeling deliciousness. It’s fun and it’s weird and it’s never, even for a moment, dull or preachy in the way that restaurants with lofty goals (and loftier self-regard) often are. The beams in the spare dining room show their age; gray, mottled, and unadorned. The silverware fails to impress with its gleam or heft. In fact, a dozen small courses may pass before you’re presented with so much as a fork. There is a serenity here achieved without the benefit of velvety acres of plush carpeting. No gilded cheese trolley. No courtly waiters in dinner jackets. The chefs deliver the food they’ve made to the table themselves, introducing each dish with unscripted enthusiasm.
At lunch recently, Redzepi came by the table to explain a little plate of battered and fried leek ends—roots and all. “This is an example of what we call ‘trash cooking,’ ” he said. “By necessity, during a hard winter, we started thinking about what to do with the things in a kitchen you’d normally throw away.”
Of course the idea of crowning any one restaurant as the world’s best is a little goofy. One man’s trash cooking is, after all, another man’s garbage. Still, what’s important is that Redzepi and his team have conjured up that honest rarity: the new thing that isn’t mere novelty. And they did it not by trying to appeal to the exacting standards of the Michelin inspector, not by making things ever more fancy and unapproachable, but by returning to the edible topography of Scandinavia and making something beautiful of the overlooked roots, sturdy weeds, and cold-water sea creatures he found there.
In doing so he grabbed the attention of the gastro-tourists and wandering food writers and poll-takers alike. Praise and attention are heaped on the 34-year-old chef in the liberal manner that herring here is piled onto smørrebrød. More importantly, the success of Noma has inspired and challenged his fellow chefs—and changed the way the city eats.
Now Redzepi’s cooks are spreading through town, opening places of their own and trying on new styles. The first flush of Noma imitators seems to have died down (there is only so much edible dirt people can eat). And outside forces such as the financial crisis have led some big-name chefs to close their ambitious expense-account dining rooms and open more casual, populist restaurants. Redzepi told me he’d seen wild ramson leaves in a Copenhagen supermarket, something unthinkable in Denmark a few years ago. I wouldn’t know a ramson if I stepped on it, but I got his point: the Nordic culinary revolution is real and ongoing. It’s an ideal time to visit what’s arguably the most exciting place to eat in Europe right now, a city enjoying its time in the spotlight and busy figuring out what comes next.
The nicest way to reach the cobblestoned street of Jægersborggade is to cut through the leafy lanes of Assistens Cemetery. Grumpy Kierkegaard is buried here, as is the immortally smooth American saxophonist Ben Webster. More transient visitors sunbathe between the cherry trees. The place is, like the whole city, designed for civic enjoyment, practical cycling, and leisurely strolling.
There’s a hand-painted sign pointing up and down Jægersborggade. Food and art this way, wine and ceramics over here. You could probably find the Coffee Collective without the sign. Look for the bikes parked out front and follow the strong smell of good coffee into the phone-booth-size space. They roast their own beans here (from Panama, Brazil, Guatemala, and Kenya). Sitting in the sun and sipping espresso at the picnic table outside, it’s hard to imagine this was once a derelict block run by hash dealers.
It wasn’t until two ex-Noma guys Christian Puglisi and Kim Rossen opened a small place called Restaurant Relæ that the neighborhood began to change.
Before long, people on pilgrimage to Noma heard about its ex-sous-chef doing inventive stuff in an unfashionable part of town. Locals jammed the place every night. Puglisi next opened Manfreds, a wine bar and casual all-day restaurant across the street, and now there was a place on the block to get a bottle of natural wine and stick around after dinner. Redzepi’s business partner, Claus Meyer, opened Meyers Bageri. The bakery, which makes bread and pastries from organic flour they produce themselves in the north of the country, stands opposite the Coffee Collective as a perfect breakfast counterpart: two very small places doing a narrow range of things remarkably well.
You could easily justify a day of eating your way up and down Jægersborggade. Stop for espressos at the picnic table outside the Coffee Collective, cross the street for some knotty cinnamon rolls, cross back, repeat. Make some time to visit Keramiker Inge Vincents, whose diaphanous ceramics are used at Relæ. The one thing you can’t get on the street anymore is hash. Last summer, city officials took notice of how much business the Noma diaspora was bringing to a formerly unkempt area. Dining trumped drugs and the cops chased the pushers off Jægersborggade. (I hear they’ve relocated to a nearby park. No hard feelings.)
“Fuck what they’re doing in France,” Puglisi says. Except it’s hard to get across how affable and gentle he sounds as he says it. Puglisi is half Sicilian, half Norwegian, raised mostly in Denmark, and a model specimen of the current crop of Copenhagen restaurateurs: young, entrepreneurial, loyal to Redzepi but eager to blaze his own trail. What he learned at Noma, what he calls “the dogmatic Nordic approach,” was to create lighter dishes, use more vegetables, more acidity, less dependence on veal stock and other building blocks of classic fine dining. “But the most important thing that Noma is teaching us is to do our own thing. Not everyone has to forage and use sea buckthorn and pine needles. The point is to do something that other people don’t and make it what you want it to be.”
