Copenhagen’s Restaurant Revolution

Mikkel Bo / Courtesy Kodbyens Fiskebaren

The best fine dining in Copenhagen.

For the last few years, the restaurant to beat has been Noma, number one for two years running in Restaurant magazine’s ranking of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and the recipient of two Michelin stars. But all champions eventually lose their titles. Their true importance can only be measured once their peak moment passes. What matters for the most ambitious restaurants is legacy. And while the eight-year-old Noma will long be known for its groundbreaking treatment of Nordic cuisine, chef René Redzepi’s Whitmanesque cooking style (contradictions, multitudes) and its deep, doctrinal concern with time and place, what’s most impressive about the operation now is how much force it’s exerting on its city.

Every day around 3:30 p.m. upstairs in the Noma prep kitchen, the restaurant’s crew bustles about, scrubbing surfaces, washing knives, hosing down the floor. Purposeful classic rock—“Ramble On,” “More Than a Feeling”—blares through speakers. Racks of turquoise gull eggs and bunches of hay await attention. For a while it’s all bodies zipping through tasks. The restaurant, which opened with just eight people, now employs 15 cooks and, at any given time, takes on an additional 20 to 30 interns who come to Copenhagen from as far away as Bolivia and Japan to work 17-hour days for free. Then there are the extracurriculars, such as foraging for elderberries to stack three feet high across the length of a 30-foot table— or staying until 2 a.m. on Saturdays. After service, everyone gathers to display “projects,” new dishes to workshop and discuss. At the end of one recent round, a purveyor made a presentation about his butter until three in the morning, sloughing flakes of skin off the arms of both male and female cooks to use as the active enzyme in competing, gender-specific butters. The question was: Do men or women taste better in a churned dairy spread?

Through all the devotional speed cleaning and the marathon geekery, what’s represented by each member of the Noma corps, and what’s now been actualized at new restaurants across Copenhagen, is the idea that any current cook could walk out the door and put his or her knowledge of year-old carrots, pickled beach plants and pine-needle desserts—all those scrappy, low-lit Nordic things—to use in his or her own kitchen. It’s as if each Noma employee has the potential for creating something new and special elsewhere. In this way, Noma is not only an incubator for culinary talent, it’s a prime example of how a restaurant, through its own intense, internal bursts of energy, can ultimately transcend its walls and function as an act of urbanism—a way of transforming life, shifting space. Since Noma is all but impossible to get into, this is a very good thing for anybody visiting Copenhagen who’s hungry for its new signature tastes.

Manfred’s & Vin’s Sunday dinner crowd is made up of men who look like different versions of Ryan Gosling. The women, in deifying knitwear, have blond topknots and skin resembling milk in the moonlight. Outside, unlocked bicycles lean up against one another, clustered like snuggling campers. The restaurant itself, in the Nørrebro district, on a street where dealing drugs is far more common than pouring organic wines, is named after a food stand that the principals—Noma alums Christian Puglisi, 29, and Kim Rossen, 37—put up one year at the Roskilde music festival, serving peas and pea soup. A “Manfred,” they decided, was a man with a white moustache selling peas on the shoulder of a country road. Where Noma compounds two abbreviations—“no,” for nordisk, and “ma,” for mad, the Danish word for food—implying, it seems, a kind of edible jingoism, Manfred’s origin is in a fictional seed peddler whose goods ultimately satiate grungy concertgoers.

“Working at Noma required a certain kind of intensity,” says Anders Hansen, now the sommelier at Manfred’s. “Here I can do more what I want.” And while there is a kind of outer-borough looseness about the place—with its leather aprons, mismatched coffee cups and tiny sunken-seating area—there’s also something elementally Danish going on. In Copenhagen, so much of public and private living has to do with following all the inspired lines. Just on my walk over—from a hotel for which Arne Jacobsen created both the Swan and Egg chairs—I came across a brilliant pedestrian bridge followed by a park’s eye-catching yellow pavilion. Each would be prominent design features in other cities, but here they blend into the master plan. It’s as if innovation is just another form of subtlety and simplicity is held to a higher standard of both elegance and functionality.

Some of the dishes are as smart as the furniture and the buildings. They, too, make me consider the integrity of the lines. Kohlrabi comes shaved, the shape of double-wide pappardelle. But the cabbage cultivar’s rigidity allows for the strands to stack up in ribbons, Frank Gehry-style. Chunks of giant Limfjord oyster and its brine dress the cucumber-colored vegetable. Flecks of bright-green seaweed sit atop, like newly dropped confetti. A plate of veal tongue—salted for a day, cooked for nine hours, then sliced and served cold—comes garnished with tarragon and crispy rye crumbs, each containing a loaf’s worth of flavor. It says something about a city when things as mundane as bread crumbs and chairs consistently resonate as objects of beauty.

The minimalist conceit falls away with the restaurant’s wine service. On top of being a good place to eat tongue and sculptural plants, Manfred’s has the only natural-wine bar in Copenhagen, with more than 500 bottles from producers who, according to Hansen, “just use the juice from the grapes.” Essentially, natural wines taste nothing like the filtered ones with added sulfur that we usually drink. After a glass of Romorantin that smelled like ripeness and Aperol, I ask Hansen to describe the flavor, and he kind of rolls his eyes, which is actually a perfect answer to my facile question. Instead he talks about what the wine means to him. “You taste the risk,” he says. “The risk the maker puts into it when he decides not to use any chemicals. It moves me every time I open a bottle. It’s like life in that way: You lose some; some work out. I relate to it.”

