But first things first. Hotdogs, they’re everywhere. Anyone who knows me knows that I cannot physically, mentally or emotionally walk by any street sausage without checking it out. Fukuoka frankfurters, grilled spicy Isan sausages in Chiang Mai, NYC dirty water dawgs, if it’s processed meat in tube form I’m all over it. The Steff Houlberg ones in the baggage reclaim hall at CPH sets the tone perfectly. The original polser hotdog is soft and juicy, sweet pickles, crispy shallot, ketchup/mustard/remoulade and a bun that offers little resistance. The platonic ideal of a hotdog. The big red spicy is pretty good too. I think in general if you try too hard to pimp a hotdog then it doesn’t work. Leave the bread alone, ciabatta rolls are not clever and way too chewy.
Arriving Friday afternoon, I was two dogs down before dinner at Amass. An unpromising taxi ride through a half-built housing project leads to a spit of land where the ex-warehouse in which Amass resides. You step up to the restaurant into a dimly lit antechamber, past dark fixtures and an impressively large meat cabinet to a mezzanine overlooking a massive concrete room. Stepping down into the body of the restaurant, you notice that the room oozes quality design. What was once an empty concrete space is now a warm and comfortable dining room. One side completely glazed overlooking the garden and water (I assume in the dark night), the opposite side containing the kitchen. A large street art mural dominates a third side and utilities occupy the fourth. With a private dining area and offices on the mezzanine, the open plan perfection of the place shows why the whole world covets Scandinavian interior design. The greeting, the sense of warmth and hospitality in all of the restaurants we ate in was just impeccable. Every single server and chef we met was just so friendly, preferential treatment due to YKL and YSL not withstanding, I felt the dining experience in all of them was some of the best I’ve ever encountered.
So it was in Amass the dichotomy between the food and everything else was stark. I had some preconceptions about New Nordic cuisine, the locavore, seasonal ethos reminded very much of Japanese Kaiseki. My only reticence would be in the Scandinavian winter how these principles would look on the plate. Those fears were realised in Amass. With the exception of one dish and the bread I didn’t find anything that was delicious. Interesting dishes, yes, even some seasoning issues. The first dish of celeriac and salted apple actually quite bland where I expected a jolt of sharp acidity there was little to wake the palette. House bread is a griddled fermented potato number, addictively tasty and a constant source of deliciousness throughout the meal. Squid was lifted with sweet sharp bursts of black garlic, but the following dishes were quite forgettable until the carrot dish. Concentrated carrots, swimming in a carrot fudge, caramelised curd, walnut crumb and dehydrated rose. The taste and aroma of this dish was remarkable, heady and sweet like lokum but savoury and sharp with the walnut and curd. Pig blood and lardo next was overly salty then the main of wild goose although hung for two weeks was quite tasteless. I’d have liked any kind of funky gaminess to make it memorable. The desserts were worthy but dull. So although the dining experience was very enjoyable the food fell short of it. Especially visually, it was unimaginative.
So expectations for lunch next day at Relæ were tempered. Sitting in the middle of the most hipster street in Copenhagen, Jægersborggade, Relæ exudes cosy blonde panelled warmth. The food at Relæ was light compared to Amass dark. Maybe it’s the Mediterranean influence but I much preferred the style and execution of the dishes here. A couple of snacks, celery root with sorrel was crisp and soothing countering the rich fried artichoke that arrived next. The first dish proper, soft silky leek like the smoothest pasta draped over oysters was stunning. The vinaigrette cutting through the dish deliciously. I’d heard a lot about the awesome sourdough in Copenhagen and this from Mirabelle bakery was the first example of it. A moist though not gummy crumb, great crust and flavour. Intricately layered roast pumpkin with hazelnut was almost too delicate to destroy. Freshly shaved Alba truffle on enoki mushroom “risotto” with aged parmesan and grilled onion puree was an umami bomb, a classic showstopper and as an extra dish it was extra special. Chicken broth preceded just cooked chicken with cabbage. Great aged chicken flavour with a crispy chicken skin crumb. The cheese course was an unpronounceable Danish washed rind blue, warmed in a bowl dressed with herbs, we scraped every last morsel with the sourdough. The only flat point was dessert, a potato ice cream affair complete with deep fried potato straws. It tasted of potatoes. Let’s leave it at that! We ate the shorter 4 course lunch menu with noma booked for dinner we thought it wise. Next time it has to be the longer menu, Relæ is a brilliant restaurant.