For Puglisi that has meant cooking original food that doesn’t fit any particular label and having fun doing it. Relæ has two set menus a night, one of them vegetarian. Johnny Cash is on the stereo. The tiny open kitchen is full of silent orchestrated mayhem. First on the vegetable menu is an orb of sheep’s-milk yogurt enveloping bites of turnip. Layered over the yogurt, stems up, is a covering of green nasturtium leaves. It’s all seemingly so simple, but then again it isn’t: the piquant yogurt whipped with a little cream into a supple mousse; the bright, surprising, peppery spice delivered by the nasturtium; the turnips mellowed by cooking but still retaining a welcome crunch. It’s a dish to make you love a vegetable menu, and one that exemplifies Puglisi’s dictum: for a small kitchen to turn out thoughtful, engaging food at a decent price, you have to think as much about the flavors and composition of a dish as you would at a restaurant like Noma—then find ways to make them dead simple to get on the plate. “I don’t want a Michelin-starred restaurant with that kind of rhythm. I want something crazy busy. I want it to be hammering.”
I tried several times to make a dinner reservation at Radio but that wasn’t possible. I tried to make a lunch reservation but again, no luck. Finally the online reservation grid opened, though just a crack. Precisely one seat was available that week at 1 p.m. on Saturday, which is precisely when I showed up to find the place completely empty.
“Adam” the waiter warmly smiled when I poked my head in the door, wondering if I’d arrived on the wrong day. He explained that they intentionally limit the crowd at lunch. “We don’t want to be stressed all the time!” the waiter said. And it was true, he didn’t seem stressed at all. Today they’d decided to take just a dozen reservations. The other 11 would be here shortly.
Radio is small and wood-paneled and pleasant. Johnny Cash was on the stereo here, too, singing “Bridge over Troubled Water,” a song I’d never heard him cover. Maybe he only sings it in Danish restaurants, where it seems he is in eternal demand. Claus Meyer is a partner here, too, which explains the reach and undeniable popularity of what is, to all appearances, a tidy little neighborhood joint. The restaurant has a two-acre patch of organically farmed land outside the city that supplies most of its vegetables, and it sources wild meat directly from hunters on Lolland Island, in the Baltic Sea.
The waiter delivered a wooden tray of crunchy-chewy little bits of fried Jerusalem artichokes with horseradish cream and a glass of good Morgon. I covered a few slices of bread with some salty butter that had been whipped with little caramelized onions and found that I didn’t feel stressed at all, either.
My friend the waiter returned to suggest today’s chicken and named the farm it came from (“It’s world-famous in Denmark,” he said). It was meltingly tender and paired with roasted beets, slices of pickled pear, and beet leaves dressed in something buttery. I finished with a plate of Danish hay cheese with sticky dabs of green-walnut compote and watched the parade of bicycles riding by outside. Bicycles with buckets on the front for healthy groceries and happy children. Bicycles decorated and personalized and practical. Radio reminded me of those sensible Danish bicycles: an everyday thing that’s well built but not showy, delivering what’s asked of it, with a seat just for one.
It’s a sign of how far things have come that it’s taken for granted that even a neighborhood restaurant will have its own organic vegetable source, clean design, and good cheese. After lunch I walked over to Torvehallerne KBH, the city’s new covered food market. Another former Noma sous-chef was, until recently, running a stall here selling vegetables. The market isn’t huge but its mere existence is a sign that interest in Nordic ingredients and cooking is making its way from high-level restaurants into the marketplace, changing how people shop and cook.
I carefully avoided eating anything more, and eventually headed to dinner at Geist, which faces Kongens Nytorv square. This is a more formal neighborhood, surrounded by palace gardens and the Royal Danish Theater. And Geist is of a different breed of restaurants than pretty much anything else in town. It was designed by Space, the same Copenhagen-based firm that put the woolly throws on the wooden chairbacks at Noma. Where that room is restful, Geist is revved-up. It feels like a flashy London restaurant, with none of the earthy, delicate qualities I’d come to expect here. It is a sleek and sexy machine in shades of swank grays and shiny black. The food, like the finishes, is stark and muscular.
A gigantic, L-shaped black bar seats 30 and surrounds a mostly black and shiny kitchen theater at the center of which Bo Bech performs nightly. The chef is, like that chicken, world-famous in Denmark. He looks as steely as his gleaming induction stoves, plating at a central station while around him an agile team of gray-smocked cooks pull an impressive range of things from sous vide baths, steam ovens, and simmering pots. The kitchen machine is, as Puglisi would say, hammering.
