Denmark: Tastes of northern wilderness

By Peter Calder

No booking? No problem, writes Peter Calder, who discovers many an alternative in Copenhagen

A dish at Relae restaurant in Copenhagen. Photo / Per-Anders Jorgensen
A dish at Relae restaurant in Copenhagen. Photo / Per-Anders Jorgensen

The world has a new "best" restaurant: in April, the three-Michelin-star El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona in the northeastern corner of Spain, was named the world's best by Restaurant, an elite small-circulation British magazine aimed at chefs and well-heeled fine-dining enthusiasts.

Others heading the list in the past decade are legendary names: The Fat Duck, El Bulli and the French Laundry. And, for the past three years, the top spot was occupied by Noma, in Copenhagen, the flagship of the new Nordic cuisine (it's now relegated to second).

No, alas, this is not to be a report on a visit to Noma (its name is a telescoping of "Nordisk mad", which means Nordic food). I knew only three months ahead of time that I was going to be in Copenhagen in June, and that is far too last-minute to book. The woman who promptly answered my plaintive inquiry a month out said she was happy to put my name on a waiting list for cancellations, but I knew that list runs to several hundred and I suspect she was just being polite.

Happily, eating the new Nordic cuisine is not an experience limited to those who land a Noma booking. A nephew who lives in Copenhagen had directed me to Radio, a few steps from the Forum Metro stop, and Relae, in boho Norrebro, both of which have Noma sous-chef alumni presiding in the kitchen. Each does a degustation of three or four courses at around $80 a head, wine extra, which is a bit more palatable than the $350 you'll pay for the basic Noma experience.

I had arrived in Copenhagen ready to eat out. I had spent a week in Stockholm running scared of the prices - you don't get much change out of $25 for a sandwich and a cup of tea, unless you really go downmarket - so I'd cooked most meals in our little apartment. Fresh asparagus and deliciously sweet boiling potatoes were a summer pleasure for an escapee from a New Zealand winter and if the species' names were unfamiliar, the fish was cheapish and the breads, cheeses and sausages were great.

This last was true of Copenhagen too: it's a city that takes bread seriously, so excellent fresh-baked sourdoughs and molasses-rich dark loaves make a great basis for breakfast and lunches.

But having absorbed the beauty of sundown - and the endless, bright-skied June evenings - over a couple of Carlsbergs, I was in the mood for eating out at night. A first-night punt on Falernum, a wine bar cum super-casual bistro in Frederiksberg, was a success, even if the Professor and I dropped the cool quotient several notches as we walked in.

They had a bit of a thing about New Zealand wines, as it happened, though I didn't recognise the labels; perhaps they'd been rebranded by an importer. And the food was special: a thick, faintly smoky, but very juicy pork cutlet came with a briefly steamed quarter cabbage topped with sinus-clearing freshly grated horseradish. The Prof's sweet-pea and pesto risotto was less original perhaps, but well done.

For a new take on risotto, Relae obliged: baby sunflower seeds in lieu of the rice, fragrant (also miniature) pine needles sprinkled on the top, the lot creamed with a smooth goat's cheese called Kornly, made for 120 years only in Denmark, in the world's oldest dairy co-op.

The various iterations of the mission statement of the new Nordic cuisine sound no more, but no less, banal than the "fresh seasonal ingredients, expertly prepared" that you find on every menu between Donegal and Dunedin, and you won't read it repeated here. But there's no disputing the striking gastronomic achievements in the two places we went to. The essence of it is using wild and foraged foods (albeit that much is grown in restaurants' dedicated gardens) to make for a primeval, but sophisticated, dining experience.

At Radio, we were supremely impressed with a scallop as big as a newborn's fist, which ate like a steak and arrived accompanied by delicately wilted asparagus and olive-oil-soaked crumbs. It was a delight for eye and palate, and a reminder that the frozen Atlantic scallops that arrive on diners' plates here in the off-season are a pale shadow of ones that are cooked the day they are caught.

Other courses were small slices of fallow deer leg - much less gamey and cloying than our venison - with red cabbage and cheese foam, and a quite sensational dessert that combined beetroot and rhubarb with tiny malted meringues.

At Relae (where I enjoyed the sight of the staff eating and drinking up large across the road before opening time) the first course was raw beef with ramsons (a pungent wild leaf also known as wild garlic) and an anchovy dressing. Tiny, sweet, rare slices of wild pork came with nettles, and the same approach as at Radio to dessert was evident in a dish that combined rhubarb and potato with buttermilk.

It's worth saying that there is a vegetarian menu (think egg yolk as a thin blanket over wild radishes) and a juice menu to match the wine menu. If you make it to the city where Noma turns away thousands, these places are a very fine alternative.


Info

restaurant-relae.dk
restaurantradio.dk
falernum.dk

- Herald on Sunday

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