The pioneers of New Nordic cuisine, noma, it’s influence is all over the city. Every restaurant we go to is filled with its alumni. It doesn’t stop at the city borders, restaurants in Europe and North America have looked at what noma have been doing and fallen in love with it. In our own city, the very staid French influenced restaurant Simpsons has made a remarkable transformation to Scandinavian cool to keep ahead of the Michelin inspectors. Where once sauces were finished with cream, chefs are now thinking sod the sauce let’s pickle some elderflowers.
It’s an interesting rather than delicious start to the tasting menu. A vivid crispy purple disc of fermented plums was mouth puckering sour. The compressed apple in aquavit again sharp and unusual with fermented sea buckthorn. Beet tartar with the infamous ants dotting the surface was pleasant enough but the creeping thought that maybe the whole meal will be “interesting rather than delicious” was looming. Things picked up with a cabbage leaf duo, one seemingly raw hiding another grilled. The bowl smeared with parsley, a white currant dressing and grasshopper garum! Interesting and delicious. The next dish was for me a perfect dish, charred and fresh shoots and leaves sitting on a plate smeared with scallop fudge, a kind of oyster sauce made from scallops. We’re encouraged to use our fingers to drag the greenery through the sauce. The balance and taste of this dish was sensational. If the group of diners behind us weren’t dressed in black tie I would have picked my plate up and licked it clean. The noma sourdough, just as good as Relæ but with a thinner crisper crust, did the job as did the virgin butter that accompanied it.
So finally lift off! A simple grilled onion was painstakingly dissected and put back together for our dining delight. Fresh Norwegian sea urchin, milder in flavour than the shouty iodiney warm water ones but a lot creamier and richer tasting was brilliantly matched with shaved fresh walnuts. The most Japanese dish of the night came in the form of raw squid and kelp. The squid had that aged quality that makes it sticky but develops so much more flavour. Mahogany clams can supposedly live for centuries, the gorgeous simplicity of the presentation again shows how noma has been influenced by its Japan residency. The clam itself has a muted flavour only lifted a little by the dehydrated samphire on the rim. The most visually stunning dish of shaved monkfish liver followed. Sitting atop of thin rye toast, the shockingly cold liver has been compared to the foie gras of the sea. It melts deliciously on your tongue with a fishy richness. I’m Cantonese, I do fish offal.
Two subtle understated dishes. One of pumpkin, beech nut and caviar. Mellow sweet pumpkin contrasts nicely with caviar and a milky tangy sauce. The other an egg yolk in fermented beef fat, potatoes and nasturtium had a great flavour but for me the egg was too waxy like the inside of a moon cake. I always prefer a soft yolk. I thought we’d reached peak seafood earlier with the monkfish liver but we were offered a very special sampling of cured trout roe because of the YKL connection. It was pure seafood umami, like a cross between bottarga and mentaiko made into fruit pastilles. Black leaves, delicately folded with a texture like liquorice had an intense black garlic flavour accented by elderflower and white currants. Unique and beautiful.
The main was placed ceremoniously into the centre of our table, a whole roasted wild duck on hay. The breast carved into slithers and reassembled. So stunning that a diner from the corner of the room came over to photograph it! To accompany the duck were dressed cabbage leaves, which we were encouraged to use like peking duck pancakes. The combination was wonderful. Whilst the duck was whisked away to be carved, a pan of truffled aebleskiver appeared to fill our noses with their heady scent. Light, airy and stuffed with parsley and lovage. The duck returned, head split in two, legs jointed, thigh meat sliced, heart, liver and neck cut into nibbles alongside pickled and fermented cherries and elderflowers and Nordic ketchup. We dove in. This must be the ultimate way to eat wild duck and a prelude to what the new noma must have in mind when they relocate in 2017.
