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Eat: Great Danes

In recent years Copenhagen has become one of the gourmet capitals of the world, thanks to a number of experimental chefs whose culinary creations have helped redefine the city.

Eat: Great Danes
Nyhavn Canal. Image: Amiel/Alamy.

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Like all diners at Noma in Copenhagen I’ve chomped my way through table ornaments (snails and nasturtiums displayed in a glass vase), eaten langoustine off a flat rock and radish leaves out of a plant pot, and used a hunting knife to butcher deer served with wild foods (chick weed, fiddlehead fern, grape leaf) that might have comprised its diet.

These are some of the quirky touches that saw Noma take top spot at the S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards in 2011 and propelled head chef René Redzepi into the limelight as a champion of foraging and local sourcing taken to Nordic extremes. He’s put the Danish capital on the gourmet map, helped by the likes of Rasmus Koefoed (voted the world’s best chef by Bocuse d’Or) at Geranium, Paul Cunningham (formerly of The Paul, which closed last September) and Andrea Guglielmi at Era Ora. The city now boasts 11 Michelin stars split between 10 globally acclaimed restaurants; the only downside being it’s hard to book a table at any of them.

At The Paul, it was only the benevolence of Cunningham — who found me a sliver of space at the bar — that let me sample his swan-song dishes, which included veal with wild mushrooms, marinated rhubarb and samphire, sprinkled with coffee dust; scallops on a bed of pak choi with mango spaghetti, sesame toast and oyster sauce; and monkfish discs dotted with green strawberries, sorrel and fresh wild mint. Over a glass of botrytis-sweet Jurançon dessert wine, Cunningham shared his tips for getting a flavour of the city’s culinary idiom without breaking the bank or waiting weeks for a table.

I took his advice and on one cold morning, I set off from Tivoli Gardens — the kitsch amusement park in the city centre — along Vesterbrogade to the Town Hall, the dour gothic building chiefly known for its appearances with Sarah Lund in cult Danish TV series The Killing. Heading for Nyhaven, I stopped for a mid-morning smørrebrød (open sandwich) at Ida Davidsen, Denmark’s best-known purveyor of slices of buttered ryebread heaped with toppings. Displayed in a glass case, variations include the ‘Princess Alexandra’ (salmon, cream cheese, wasabi paste, salmon roe, crayfish tails and sprigs of dill); ‘Union Jack’ (beef tartar, Atlantic prawns arranged in a cross, and a plastic eggshell filled with yolk in which to dip each morsel); ‘SAS’ (beef tartar, caviar and smoked salmon), named after the Scandinavian airline rather than the military unit; and ‘Pyramid prawns’, piled three tiers deep.

From Nyhaven I took the hop on, hop off canal boat (a sort of floating open-top bus) along winding backwaters lined with houseboats and under low bridges to Christianshavn — famous for its ‘free community’ of Christiania — Europe’s biggest squat or a vibrant artists’ enclave, depending on your politics. Next to the canal boat stop is Lagkagehuset (‘the Layer Cake House’), a city institution and the place to go for coffee and cake. Choose from snegl (the classic Danish, covered in icing), kanelgifler (rolled pastry dusted with cinnamon), flødebolle (coconut-dusted pyramids), jordbaer taerte (strawberry tart) or even the Sarah Bernhard, suggestive of a chocolate breast with a hazelnut for a nipple. Well, this is Christiania after all.

After an hour or two, I returned to Nyhavn for a late lunch, a kind of trial by omega-3 at quayside restaurant Nyhavns Faergekro. Quaffing a Tuborg beer at a sunny outdoor table, I prepared myself for a 10-course herring banquet, with dishes ranging from strongly flavoured crown herring (marinaded in sandalwood, like a deep red curry) and sol over Gudhjem (‘sun over God’s home’ — with an egg yolk broken over it) to rollmops in a creamy sauce containing chopped apple. It’s a fascinating ritual: collecting each dish from the buffet, sprinkling the plate with chives, capers, radishes, red and white onion and shards of batter, then ordering another Tuborg for a spot of Danish courage.

At Vesterbro Bryghus, a microbrewery with a raw brick interior back in the Tivoli Gardens area, beer is the main act not the accompaniment. The first thing you see is a pair of burnished copper stills with a computerised console controlling the brewing on the floor below. Decent food is available, but the best tasting menu comprises five 10cl glasses, each containing one of the beers brewed on the premises. Begin with lager and progress to brown ale.

