PAUSTIAN Nordic fusion reaches its giddy apex at Danish chef Bo Bech's new restaurant, housed inside the landmark Paustian furniture showroom (designed in 1987 by Jørn Utzon of Sydney Opera House fame). The dining room is a marvel, with gallery-white walls and dramatically pitched, 20-foot-high ceilings, from which clusters of globe lamps dangle like planets in a space museum. The airy restaurant holds a mere 11 tables, each with a view of the open kitchen, where Bech assembles his far-out creations.
The show kicks off with some tasty snacks: shards of fried tapioca dusted with anise; a container of fried (raw) spaghetti sticks, to dip in olive-oil mayonnaise; ink-black crisps of malt, to plunge into celery sauce; and some luscious, licorice-studded bread. (Not even my grandmother considered making licorice bread.) What follows is more Kandinsky painting than food: a square white plate brushed with avocado purée, swirled with almond oil, and speckled with French caviar. It's shockingly formless: a dish without a base, just unadulterated flavor.
Bech revels in odd juxtapositions. He smokes freshwater eel, then pairs it with kumquats, macadamia nuts, and lychees. Now, I don't particularly like kumquats, nor macadamias, nor lychees, but in this combination, I'm entirely persuaded; the sweet fruits cut through the fat of the fish and offset its brininess. And the finale?A dessert of slightly sour olive-oil sorbet laced with caramelized eggplant. Right—eggplant. As our party oohed and aahed over the mesmerizing flavor, I saw Bech watching and flashing a wild-eyed grin.
NOMA Oaxen's water chestnuts beamed me to Asia; Paustian's macadamias had whisked me to Hawaii. I found myself craving my grandmother's split-pea soup, her pancakes with lingonberries, her homemade lumpa bread—something, anything, to tell me I was in Scandinavia. Had everyone turned their backs on traditional, regional food?
Not everyone. While others embrace the exotic, Copenhagen's Noma is creating a radically modern cuisine using only ingredients from the Nordic countries. "The challenge is that people are accustomed to menus that 'speak gourmet,' " says chef Rene Redzepi. "They want to see foie gras and truffles and artichokes. That tells them it's an ambitious, upscale restaurant." Redzepi aims to redefine Scandinavian cooking on its own terms—and its own terrain. He has built his own network of farmers, hunters, fishermen, and foragers from Lapland to the Faeroe Islands. "There are occasional problems with shipping," the chef admits. "When we got our first musk ox from Greenland, Danish customs had no idea what to do with it. They didn't even know what it was." Musk ox, related to the buffalo, has the sweetness of venison and the texture of goat; it has since become Noma's signature dish, topped with its own gelatinous marrow and paired with spring and pearl onions.
Redzepi and his crew have devised some convincing Nordic interpretations of non-Nordic foods. Salted baby elderberries stand in for capers in a spicy sauce for baked turbot. In lieu of rice or couscous, the chef grinds up some cauliflower. Throughout the meal, the underlying tastes are pure Scandinavia: pickled, cured, salty, sweet, and, above all, resoundingly earthy. Root vegetables—beets, radishes, turnips, celeriacs—play a major role. The meal begins with dried strips of Icelandic seaweed and a mayonnaise made from langoustine coral. Rye kernels are pounded and baked into a pappadum-style flatbread. Sweetbreads are glazed in hoppy beer, then lathered with celery foam and flavored with malt.
Noma, which was awarded a Michelin star this spring, is tucked inside North Atlantic House, a new cultural center devoted to the Nordic countries and colonies, carved out of a 19th-century warehouse in Christianshavn. Torches mark the restaurant entrance; animal hides are draped over wooden chairs; whitewashed oak beams line the ceiling. Rough-hewn and rustic, it's the antithesis of the modernScandinavian dining room.
Redzepi has done stints at French Laundry and El Bulli and previously worked at Copenhagen's Kong Hans, a bastion of avant-garde cuisine. "I spent years cooking with anything under the sun," he laughs. "Honestly, it's easier this way. The restrictions give it focus. Now there's a logic to what we do, and a natural fit between the ingredients."
Recently, Noma was the site for a conference on the future of Scandinavian cooking. An elite cadre of chefs from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland gathered to devise a manifesto for "New Nordic Cuisine." Though the participants did agree on a few buzzwords—salient among them individuality, freshness, and purity—the question, What is Nordic cuisine?was never answered. Happily, I can't imagine them concurring on that one.