Earlier in the afternoon, as we finished an epic lunch at noma, the last thing I thought I wanted or needed that night was another epic meal. It has been awhile since I was in my twenties with an insatiable appetite, but that evening was the only chance I would have to dine at Restaurant AOC, a restaurant that had come highly recommended by a number of experienced diners. I would be joined by two fellow noma luncheoneers, Chef Scott Boswell and his lovely wife, Tanya. My wife and son opted out. In addition, we would be joined by the Copenhagen food blogger par excellence and the principal source of my Copenhagen dining info, Trine Lai of the blog verygoodfood. No, as much as I didn't need another big meal, I was still too curious about the restaurant and too excited to meet Trine. I would take this one for the team.
Wisely, I had made a late reservation (for Copenhagen) of 9PM. Scott, Tanya and I arrived right on time to find Trine waiting for us in the lounge drinking some bubbly. We quickly joined her and some lounge snacks soon followed, including potato crisps with summer truffles. As we started enjoying the snacks, I discovered a friend, Robert Millman and his wife sitting at a nearby table, already well into their meal. After a brief chat, we all resumed our respective meals.
The room at AOC, located in a vaulted cellar of a 300 year old building, is intimate and light with white walls graced by simple, but colorful artwork. The table settings were spare, but of elegant Danish design. The overall effect was surprisingly Mediterranean, light, elegant, intimate, romantic and extremely comfortable. The kitchen is open and visible from the entrance, but it is set out of direct sight from the bulk of the dining room.
The remaining snacks, including one who's description I didn't catch and another of oyster leaves with a drop of red wine vinegar on top were well presented, especially the oyster leaves which were floating on water in a vase layered with stones and sea shells and fished out with a special instrument that looked as if it might be useful for blowing soap bubbles, but ultimately neither was particularly novel nor especially delicious. They were acceptable starter snacks, but they left me with an initial feeling that perhaps all the praise I had heard for this restaurant may have been exaggerated. Fortunately, I did not let this unexceptional beginning close my mind to the remainder of the meal.
We were led to our table in a quiet corner of this quiet restaurant. From this point on, I began to understand why this restaurant has generated the praise that it has. At the table, we were served one last snack, “Salted Shrimp with Salicornia.” We were instructed to take the shrimp and salicornia together and pass them through hot mayonnaise, then a crumble of potatoes and Parmesan. This dish was both beautifully presented and delicious. The shrimp were cooked perfectly and sweet. The tide had turned. At this point I felt my appetite starting to perk up.
Fried brioche with salted butter. A good bread service can elevate a meal. This fried brioche was simply decadent, crisp on the outside, still warm and silky soft on the inside with great, yeasty flavor and voluptuous butter. Often an afterthought, this was a particularly good bread service.
It was the next dish, though, that really started to show just what this restaurant is capable of. Mackerel pickled in hay with green tomatoes, fresh almond and dill was one of the most strikingly beautiful dishes I've seen and one of the most strikingly delicious dishes I've had. Minimalist in color and modern in design, the visual effect was almost as striking as the gustatory one. Hay has become one of the hottest ingredients of the past year or two, but I've not had it put to better effect than in this dish with the ash of hay used in a brine for the wonderful, fresh mackerel. Balanced with the pickled green tomatoes and a sauce of buttermilk with dill oil, this dish was ecstasy with every bite, one of the top two or three dishes I've had this year. The dish was clean, pure, elegant and perfectly calibrated with every bite -very serious food. Paired with 2008 Chablis Vieilles Vignes Domaine des Iles, Gerard Tremblay, Bourgogne, I suddenly understood the reputation AOC has earned for their wine pairing acumen. My appetite was now stimulated and my taste buds had been rejuvenated.
The next dish, Veal, slightly frozen with egg yolk cream and bleek roe was again delightful and very, very clever. Bleek is a kind of trout. The dish well balanced. The high quality roe worked well with the silky, cold veal. The presentation, as with all the dishes, was simply beautiful with a bit of mystery to it, as the shaved veal hid the roe beneath. The pairing with 2007 Riesling Heimbourg from Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Alsace, was marvelous. Many wines pair well, but sometimes leave a little lacking when drunk on their own. Most Zind Humbrecht wines, including this one, pair extremely well and stand up on their own, as well. Restaurant A.O.C. did an exceptional job throughout the dinner of serving wines that matched their food beautifully, but were still fantastic on their own.
The viniferous magic continued into the next course with a wonderful Champagne, 2002 Grande Sendrée Drappier, a small, but superb producer. It was paired with Quail egg and oysters with cauliflower and parsley, a dish that played off the Arpege egg classic. It was served in a special earthenware “egg” that appeared to have it's top taken off and surrounded by additional earthenware “eggs.” It was a very elegant presentation of a very elegant, rich and delicious dish.
