"Local and seasonal produce." It's a phrase that has become a mantra for ambitious chefs around the world. Which is great if it's July and you're in Sicily; but what if it's late winter and you're in Scandinavia? I recall one meal in Malmö, in southern Sweden, where it seemed as if we ate turnips and reindeer parts, including the bone marrow, at every course. (That restaurant has since closed, as a matter of fact.) Traveling to Copenhagen recently, I expected much of the same. Thankfully, the Danes have mastered the art of cooking with what's on hand—or, in some cases, they've figured out how to skirt the local and seasonal issue altogether. Whatever the case, the results are some of the best cooking in Scandinavia.
It's a short taxi ride from the center of Copenhagen to Noma (dinner, $130; 93 Strandgade; 45-32-96-32-97), which opened last December on the old docks and canals where parts of Smilla's Sense of Snow were filmed. Noma shares space inside a huge 18th-century warehouse that has been converted into the North Atlantic House, a cultural center paying homage to Denmark's close ties with Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland. The restaurant's interior has been tastefully pared down to be evocative of sub-Arctic landscapes, with driftwood-like furniture and animal skins draped here and there. Even the chairs, made from smoked oak, resemble antlers. But it's the dishes that surprise the most. The chefs use produce that is not only seasonal, but also indigenous to North Atlantic countries. I visited in March, which is hardly the peak time for produce, but what chef Rene Redzepi created was sublime: Delicious fillets of musk ox—a relative of the buffalo—had been imported from Greenland. Sugar beets were caramelized into crisps. Tiny bell jars showcased a layered appetizer of pink lumpfish roe, Jerusalem artichoke purée, and blood sausage. Also terrific were the terrine of calf's tail and Faroese langoustines served with glazed endive and horseradish cream, and the onions prepared three ways and topped with a smoked eel foam. In summer, as the produce multiplies, the repertoire will be broader. But expect the menu to be no less focused. Noma has already made a big splash in Copenhagen; make sure it's on your list, too.
Just as buzzing is The Paul (dinner $190; 3 Vesterbogade; 45-33-75-07-75), Paul Cunningham's new restaurant, which won a Michelin star in its first year. Cunningham, who is British, has adopted Copenhagen as his home, working his way through some of its best restaurants and earning the esteem of his peers along the way. Now he's taken on the challenge of running a seasonal restaurant that's open only during the summer months. It's easily the best of the many restaurants inside Tivoli, Copenhagen's pleasure garden and amusement park, which closes over the long winter. Besides perfect seafood, gourmet salads with a modern Danish slant (herbs with smoked monkfish, caviar, and asparagus) are on this summer's menu, which changes every two weeks.
There's nothing Danes like more during summer than taking full advantage of both the sun and Copenhagen's views across its lakes and waterways. One of the best spots to take in the scenery—and a heavy dose of modern Danish design—is at the Black Diamond arts center, a lopsided glass block containing a restaurant named in honor of Copenhagen philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Restaurant Søren K (dinner, $110; 1 Søren Kierkegaards Plads; 45-33-47-49-50) serves up elegant dishes such as carpaccio of lemon sole with caper and oil dressing and a tangle of arugula leaves. There is also an unusually imaginative vegetarian menu that includes dishes like succulent raw fennel shavings served with grilled pear.
Not everyone comes to Copenhagen looking for modernity, so when you tire of Arne Jacobsen chairs and blond wood, book a table at Kong Hans Kælder (dinner, $145; 6 Vingårdsstræde; 45-33-11-68-68). "King Hans' Cellar" is in the vaulted basement of a medieval building where Hans Christian Andersen lived for a while. Another Michelin-starred restaurant, this one is deservedly popular with Copenhagen's establishment. Tuna ravioli is one of Kælder's famous dishes—oysters wrapped in slivers of tuna sashimi, the plate beautifully garnished with poached quail eggs and watercress. Bolder flavors appear in the main courses, such as salty veal ventrèche (a French cut of meat from the belly, in this case, of a calf) with generous shavings of black truffle. Cooking of this standard is hard to fault, even if it doesn't come cheap.
If time permits and you've had your fill of Danish seasonal produce, there is, believe it or not, excellent Italian food in Copenhagen. But it's not at Alberto K; despite interesting cutlery and great views, the food is mediocre. Go instead to Era Ora (dinner $115; 33B Overgaden Neden Vandet; 45-32-54-06-93), one of the best Italian restaurants in northern Europe, with an emphasis on Umbrian dishes. The location is appealing too, in a canal-side townhouse with an open courtyard. Thank goodness for summer.