COPENHAGEN — By 10 o'clock on a summer night in Copenhagen the nearly 4,000 lights that cover the Nimb Hotel in the Tivoli Gardens are aglow, but the sky is still a turquoise blue as the sun 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 — chef Thomas Herman's modern interpretation 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.
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 in edgy neighborhoods.
In four July days in Copenhagen, I meet upstart chefs; restaurateurs making wine on the tiny isle of Lilleo; cutting-edge coffee roasters; sourdough-obsessed bakers; a 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 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 fiord. The wriggling whole shrimp sit atop a pile of crushed ice, served with a brown butter emulsion. "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 summer, when it's light nearly 17 hours a day and foragers (a new cottage profession) are supplying hawthorne berries, ramson shoots, chamomile and elderflowers. Wild sorrel tops a classic Noma dish of 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 — curls of raw, bright-red semi-frozen veal; mussels with buttermilk and green strawberries; a blueberry mousse with lemon foam.
Chef Christian Puglisi, formerly of Noma, has just opened restaurant Relae in the gentrifying Norrebro neighborhood on up-and-coming Jaegersborggade, a street lively with cafes and bars. He's serving four-course menus for about $56 — a deal in Copenhagen — in a more casual restaurant. Says Puglisi: "I think now it's important for me not to be looked at as one trying to do what Noma does. ... The greatest success that Noma has had comes from not doing what everyone else does and going its own way."
The rethinking of Nordic cuisine has circulated. Kodbyens Fiskebar opened late last year in the hip meatpacking/red light district of Vesterbro, a fashionable restaurant in a former slaughterhouse focusing on pristine Nordic seafood. Aamanns, a sprightly cafe in residential Osterbro, is making not-your- (Danish)-grandmother's smorrebrod, with organic or free-range ingredients such as pink-centered roast beef with fresh horseradish. You can't walk down this stretch of Oster Farimagsgade, aswarm with bicycle commuters, without seeing an Aamanns takeout bag dangling from someone's handlebars.
Even the street food polser — the Danish version of a hot dog — gets a makeover. In the Latin Quarter, look for the DOP (an abbreviation for "organic sausage man") cart next to the Round Tower, Europe's oldest functioning observatory. Here the traditional dyed-bright-red polser and fluffy white bun have been replaced with organic sausages and a sourdough roll made with whole wheat, rye and linseed.
One afternoon I stop at Meyers Deli in posh Frederiksberg — its own municipality in the middle of Copenhagen — to check out the gourmet cafe and market from gastronomic personality and Noma business partner Claus Meyer. The shelves are stacked with row after row of Meyer's line of preserves, juices and barrel-aged vinegars, produced from plum, pear and apple orchards on Lilleo island in southern Denmark.
He's making wine too, growing grapes on the warmest part of Lilleo — Gruner Veltliner, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Solaris. Some of these, Meyer says, have never been planted commercially in winter-dominated Denmark.
And bread. "We have started a bakery working solely with organic cold-climate grain from the Nordic region, most of it ancient Nordic varieties," Meyer says. "There seems to be a lot of karma around this baking thing."
I don't know if it's karma, but there's definitely a frisson when I walk into chef Bo Bech's bakery on Store Kongensgade, a street lined with chic design shops and restaurants. Bo Bech Bageri, airy and whitewashed, is like an atelier for exquisite bread. The bakery sells one thing only: sourdough bread from a recipe Bech says he developed over several years. "I fell in love with making something with just flour, salt and water and that's it," he says. I have no knife, I have no butter, so I tear into a loaf with my bare hands.
Copenhagen is blowing past all the expected milestones of a burgeoning food scene: artisanal food products, winemaking, bread baking, coffee roasting. On an unusually hot day that feels more L.A. than Scandinavia, a walk through the Assistens cemetery (where Soren Kierkegaard is buried) leads to the Coffee Collective in Norrebro, on the same street as Puglisi's Relae. Co-owner Klaus Thomsen is holding court while his colleague Linus Torsater is calibrating a roaster right in the store. I have a cup of espresso, bright and citrusy. "We roast especially light without it being under-roasted," says Thomsen, whose conversations about coffee are peppered with descriptors such as rose hips and gooseberries.
Meanwhile, beer obsessives are celebrating the debut of Mikkeller, a small, semi-subterranean bar in Vesterbro opened four months ago by cult Danish brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergso. He has 15 taps, 10 of them dedicated to a revolving roster of nearly 100 of Mikkeller's wild beers. Some are available only here or released here first, such as Beer Geek Bacon, an elegantly smoky follow-up to Bjergso's Beer Geek Breakfast (an oatmeal stout made with coffee and his bestselling beer in the U.S.). Mikkeller's has so much hygge (the Danish concept of hospitality — pronounced hooga, I'm told) that bar manager Jannick Sahlholdt is here at the six-seat bar drinking a beer — on his day off. Bjergso is sitting outside on the chairs that face this pretty crook of Viktoriagade, around the corner from a part of Vesterbrogade occasioned by a hooker or two.
His foray into extreme beer making might parallel the rise of Nordic cuisine.
"I started brewing 20 gallons at a time," he says, "and figured if nobody liked it I'd drink it myself. I wasn't willing to compromise. For too long we put up with cheap product." Mikkeller bar is an extension of his vision. "I wanted a place to present beer in the way I wanted it to be presented."
Along with his beers he serves Danish cheeses, such as one from a small dairy in Jutland. The dried sausages are made for him by a local butcher, using porter, hops or malt extract. But the chips are English. "Our potato chip culture," Bjergso says with a shrug, "is bad."
IF YOU GO
TELEPHONES: To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (international dialing code), 45 (the country code) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
WakeUp Copenhagen, 11 Carsten Niebuhrs Gade, Copenhagen; 4480-0000, www.wakeupcopenhagen.com. Doubles from $150.
Nimb Hotel, 5 Bernstorffsgade, Copenhagen; 8870-0000, www.nimb.dk. Doubles from $436.
WHERE TO EAT:
Herman, 5 Bernstorffsgade, Copenhagen; 8870-0020, www.nimb.dk.
Noma, 93 Strandgade, Copenhagen; 3296-3297, www.noma.dk.
AOC, 2 Dronningens Tvaergade, Copenhagen; 3311-1145, www.restaurantaoc.dk.
Relae, 41 Jaegersborggade, Copenhagen; 3696-6609, www.restaurant-relae.dk.
Kodbyens Fiskebar, 100 Flaesketorvet, Copenhagen; 3215-5656, www.fiskebaren.dk.