Danish lobster with carrots and flowers of rose hips, another beautiful dish, was paired with a Prager 2008 Gruner Veltliner Achleiten Smaragd from Wachau in Austria. The rose hips were pickled adding a nice level of acidity to the lobster (lobster, not langoustine) and balance to the wine. This inherently rich dish was cut nicely by the subtle pickling of the rose hips.
Pickling is certainly an important component of Scandinavian cooking and was important in the next dish as well, even in a supporting role. In Grilled Cucumber with small onions and sauce on fried chicken skin, the onions were pickled and provided a good balance to the unusual cucumber and the rich, crisp chicken skin. The dish was well paired with a slightly sweet Cuvee "K" Pinot Gris 2008 from Paul Kubler in Alsace.
How can one go wrong with pork cheeks? I can probably think of a few ways, but "Pork Cheeks with Gem Lettuce and Puree of Unripe Apples" as served at A.O.C. is not one of them. This was another brilliantly balanced and beautiful dish with another wonderful pairing, the slightly chilled 2008 Pinot Noir from Dog Point in Marlborough, New Zealand. This wine is made by the former winemaker of Cloudy Bay and while full of jammy fruit, it was also replete with good acidity to complement the rich, slow-cooked pork cheeks. The pork had been seared at the end of its slow-cooking. The dish was finished with a brown-butter based sauce. The aroma of brown butter added a special allure and was somewhat reminiscent of the Beef Cheek and Verbena, Pear and Endive dish that we had eaten earlier that day at lunch. Other than the fact that the main protein was from the cheek, the aroma of brown butter in both dishes really tied them together. In addition the pear in the noma dish and the unripe apple puree in the current dish provided another point of similarity. The final and most important point of similarity though was that both dishes were quite delicious.
Tenderloin of Beef with Smoked Marrow, Parsley and Beetroot, eyt another beautiful and delicious dish, was paired with a wine with plenty of structure and flavor, the 2007 Arietta Vineyard from the Napa Valley. The wine contained Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot from Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley and Cabernet Franc from the Hudson Vineyard in Carneros in Sonoma. Being somewhat youthful, it had been decanted to open up, which it most definitely did. The beef tenderloin came out essentially hidden by the shaved beetroot, which was folded over the beef like a robe. The smoked marrow added just the right amount of flavor to the tender beef. This was another winner as my cleaned plate in the photo above attests to.
Buttermilk "Iceberg" with White Chocolate and Hazelnuts was paired with the Reisling Auslese 2005 from Brauneberger Juffer Sonneruhr Vineyard from Weingut Fritz Haag in the center of the Mosel Valley. It had nice acidity with sweetness to match the lactic acid tones of the buttermilk of the dessert. Continuing the limited color palettes of the dishes, this dish highlighted various tones of white. The spun sugar iceberg was melted by the addition of the sauce. The flavors sang, not overly sweet, but simply brilliant.
We had another dessert. Blueberries with Elderflower and Lemon paired with a 1990 Chateau de Fargues Sauterne from 70-80 year old vines was a superb way to bring the meal to a close. The visual elements of the food at A.O.C. are extremely important. They are elaborately prepared without being excessive, leaving a false impression of simplicity, such as this dessert, which was brought to the table looking like a simple dome of chocolate with powdered ground blueberries sprinkled over it. Once opened, the surprisingly soft shell revealed more complex contents. As with the rest of the meal, every component was thought fully through and added something to the dish with the result being a harmonious and utterly beautiful and delicious whole.
The restaurant is owned by Christian Aaro, the three-time Danish champion sommelier, who also runs the wine program at the restaurant. The head chef is Ronny Emborg with Michael Munk the Associate Head Chef. Given the incredible quality of the work, it's a wonder that they are not yet more well known outside of Denmark, though the elBulli and Mugaritz veteran Emborg and his kitchen partner Munk are both only in their twenties. While the cooking at A.O.C. is not directly derivative of elBulli, Mugaritz or any other Spanish restaurant and the ingredients used are clearly Scandinavian, the aesthetic of the plates is more reminiscent of Spain than it is of Scandinavia. The result is an extraordinary amalgam of original design, flavor and ambiance.
I may not have wanted or needed another epic meal after that amazing lunch at noma, but I'm sure glad that I didn't pass on it, a mistake I may have made even despite my curiosity about the restaurant, had it not been my opportunity to meet Trine in person. Restaurant A.O.C. is yet another restaurant that should be a must for anyone visiting Copenhagen, even if it has to be after a lunch at noma.