Copenhagen has evolved into a truly world class restaurant city. Everyone who is seriously interested in food now knows noma, Rene Redzepi's New Scandinavian tour de force restaurant that has set the culinary world on fire. The truth is, noma is good enough, that if one could get a reservation, it would be worth traveling to Copenhagen just for a dinner or a lunch there, however, it would be a mistake to travel all the way to Copenhagen and not venture beyond noma.
I had first become aware of Rene Redzepi and noma late in 2006 when reports of this amazing new restaurant in Copenhagen began filtering through on eGullet, led by my friend, Gabe Quiros. At that point neither Copenhagen nor the rest of Scandinavia were high on my culinary tourism wish list. It's not that I didn't think there would be any good food, but up until that time I hadn't been particularly aware of anything or anyone to draw me there. Fast forward to January 2008 in Madrid, Spain, when the culinary revolution that had been fermenting in Scandinavia was recognized at Madrid Fusión with a special emphasis placed on the new chefs of Scandinavia who were building a new cuisine based upon Scandinavian tradition and the resurrection or adoption of impeccable ingredients from Scandinavia. Even then, Redzepi was noted to be in the forefront of the movement. He had become known for foraging for new and special ingredients from around all of Scandinavia and applying to them techniques from the Spanish Vanguard and beyond. Despite his ability to embrace vanguard techniques, Redzepi's cuisine remained more focused on product quality and presentation than a showy display of technology for its own sake. His was a quest to build a new cuisine, maintaining successful elements from Denmark's culinary traditions, while adding his own touches.
What I learned in Madrid, though, was that Redzepi was not alone. Other chefs in Scandinavia, primarily in Sweden & Denmark, had also been working to craft a new Scandinavian cuisine. There was already plenty of Scandinavian culinary tradition, but when it came to fine dining, French cuisine predominated. There had been no shortage of fine French dining, especially in the region's capitols. This has been reflected since the 1980's by Scandinavia's extraordinary record in the biennial Bocuse D'Or competition in Lyon, France. Scandinavia has produced many medals and a number of winners including the most recent, Geier Skeie of Norway. In recent years, though, led by Redzepi and others, this new high profile, elegant, regional cuisine developed bestowing a regional culinary identity to be proud of.
Three and a half days of determined dining are hardly enough to make more than a dent in Copenhagen's marvelous dining scene, especially when one dinner and a lunch are devoted to noma, but we made the best of it. The amazing part is that in that time we did not have a bad bite. In fact, everything was rather excellent and that was not limited to the restaurants one would expect. From the full-flavored and crunchy hot dog in French bread, exquisite frites and perfectly prepared and seasoned half chicken from a small non-descript vendor at Tivoli Gardens to a deceptively simple, yet extraordinarily delicious open face sandwich of boiled potatoes, parsley and mayonnaise on rye bread from a little coffee shop near noma called Sweet Treats to the top temples of cooking, the food satisfied. I would never have typically ordered something like the potatoes on rye (too many carbs), but it had specifically been recommended by Rene Redzepi himself. It was good enough that with a little additional refinement it would not have been out of place at noma.
Noma was as sensational as expected (perhaps even a bit more). On my first full day in Copenhagen, Chef Scott Boswell of New Orleans restaurants Stella! and Stanley (he and his lovely wife, Tanya flew over to Copenhagen to share the experience with my wife, my son and I) spent the latter part of the morning and the beginning part of the afternoon at noma, getting a tour from Chef Redzepi and getting a behind the scenes look at how the restaurant is able to do what it does. Chef Boswell and I were fortunate enough to return that evening for an incredible dinner featuring the recent dishes from the restaurant, many of which highlighted the kitchen's talents with herbs, vegetables and fruit. The following day, inspired by the legendary bon vivant and nomaphile, “Food Snob,” we returned along with our wives and my son for an incredible lunch featuring dishes from noma's recent history. This was a more protein-centric meal. For the dinner, I indulged in the very well chosen wine pairings, but for the lunch, I opted to try their juice pairings instead with juices made by the kitchen. I didn't regret any of the choices.
While Chef Boswell and I were enjoying dinner at noma, our wives and my son were enjoying their dinner at Kodbyens Fiskebaren, a highly regarded seafood restaurant not too far from our hotel. With great fish and seafood, Fiskebaren is a restaurant I would have loved to try for myself, but I will have to wait for my next visit to Copenhagen.
Restaurant A.O.C., which had recently been awarded a Michelin star had the dubious distinction of following noma as our evening dinner destination. Not as culinarily masochistic as myself, my wife and son did not join us for that. Instead, Trine from the blog, very good food, from whom I garnered much of my Copenhagen restaurant information, did. Following noma or not, AOC provided extraordinary New Scandinavian fine dining in an elegant, but still relaxed setting.
Though it was the New Scandinavian cooking that attracted me to come to Scandinavia in the first place, we did not limit ourselves to that. Kiin Kiin is one of only two Thai restaurants in the world with a Michelin star. To say that it was the finest Thai dining experience I've ever had would not sufficiently indicate how marvelous the food there is. While the food is clearly creative haute Thai and indelibly bound to that culinary tradition, it is simply a wonderful restaurant without any additional qualifiers needed. That it was such a great experience the night of our arrival made it even more impressive. Similarly, other non-Scandinavian restaurants in Copenhagen share Kiin Kiin's fine reputation. With more time, I would have loved to explore these as well.
Fine French influenced dining is not dead either, despite the ascendance of the New Scandinavian paradigm. We had our final lunch in Copenhagen at the Michelin starred restaurant Herman at the Nimb Hotel at Tivoli Gardens. The restaurant was lovely in every way and Thomas Herman's French influenced food was more than worth a visit during a limited Copenhagen itinerary.
With more time, I would have included restaurant's like The Paul in Tivoli Gardens and Sollerod Kro just outside of Copenhagen. There were also a few restaurants that I had been extremely interested in that had either recently closed such as MR and Bo Bech's Paustian and those that have not yet opened including Christian Puglisi's Relae (now open) and 2011 Danish Bocuse D'Or contestant* Rasmus Kofoed's Geranium II. Noma is the biggest culinary draw in the city and will likely remain so as long as Rene Redzepi can keep his focus and interest centered there, but even without noma, Copenhagen would be a world class restaurant city. It's not too soon to start thinking about a return!
Rasmus Kofoed won the Bocuse D'Or bronze medal in 2005 & the silver in 2007. He did not represent Denmark in 2009.