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Savoring the rise of New Nordic Cuisine in Copenhagen

Restaurants like Noma and Herman that are redefining Danish food have turned Denmark's tiny capital into a culinary destination.

September 05, 2010|By Betty Hallock | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Bikes line the canals that run north-south through Copenhagen's bohemian Christianshavn neighborhood. It's the harbour-front area where the restaurant Noma is located.
Bikes line the canals that run north-south through Copenhagen's… (Betty Hallock / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Copenhagen — By 10 o'clock on a summer night in Copenhagen the more than 3,000 lights that cover the Nimb Hotel in the Tivoli Gardens are aglow, but the sky is still a turquoise blue as the sun just begins to set. I have a view of it from the restaurant Herman overlooking the gardens, where an appetizer arrives as a savory aebleskiver — a small sphere of a doughnut-like pancake — dusted with vinegar powder and served with pickled cucumber marmalade.

Its filling is a mixture of creamy potatoes, onion and bacon — one of chef Thomas Herman's modern interpretations of a traditional dish the Danish call "burning love." I'm already swooning.

Dinner at Herman, immediately after arriving from the airport, is my introduction to a cuisine particular to Copenhagen, the city that has captivated the food world.

Hello, pine needle granita, dried algae powder, tiny new potatoes farmed an hour outside of Copenhagen. Hello, North Sea langoustine, birch-smoked marrow and a wild parade of such herbs as ramson buds, salsify flowers and cicely. A big hello to the Nimb's in-house dairy, Logismose, which makes some of Herman's cheeses, and the butter too — mine at 4 a.m. that day, a server tells me.


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Here in Denmark's tiny capital a cadre of pioneering chefs has embraced local ingredients under the banner New Nordic Cuisine, turning Copenhagen into an unlikely culinary mecca.

The celebration of rediscovered ingredients (birch sap, bulrushes, puffin eggs) and new approaches to traditional techniques (salting, marinating, smoking) has reverberated throughout the city, from Michelin-starred restaurants to casual spots opening in edgy neighborhoods.

In four July days in clean, cool Copenhagen, I meet upstart chefs; restaurateurs making wine on the tiny isle of Lilleo; cutting-edge coffee roasters; sourdough-obsessed bakers; a mad, mad brewer; and my first Nordic shrimp — live and face to face.

The bastion of the New Nordic movement is Noma, helmed by chef Rene Redzepi and housed in an 18th century waterfront building in the old Christianshavn quarter across the harbor from the city's center. It is now No. 1 on the list of "The World's 50 Best Restaurants," according to a poll released in the spring by Italian water company S. Pellegrino. It has unseated Spain's El Bulli, causing a food media stir and sparking more than 100,000 reservation requests within days.

"It's important for the food to show where in the world you are," says Redzepi, whose cookbook, to be published in December in the U.S., is aptly titled "Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine." "The great thing about Copenhagen is it's a big city, a capital, but you can get in a car and in 30 minutes be at a field, forest or shoreline."

During lunch Redzepi delivers to the table diminutive live crustaceans from the cold depths of a fjord. The wriggling whole shrimp sit atop a pile of crushed ice in a latched Mason jar, served with a brown butter emulsion in a small metal dish. "You can dip them into the sauce, but I like to eat them plain," Redzepi says. And so that's how I eat them, picking them up with my fingers and pausing for a second to ponder their … aliveness. (They stop squirming when you start chewing.)

It's high season for more than just live shellfish. "This is the season of everything," Redzepi says of Denmark's halcyon summer, when it's light nearly 18 hours a day and foragers (a new cottage profession) are supplying hawthorne berries, rose hips, ramson shoots, chamomile and elderflowers. Wild sorrel tops a classic Noma dish of hand-sliced beef tartar served with crushed juniper and a tarragon emulsion. A single fresh pine bud garnishes a cookie layered with veal speck and dried currant.

A generation of young chefs is already eager to tweak some of the themes of the New Nordic movement. "More important for us than finding different herbs are colors, temperatures and flavor combinations," says Michael Munk at restaurant AOC, which debuted last summer. He and Ronny Emborg, both in their 20s, are the fresh-faced chefs who scored a Michelin star this spring. In a vaulted cellar in a more-than-300-year-old mansion on Dronningens Tvaergade, the chefs bring out course after course on bentwood trays — curls of raw, bright-red semi-frozen veal; mussels with buttermilk and green strawberries; a blueberry mousse with lemon foam.

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