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A Dinner Date With Michael Stipe
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“This is like a mole made from walnuts and grasshoppers,” Mette Søberg said as if that were a perfectly normal thing to say.
Smiling just a little at the nuttiness of it all—at the midnight- dark, deeply mole-ish, somehow-grasshopper-y walnutty nuttiness of it all—she spooned something else onto our plates and added: “Here’s a kind of tofu made of pumpkin seeds.”
If you’d been at Noma that night, if you’d sat at the table in the elegant oak-walled barn by a lake in the untamed meadows of the Christiania district of Copenhagen, if you’d felt the mild midsummer breeze through the wide glass doors and felt the warm, pleasurable dizziness that comes from consuming course after course of unfamiliar delights, then you would have simply paused to admire the pink-purple shade of the grilled rose petals surrounding this custardy pumpkin-seed curd with the inky sauce pooled below, smiled back at Søberg and dug in.
I understand. You have questions. Reasonable questions, like: What do Danes or nuts or bugs have to do with Mexican mole? Where in the fairy tale does it say that the pumpkin’s seeds turn into tofu? How the hell do you grill a rose petal? And why?
When you’re there—in the room with the flaxen planks of 200-year-old heart oak underfoot and the nice light shining down on your table from conical lampshades made of compressed seaweed—well, when you’re there, it all just makes sense. Later, after I’d left and bicycled back to the mundane bliss of summer in Copenhagen, I talked with Søberg about the mystery of the walnuts and grasshoppers and wrinkly grilled rose petals. “One day,” Søberg said, “I made a walnut milk and left it on the stove for two or three days. It got darker and darker, like a walnut butter. This was the start of a mole thing.”
As Noma’s head of research and development, this is what she does: takes an ingredient, pokes it, plays with it, dries, purées, reduces, and ferments the thing until, at peak deliciousness, it yields some surprise essence of itself that suggests a role, large or small, in the complex and varied menus she and the test kitchen and chef teams dream up with René Redzepi. In its new location, Noma shifts the focus of its menu three times a year.
When I was there, vegetables were the main event. Seafood preceded that, and a game and forest show will run out the year. Though the composition of dishes changes, there are strains that run through succeeding menus, ideas developed over seasons and years, inspired by both kitchen experiments and intel and ideas picked up on their travels. In recent years, Redzepi has moved with his staff to create limited-run operations in Japan and Australia, and, last year, a temporary restaurant with an outdoor kitchen carved out of a jungly lot in Tulum, Mexico.
Around the time of the walnut variations, Søberg and her team were playing around with grasshoppers, roasting them in smoked butter and reducing them in the oven for days at a stretch.
This is what Noma has evolved into: a kind of Fermilab of advanced super-deliciousness. There are two main stages of menu development. First, investigation, experimentation, play. Next comes the systematization and narrowing down, aligning the flavors the staff has discovered and created around coherent, fully formed dishes. It was in this second phase that the walnut mole came to meet an ersatz tofu made of pumpkin seeds that Søberg’s colleague David Zilber had been working on in the fermentation lab, inspired by something they’d tried first in Tokyo.
“We’ve spent so much time in Mexico and Japan that our way of thinking is a little different than it was before,” says Søberg.
The influences on the restaurant staff’s thinking as a result of these peregrinations are evident all over the menu, including an unassuming-looking bowl of berries with tiny slivered radishes and tender fava beans (later replaced by baby cucumbers). The pretty assemblage is transformed by a cool broth made of (among other things) white currant juice, chamomile, elderflower oil, and lacto-fermented koji water. The effect is like a ceviche of fruits, with a whisper of heat beneath the sweet tartness of the berries, which comes from three drops of chili oil.
Three drops of chili oil don’t sound all that revolutionary, but they do signal a departure from the strictures of New Nordic cuisine as defined by Noma in its first decade and a half.
And what of those rose petals? They’re picked from wild rose plants by the beach. Why grill rose petals? Taste them and the answer is clear: Earthy, sweet, and intense, they are a world away from the soapy fragrance of traditional roses.
All tastes are fleeting, and by the time this story reaches you, these particular dishes will be history. The pleasure is tasting what Redzepi and his reenergized team have imagined for all that ephemerality.
