March 2013. I was content in Italy, but my hunger for Copenhagen began to grumble. It started with the countless hours I spent peering at Adam Goldberg and Bonjwing Lee’s images from the world’s greatest restaurants. Before I traveled to Europe, the idea of going to Copenhagen seemed like a distant dream. So when the opportunity presented itself during my stay in Italy, I had no hesitancy booking my reservations and my flight (in that order).
I had peacefully retired the hopes of dining at Noma and because its reservation system was ultimately too difficult to infiltrate. No worries.
There was a silver lining. Many chef/owners of successful restaurants in Copenhagen had crossed paths with Noma at least once in their lifetime (many of them were René Redzepi’s sous chefs). And for me, this was more than plenty to warrant a travel to Denmark.
However, I discovered at the end of my trip that my notion of these great restaurants were all wrong. Dining at Geranium, Relæ, and Bror was not a consolation prize. These three meals alone were worthy of a trip to Copenhagen itself no matter Noma was in or out of the equation.
It was my first night in Copenhagen. Chefs Sam Nutter and Victor Wågman, two recent Noma alumni, set the bar high. To accompany the tasting menu, the team paired the four courses with natural wine. The aroma of natural wine resonates like a mysteriously stinky cheese on a warm evening. It’s intimidating at first, but gradually fine tunes itself into the progression of the meal.
The chefs prepared a barely touched slices of pike, cucumber, and pine for the first course. It was a pleasant start, but the dish’s simplicity made me feel empty.
Fear not. The 2nd course was a memorable piece of catfish which fine tuned my expectations once again. The elements of the warm spring weather in Denmark (around 70 degrees at the time) and the salty aroma of red onions and seaweed really made me feel at peace.
The onglet was even better. This course was a serving of hanger steak with grilled wild garlic and cauliflower. The charred scent of grilled vegetables induced memories of being at home with family and staining my clothes with the smoldering smell of barbecue. It was extremely gratifying. A pretty great opening act in Copenhagen, indeed.
The next day, I woke up way to early and strolled through the parks of Copenhagen. I was ready for my lunch at Geranium. The restaurant holds two coveted Michelin stars and provides a culinary experience that is comparable to Atera in New York (Chef Matt Lightner also had a stage at Noma).
Behind the transparent glass doors is Chef Rasmus Kofoed, a three time Bocuse d’Or competitor who holds the bronze, silver, and gold medals. The restaurant manager is none other than Søren Ledet, also previously a sous chef at Noma.
The twenty-course Universe Tasting Menu passes by in a heartbeat. I also opted for the juice pairing which was delicious, but also very, very fibrous and restroom-inducing a few hours later.
The portions at Geranium were small, but fulfilling. The inedible stones and seabuckthorn twigs were a bit distracting at first, but I gradually began to welcome the ornaments as they offered a sense of time and place, an embrace of nature in Copenhagen.
I arrived at Relæ for dinner. It’s safe to say that this was one of my favorite meals this year. Chef Christian Puglisi and GM Kim Rossen, who also worked together at Noma, hit all the right notes on my vision of a great restaurant.
The wooden countertop at the bar offers a great level of interaction between the guests and the kitchen. There’s also the condensed menu which gives tremendous amount of focus into creating six to seven great pieces. Some might perceive tasting menus as a tyrannical and oppressive, but I believe that putting trust into the chef’s hands is extremely stimulating and gratifying. Here are some of the highlights.
I began the dinner with a plate of Danish mussels. It was invigorating and clenched my palate right away with peppery notes of acidity and cool crisp bites of cucumber.
Few courses later, a presentation of steamed Danish enoki mushrooms and sand leeks graced the stage. The runny, but rich black sauce had a similar taste to black bean noodles which had me transported into a state of perplexity. Perhaps the wine was sending me into a daze.
Chef Puglisi emphasizes his desire to break away from the restrictions in Scandinavian cuisine and embraces the enjoyment of using ingredients like olive oil, lemons, and tomatoes. Chef’s Italian heritage instinctively breeds his pleasure for foods that are packed with umami. I find his food so delicious because they incorporate and sweet and savory elements that are prevalent in Korean cooking.
Even this piece of pork from the Danish peninsula of Hindsholm and the beautiful scales of Jerusalem artichokes don’t evoke a Nordic interpretation. The flavor profiles are fundamentally Italian in my eyes.
To finish the meal, Relæ has a killer milk ice cream topped with kelp and caramel. The menu changes throughout the course of the year so it’ll be difficult to see this one disappear. *(I checked the menu today and it is indeed gone).
There’s a silver lining. Although some of my favorite dishes fade away over time, chefs will be there to create new, innovative ideas.
Chefs hang around for a long time and they give opportunities to new cooks who will leave the nest one day to become chefs of their own visions. Whether you’re a cook or a restaurant patron, whether you like change or not, we are all part of this boundless cycle.