It should be noted here that Ulf, the other guy pouring wine—a tall, bespectacled Swede with a loose, dark ponytail and big glasses—looks not unlike David Foster Wallace and, also, that Kierkegaard is buried just up the street. In this atmosphere, it’s no wonder the Gamay makes me think of the periodic table and the Beaujolais seems to be about the notion of dealing with fully expressed yet challenging things. Using adjectives like “oaky,” “rubbery” or “shrubby” to describe these wines would be oversimplication, akin to calling a person of exceptional character and complexity “nice.” When wine is about risk, it’s not about language that could only serve to make a thing more easily understood. And, actually, it’s a pretty awesome act of humility to just drink a glass and think, gratefully and contentedly, Damn, I just don’t understand any of this at all. As if that’s not good enough, some Leonard Cohen songs come on and some Beatles songs follow, and Hansen fills one more glass of the Beaujolais. “Life,” he says in a singsong voice, “is very short.”

Puglisi and Rossen also own Relæ, right across the street. “It’s pronounced ree-lay,” says Puglisi, “like the electrical device. The energy in the restaurant has to be electric.” Puglisi was born in Italy, so electricity metaphors come naturally to him. In Denmark, an electric atmosphere pretty much means the lights are on, functioning well and will continue to shine. But Relæ has a very real buzz about it.

Ulf, who previously poured wine at Noma and works at Relæ as well as Manfred’s, starts me off with a glass of Champagne. “Bubbles?” he asks. His effect is anything but bubbly. He then brings some lettuce and wood sorrel in a celeriac wrapper to my place at the bar. He shows me where to find my silverware—in a crisply designed drawer that slides out from beneath the countertop. Then, chummy after the last two days of service, he tells me I’m treating my “autumn roll” incorrectly. “You’re missing the point of how to eat it,” he says, “so you get the salty first and then the acidity.” I listen, take an all-encompassing bite, and he’s right. One should follow the other. Simple enough, but there are rules.

Next comes bread in a stout leather basket, a small, warm boule thoughtfully broken in half by hand. In Denmark the idea that one shouldn’t fill up on bread must be ignored. The bread here is simply too good to eat in moderation. In fact, a meal in Copenhagen must be treated as two: the bread meal and the food meal.

Another important maxim is this: Always eat dishes that resemble a scrubby tract of beachfront, part of a tree, a magical plant from Japanese animation or, especially, fertile fishing grounds. Kødbyens Fiskebar, located in a former slaughterhouse, opened in 2009. There, Anders Selmer, 41, one of the founding wine guys from Noma and now a winemaker himself—growing grapes on six acres of a small Danish island—is doing something very rare in seaside Copenhagen: He’s running a seafood restaurant. “[Danes] used to export 98 percent of our catch,” Selmer says. “Everyone thought this place would fail because Danish people don’t eat fish.” Halfway through a generously portioned plate of red gurnard with smoked cheese and baked celeriac, Selmer jokes, “See, not every dish has to look like pickings from the forest floor.” It’s true, sometimes Nordic plating can go a little far, like at Noma, where the meat of one lone mussel is served on a plate of blue-black shells—conjuring up a vanitas painting. If you happen to be eating alone, as I am, all this emptiness brings the idea of death too close to mind. I know Noma is concerned with big ideas, but drawing so directly on mortality is perhaps a little much, even for “the world’s best restaurant.”

At Relæ, the touch is lighter, though no less refined. A small dome of aerated sheep’s-milk yogurt conceals jewel-like purple radishes. Nasturtium petals, their stems still intact, fully shingle its surface. Altogether it resembles something urchin-like from the movie Spirited Away. Overall, the ingredients are fewer, the techniques are simpler and the meal is no less pleasurable for its editing. Where the food at Noma is constantly challenging notions of time and place, a meal at Relæ asks only that you stay in the present.

Radio is Copenhagen’s newest accelerated particle. Claus Meyer, who founded Noma and literally wrote the manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine, owns the place. Jesper Kirketerp, 32, one of its two chefs—Rasmus Kliim is the other—worked at Noma too. Dinner is similar to that at Relæ: impressionistically plated, ingredient-driven, loyally local and creative to a point. I think Radio has better light fixtures, but in Copenhagen, that’s like arguing about which supermodel is prettier.

That the food is like Relæ’s and influenced by Noma’s doesn’t mean it’s unoriginal. Calling out similarities isn’t a knock, and I’m not about to complain that too many places in this city are grilling lettuces, seasoning with pickled alliums and valuing fresh produce—even the weird kinds— over meat. All of that just makes me want to stay. What’s going on in Copenhagen right now is of a specific moment, but it’s hardly trend-driven cooking. Rather, for the first time, a biodiverse national cuisine is emerging (replacing the old standard: pork a thousand ways), and local chefs are all eager to start speaking the language. The restaurants here aren’t exactly interchangeable, but they are of a piece. And they all have the same origin. On the one hand, it’s Redzepi, his Noma army and the kind of energy a kitchen almost never unleashes on a city. On the other, it’s a long overdue creative response to foods that have always been here. And any repressed desires will usually fall away with a boom.

Details: Restaurants in Copenhagen, Denmark

Kødbyens Fiskebar Flæsketorvet 100; 45/3215-5656;
Manfred’s Jægersborggade 40; 45/3696-6593;
Noma Strandgade 93; 45/3296-3297;
Radio Julius Thomsens Gade 12; 45/2510-2733;
Relæ Jægersborggade 41; 45/3696-6609