A delicate herby lemony crisp sitting atop kelp ice cream was refreshing. Followed by an airy marshmallow of ‘Gammel Dansk’ flavours, like Fernat Branca, was supernaturally light and we were thankful for it. Forest flavours and egg liquor finished the meal. “Interesting” woodland flavoured chocolate and reindeer moss leaving us with the impression of Norse countryside rather than delicious petits-fours.
So all in all, the cooking was faultless. Some of the initial snacks were not to my taste but when it got going, the grilled vegetables and the seafood in particular were some of the best and most interesting I’ve ever had. The duck main speaks for itself. Desserts were more “IRTD”. Not being a wine expert, I found the half flight of organic wine unchallenging and perfectly matched the food and my mood. The whole dining experience though was second to none, every one we met was a joy.
After our meal we had a slice of birthday cake and got a tour of the kitchen, the prep kitchen and the development kitchen. There was a great spirit in the kitchens from all the chefs. Before we jumped into our taxi back, Stuart, our Danish sounding Geordie sous chef insisted on a round of schnapps to protect us from the cold. Skol!
24hours after noma we were dining at Bror. So obviously we had time to snack on pastries, hotdogs and tacos* in the daytime. Bror is the most casual of the four restaurants, you can tell by the tableware and plating only because the food here is just as good as anywhere else. Infamous for it’s crispy dicks and bulls balls snacks, these are actually quite tame in flavour. The ball fritters had a texture like Asian fish cakes and thinly sliced deep fried dicks had a delicate melting quality like very light prawn crackers. Four seafood snacks; clams wrapped in leek to resemble mini spring rolls, gelatinous cod throats in squid ink, smoked cod roe and deeply savoury mussel broth had us purring. Moose tartar with watercress and horseradish was accompanied by roasted reindeer marrow bone that had the texture of hard boiled egg white. The last of the snacks (yes!) was a barely roasted cod head, full of wobbly goodness, we scraped every last bit clean.
First of the main dishes was pickled herring and beetroot, so fresh and clean. This was followed by the softest squid sitting in buttery mash studded with pickled potatoes and a vivid parsley sauce. The whole lot was blanketed by potato crisps. Simple sounding, squid, potato and parsley but the techniques, textures and balance of flavours in that one dish were excellent. Pigeon, simply presented with a morsel of its heart and liver and cavalo nero had the finest pigeon flavour possible. I love pigeon, especially squab pigeon, but more often than not the flavour is bland. I think chefs like to put it on the menu because it looks dramatic and gives the impression or at least a nod to traditional game. Here the pigeon tasted intensely sweet and gamey but tender and yielding. Reinforcing my opinion that done right it’s the best tasting of all game birds.
Pig blood brownie had that unmistakeable metallic tang as an aftertaste, I was thankful for the quince ice cream. Definitely IRTD. The bone marrow creme brûlée with lingonberry sorbet was one of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten. After the first bite I had no doubt I’d be trying to recreate it at home. Watch this space. The final dessert of yoghurt ice cream sitting atop reindeer moss and various berries and grains was IRTD. So you can’t win them all!
If I were to judge Copenhagen dining purely by these four restaurants then I would say it’s in rude health. Amass aside I found it very much to my taste, interesting, inventive and delicious. Noma was as good as I hoped it would be. Bror came a close second for me then Relae very close behind. I can imagine on a next visit, it could easily be a different order. They are all excellent restaurants. But what really stood out for me was the hospitality and warmth of them all, that will be the lasting impression of my first visit to Copenhagen.
*tacos at Hija de Sanchez
I love a taco. A proper taco, made with fresh corn tortilla. At Hija de Sanchez at Torvehallerne Market they do it properly. Owned by another ex-noma chef Rosario Sanchez, she starts with grinding corn imported directly from Mexico. It makes all the difference. We don’t do tacos properly here in the UK. Seriously, a taco is half tortilla so if you’re reheating something that you haven’t made yourself then how good is your taco going to be? The prepackaged corn tortillas are always dry and taste like cardboard. The lengua (beef tongue) taco here was seriously one of the best things I ate in Copenhagen. I was a little bit disappointed it wasn’t available the next day. They’re a lot better than the pastor tacos. I’d go back just to eat these again.