It’s only two blocks from here to Estate Coffee, opposite the city’s planetarium and lost among the strip clubs, Chinese restaurants and budget hotels of Veterbro. Single-estate coffees include Ipanema Dulce and Rio Verde from the Minas Gerais region of Brazil; Yirgacheffe from Ethiopia; and Kianjokoma, a quality Kenya AA coffee — all available as espresso, ristretto (more concentrated), lungo (long), macchiato (with milk) and cortado (‘cut’ with warm milk) and made in either a French press or a computerised brewing device called a Clover, the only one in Europe.

The barista recommended El Pedregal, a Cup of Excellence winner from Colombia. It was creamy, tangy, almost lemony. The background country and western music aside, I was in coffee connoisseur heaven.

Five Copenhagen food finds

1. Ida Davidsen: Historic restaurant, more like a tea shop, serving smørrebrød (open sandwiches). Store Kongensgade 70. T: 00 45 33 91 36 55. www.idadavidsen.dk
2. Nyhavns Faergekro: Quayside spot renowned for its 10-course herring banquet. Nyhavn 5. T: 00 45 33 15 15 88. www.nyhavnsfaergekro.dk
3. Estate Coffee: Shabby-chic cafe serving coffees sourced direct from suppliers and ‘the orangutang’ (hot chocolate, orange and chilli). Gammel Kongevej 1. T: 00 45 38 11 12 11. www.estatecoffee.dk/english
4. Dansk rygeost: Fresh young cow’s milk cheese smoked over oat straw, from the classy Løgismose deli (Nordre Toldbod 16) and Netto supermarkets.
5. Krydderfedt: Melted, spiced pork fat in a small pot, blended with deep-fried onions and best served with pickled herring, also available at Løgismose.

Four places to eat (and drink) well

Vesterbro Brygus
This bare-brick brewpub is a touristy choice — right opposite Tivoli Gardens — but an education. I ordered a sampler of five beers brewed downstairs, served in 10cl glasses: blond lager (fresh, spicy), amber lager (caramel-malty), red ale (refreshing, slightly bitter), hvede (light wheat beer) and brown ale (with nutty nuances). The food is good, if predictable. I had mussels in white wine, then lamb shank braised in beer with mash, celery, preserved gooseberries and jus.
How much: Five-beer sampler, £6.50; starters, from £10; burgers, £12; mains £20. Vesterbrogade 2B. T: 00 45 33 11 17 05. www.vesterbrobryghus.dk

Noma
René Redzepi has a passion for tradition, but his foraged ingredients (sorrel, buckthorn, juniper, seaweed) are combined with Nordic staples (cod roe, venison, langoustine) in a breathtakingly novel way. Diners cook their own duck egg on smoking hay, then garnish it with ramsons, flowers and herbs; eat radish leaves from a plant pot filled with soil (it is in fact edible ground hazelnut); and delight in such novelties as scallop carpaccio, air-dried and caramelised, or hay-ashed leeks, charred using an ancient Viking method.
How much: Seven courses, £140; wines, £100; 12-course Nassaq (surprise) menu, £170; wines, £120. Strandgade 93. T: 00 45 3296 3297. www.noma.dk

Era Ora
Housed in a dark brown building with just a plaque indicating it’s a Michelin-starred restaurant, Era Ora is discrete outside and Italian baroque inside. Andrea Guglielmi’s food has an Italian accent too — fried polpetta (meatless meatballs) of cod, spinach and lemon; arancino (a baked ball) of pumpkin, taleggio cheese and amaretto powder — though some dishes are more New Nordic. For example, ‘Virgin’ lobster, kaki fruit gelatine and beetroot.
How much: 11 courses, £127; 14 courses, £150; wine, £127 to £865. Overgaden Neden Vandet 33b. T: 00 45 32 54 06 93. www.era-ora.dk

Lagkagehuset
Denmark’s first chain of high-end bakeries, founded in 2008, has 17 outlets but the original and best is on the Christianshavn Canal. The converted pharmacy happens to be right next door to an inspirational deli, Il Buon Gusto. Buy your mussels, veal and tangsalat (seaweed salad) there, then pop next door for a pastry, cake or fruity muffin and an excellent coffee, or pick up a warm loaf of ryebread or sourdough baked in a stone oven.
How much: Pastries and bread, from £2.50; large fruit tarts, £8.50; coffee, £2. Torvegade 45. T: 00 45 32 57 36 07. www.lagkagehuset.dk

Prices per person

Published in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)