The other news from Copenhagen is that it retains its luster as one of the great eating cities of the world. And, like Noma in its way, it has grown and matured and mellowed and become more fun than ever.
It’s always been very civilized. A bicycling city with abundant culture and good coffee, striking architecture new and ancient, drawbridges and golden spires and pretty parks. And, in the wake of Noma and its transforming effect (“Nomanomics,” as it’s known to the local tourism industry), a compelling world-class dining scene.
On this visit, it felt all those things, but something else too: relaxed in a way I hadn’t found it before. This is anecdotal, of course, but it seemed like a place that was focused less on proving itself and more on enjoying itself. Years ago, shortly after Noma had been named the best restaurant in the world for the first time, I’d been invited to attend a gala dinner put on by recent graduates of a Copenhagen cooking school and working chefs from up-and-coming restaurants. Chasing that novel New Nordic high, everyone seemed to be filling their plates with pots of edible dirt and fragrant seascapes, all hitting the same notes at the same time. Happily, on return trips, I found a restaurant that had loosened up and diversified. By example, through indoctrination, and as an incubator of talent, Noma and its heirs have transformed the way a city eats.
Landing on a Sunday morning, we went directly to brunch in Vesterbro at Sanchez, the lively new Mexican restaurant from Chicago native and former Noma pastry chef Rosio Sanchez. Science knows no quicker cure for a gentle case of jet lag than green Bloody Marys, made with cucumbers, tomatoes, chayotes, and jalapeños, and a plate of oysters doused in habanero and sea buckthorn juice.
Next, carnitas tacos with cured egg yolk; a tostada topped with fermented crema, smoked salmon, and slivers of jalapeño and red onion; paletas of white chocolate, strawberries, and elderflowers. Sour, salty, sweet, bracing, briny: You’d be happy going to Denmark just for these flawless bites.
At Admiralgade 26 in Indre By, we ate smoked duck heart with apples and a pasta made of spiralized potatoes tossed in mussel cream and lumpfish roe. The room is buoyantly bright and cheerfully eclectic: a Rietveld Zig-Zag Chair serves as a plant stand for an oversize fern; Gio Ponti chairs hang, Shaker-style, from the wall. Christian Nedergaard, who owns the place with his business partner, Sebastian Nelleman, also runs Ved Stranden 10, a much-loved natural-wine bar in an old tea shop that once housed a “promiscuous inn.” The bar and its canalside seats were occupied, so Nedergaard grabbed a bottle of wine and led us down onto the pier, where we watched the pleasure-boat traffic glide by. At La Banchina, the sign by the harbor said: "DO NOT SCREAM WHEN YOU JUMP IN THE WATER!"
But there’s no warning about aggressive mother swans, particularly one who decides you’re swimming too close to her baby swan and comes splashing noisily after you. Satisfied with her show of force, the swan paddled off toward a line of handsome houseboats. And that was about all the drama to be had on a summer afternoon at this languid, lovely, and extremely chill café with a swimming pier (and wood-fired sauna for cooler days) in the newly hip, formerly industrial shipbuilding neighborhood of Refshaleøen. The wooden pier was lined with a dozen or so dozing sunbathers.
Occasionally someone sat up to roll a cigarette or fetch another glass of bio-dynamic wine or leap into the cool water. Nobody screamed. Everyone was self- evidently happy and relaxed and well-adjusted in the nonintrusive, sincere Danish way. Summer in Copenhagen is a playground, a rolling celebration, a time to sail around on little party boats and stay close to the city’s many sparkling waters. (“Remember to jump in the water,” the chef Bo Bech of always excellent Geist had written when I told him I was headed to town. “Make sure you dunk your head under every day,” Redzepi concurred.)
The tiny kitchen at La Banchina turns out simple, satisfying fare: mussels with roast potatoes, rainbow beets, and dill; a tartare of cod with cilantro and cabbage. We ate anchovies, tore apart olive-oil-soaked bread with our hands, drank fizzy natural rosé pét-nat, and didn’t want to move. It felt like we’d stumbled upon a relaxed Australian beach club or some perfect Caribbean swimming hole with better wine and freshly baked pastries.