The food walks the line between sumptuous and brutalist, usually to good effect. Some of the dishes are monochrome: two gargantuan stalks of white asparagus dressed sparingly in a creamy white sauce on a black plate. Others are warming and direct: a rich potato purée with crabmeat, spooned up with a salty cloud of aerated butter; smoked eel with translucently thin shavings of cauliflower. Order a coffee and you get a big Einstein’s-head of white cotton candy on the side.
Bech’s cooking style seems rooted less in a Nordic culinary philosophy and more on a precise methodology: find great local ingredients, put a couple of them together in interesting pairings, cook them well, salt liberally, and get them onto the plate with a minimum of distracting fuss. Sit at the bar, order as many courses as you care to eat. It’s modern restaurant cooking distilled to its elemental core. The food’s not aim-for-the-fences ambitious or head-scratchingly brainy. It’s engineered to please, and in that sense seems as timely as anything happening in the city.
One of the hallmarks of a city made for wandering is that the view is constantly changing, never dull. Copenhagen is Denmark’s prettiest puzzle of islands and bridges, houseboat-lined canals and man-made urban lakes, twee red houses slumping into their ancient foundations and stately Rococo palaces. Walk long enough and you’ll find yourself alone on a quiet canal, with only a seagull for company and an empty tugboat bearing the motto it’s only love give it away. Turn a few corners and here comes the Band of the Royal Danish Life Guards, stomping down the block in bibs and chin-strapped hats, banging their drums and blowing trumpets in the rain. (Come to think of it, I’ve never not seen a marching band in Copenhagen.)
It can be hard to see how the pieces fit together, different neighborhoods imprinting memories of distinct cities. Some places feel like different planets. One evening I walked to the address I’d written down for dinner and found myself facing the Danish national football stadium. The restaurant Geranium is affixed incongruously to the eighth floor of this arena, looking very much like it just crash-landed from Planet Fine Dining. All the cooks in the giant mission-control kitchen wear towering white toques. Their leader is Rasmus Kofoed, a chef who won the Bocuse d’Or competition, the “world cup” of chefs cooking things people don’t actually eat. If this achievement happens to slip your mind, your waiter will certainly remind you when he invites you to visit Kofoed’s gold, bronze, and silver trophies proudly displayed in the spotless kitchen.
What can I say about the food that emanated from this trophy room? It was flawless in its way. Precisely composed, good-tasting, lacking only a soul. There were no missteps, except that for me the entire enterprise felt misguided, empty. The actors knew their lines but the play was exquisitely boring. And the experience was hideously expensive. There is a menu called, without a wink, “our total universe tasting menu” (see, these betoqued visitors have crossed the universe!), which costs more than $500.
At the end of a very long meal, after we’d been treated to many explanations about the house specialties, after we’d been presented with the side of lamb bacon and lectured on the ways it would enhance a dish called “herb garden,” after we’d been shown the golden trophies and instructed to drink a glass of milk with one of the desserts, after we’d paid the staggering bill and were ready to leave this kitchen stadium—after all that, the waiter offered one last treat.
“Would you like to take a tour of our wine cave?”
“Not really, thank y—”
“Perfect, right this way…”
But the spaceship was the rigid, retrograde exception that proved Copenhagen’s groovy rule. A few days later I returned to Noma for a visit to a very different vessel where a more compelling form of culinary futurism is being practiced. The Nordic Food Lab is run out of a boat docked on a quay next to the restaurant. Redzepi helped found the independent institute in the summer of 2011. He introduced us to Lars Williams, a tall, tattooed, friendly American who heads up research and development for the lab. “If the Vikings still existed, they would look just like Lars,” Redzepi said.
For the next hour or so Williams and Redzepi ran around the boat pulling out experiments in various stages of development for us to taste and smell. We sampled garum, that seasoning of the ancient Romans, made from fermented herring. Aged yellow peas that had been turned into a kind of Scandinavian miso paste—pungent, delicious, and confusing. We sipped buckwheat fermented in the manner of sake. They’ve developed a seaweed cheese. All the lab’s findings are made public in the hopes that big food companies will take up the task of using more of the edible landscape. Williams put a frozen canister into a Pacojet and whipped up seaweed ice cream.
“Fun stuff happens here,” Redzepi said.
When or how all of this inventiveness will appear on restaurant menus or supermarket shelves, it’s impossible to say. One thing Redzepi has accomplished that won’t go away soon is to push fine dining away from an idea of stuffy luxury and nudge it toward his own style of lyric naturalism. There’s an anti-fussy elegance to the new Nordic approach, and I hope it’s catching.
I asked Redzepi why he sends the chefs out to introduce their dishes. “There is something important in that idea of putting two hands forward and saying: ‘Here is something we made, we hope you like it.’ The essence of a restaurant is a sensation of giving.”
Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.