Refshaleøen, formerly weedy and desolate, is now a kind of wandering nosher’s paradise. In a converted warehouse, one pier over from La Banchina is Amass, opened in 2013 by former Noma head chef Matt Orlando and, with its focus on waste reduction, is very much a must-try stop on any serious gastronomic tour of the city.
Lille is a sweet, tiny organic bakery nearby. A spare, all-white industrial space with reclining canvas seats outside and a Thelonious Monk poster on the wall, it’s another place that’s easy to like and hard to leave. Unable to decide between breakfast or lunch, we split the difference and had house-made gooseberry soda with a jam doughnut and fennel-seed-topped sausage rolls; then, with their very good sourdough, we sopped up mussels in cold smoky ham broth with tomatoes.
Farther out on the Refshaleøen peninsula is Reffen, a street-food gathering of temporary cafés and juice bars built out of converted Maersk shipping containers. Outside the hangar-like Mikkeller brewery and tasting room, they’re planting flowers by a rusted-out East German convertible. This isn’t a place for enlightened tasting menus, but, like much of Copenhagen these days, it’s a happy place to spend an afternoon drinking good beer and enjoying a city that feels like it’s been smartly repurposed with communal enjoyment in mind.
Bread and bakeries are having a moment in Copenhagen— happy news for those inclined to plan their day around where to have coffee and linger over pastries. It’s a toss-up whose croissants are more deliciously dark and flaky, Andersen & Maillard’s or Democratic Coffee’s.
Extensive tasting revealed they’re both pretty damned good. Andersen & Maillard gets the nod for its subdued style; sticky-sweet kouignamanns; and coffee soft serve made from fresh espresso grounds, reused steamed milk, and a little crisp made from sourdough bread. Democratic Coffee, in the city’s main library, has better croissants and crunchy pastries filled with cheese and tart blueberries.
One of the most anticipated openings is Hart Bageri, from Richard Hart, former head baker of San Francisco’s Tartine and now baking bread at Noma—Redzepi is his business partner—while he waits for construction of his retail shop in Frederiksberg to be completed.
Hart, an Englishman, agreed with me that the city felt a little less Nordic these days. We met for a drink at the Corner, the coffee bar at Noma’s more casual sibling restaurant, 108, in Christianshavn. When he broke it to Redzepi that, although he would use Danish rye, he was going to have to source some flour from Italy, the chef took it in stride. “When it comes to sourcing ingredients, he’s chilled a bit after his travels,” Hart said.
A few dozen yards from where we sat stands the 1767 brick warehouse of the Nordatlantens Brygge, or North Atlantic Wharf. The space at the end of the dock was the original site of Noma, before it moved this year. It’s now occupied by Barr (“barley” in Old Norse), a lovely, more casual restaurant with a focus on the food and drink of what the owners identified as the European “beer-belt.” This means fried pork schnitzel, Belgian waffles with lumpfish roe, and an outrageously good chicken for two with creamed leeks and fresh crunchy peas.
A visit to Noma in its early years used to feel like a trip to the very edge of the developed city. Now, thanks to the Inderhavnsbroen—the bridge takes foot and bicycle traffic from Christianshavn across the harbor to the more central district of Nyhavn—the neighborhood is bustling. Cyclists speed by occasionally stopped by the drawbridge that lets sailboat traffic pass underneath or by distracted tourists wandering into their paths.
In the back of what was the old Noma, a lively outdoor food hall called the Bridge Street Kitchen has flourished. Here you can grab a butter-burger (a hamburger with organic butter) at Gasoline Grill or an open-faced sandwich from Smørrebrød Palægade; sit in the foldable sun chairs; and watch the traffic go by.
Take a coffee kombucha from the Coffee Collective and wander over to the spot where Noma’s old culinary lab on a boat was once moored, afloat with experimental misos and wild ferments; now people are lounging in the sun there, swimming around the harbor. The people in the sleek condominium building that’s gone up next door are actually out using their balconies. The scene looks like an architectural rendering come to life, an ideal of healthy inner-city living made real.