A final dispatch from Copenhagen
Posted on November 25, 2013
There are a handful of really “hot” food destinations in the world. The Basque region of Spain and Alsace-Lorraine never seem to fall from that list, while Peru has become the newest culinary hotspot. Copenhagen is on that list now as well. As often happens, one ground-breaking restaurant reinvents an already strong local, if not well known, cuisine and runs with it. Popularity follows and young chefs start moving through from the uber-restaurant to create their own places and visions for the cuisine. Thus is a food scene born. It happened in Providence, Rhode Island with Al Forno. It has happened in Copenhagen with NOMA, routinely listed the Best Restaurant in the World, displacing the now closed El Bulli from that lofty perch.
The food scene in Copenhagen, mostly built around the New Danish cuisine, is exploding. NOMA still rules (the waiting list is months long and we never got the call back – much to my later relief when a local said the per person bill can easily run some hundreds of dollars!), but all around it are other fine, often less formal, and more affordable choices. We had dinner at Ben and Marv. Seemed like a friendly name, two guys making a go of it, we assumed. Turns out Ben and Marv are Danish for Bone and Marrow and this tiny, friendly place specializes in those parts of animals most people do not eat: pig’s ears, lamb tongue, beef neck, and more.
Eating the throwaway parts is another food trend and M&B did not disappoint either in adventure or flavor. The beef neck is slow cooked for two days and served with grated marrow on top and had the most intense beef flavor I think we’ve ever tasted, the essence of beef. Uber beef. My catfish (on the menu as “the Ugly Duckling of the Sea” came with potato foam, the single best potato dish I’ve ever eaten. Our server revealed: “It’s the butter. We use lots of butter – in everything.” As Julia Child once said when asked if she ever considered not cooking with butter, “Oh my no. That’s where all the flavor resides.”
Speaking of butter, we also had dinner at Claus Meyer’s new restaurant, Almanak. Seems funny to talk about butter, but this was the best butter we have ever tasted. Sourced from local dairy farms, the kitchen takes a portion and browns it and then whips it back in with the regular butter. I’m pretty sure they sprinkle fairy dust on it or something. It’s served with a superb bread, nutty flavored with a hard crust, that they scorch a bit on a grill before serving it warm inside a brown paper bag. I remember a food writer once saying that you can judge a lot about a restaurant by how they do their bread. If they care a lot about it and take pains to serve a great bread, it bodes well for all that comes after. I’ve found that to be largely true: mediocre bread almost always signals mediocre food.
Almanak did not disappoint. The New Danish cuisine is like a lot of farm to table restaurants, focused on local growers and seasonal ingredients, and putting a contemporary twist on traditional recipes. The most fun twist on this was a drink served to us by Alex, the head of Almanak’s bar. It was a Grant Green, a cocktail of his own invention, made with lemon juice and a simply syrup infused with pine needles that he collects from the nearby woods. Add some Hendricks Gin and it makes a light green, fresh tasting cocktail with just a hint of pine – like drinking Denmark.
Alex turned out to be a great guy with an absolute passion for his craft, having worked his way up from busboy in a variety of ever better restaurants and bars to Bar Manager at one of the best restaurants in Denmark. He was an expert guide to the Danish microbrew movement (which is absent the American mania for hops; witness my love for Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA) and newfound love of cocktails. He is coming to America in January and was hungry for suggestions on great bars he might visit. His dream is to live in the US and have his own cutting edge bar. As his girlfriend Emily later said, “He has an America crush!”.
In fact, we went late into the night with Alex, Emily, and co-worker Christopher, who manages Almanak’s sister jazz bar, The Standard. Turns out Christopher is mad for The Wire and Pat is teaching a class on it this semester, so they were lost in animated conversation about the show while we listened to live jazz. It was so interesting chatting with these young Danes, full of ambition and admiration for the US. While they are justly proud at Denmark’s social safety net and high standard of living, they also talked about the ways it goes too far (in their eyes), sometimes breeding a culture of dependency and even laziness. They also described the kind of “flattening” of ambition imbedded in the culture, a sort of “don’t get too big for your own good” sentiment that is familiar to New Englanders.
It’s as if Denmark has managed to build a society full of B students. It’s amazing that they have lifted up the C, Ds, and Fs, but it also mitigates against the As. America loves the A’s – we’re biased to our celebrities, star athletes, movie stars, tech gurus, and billionaires, but our lack of care for the poor and needy is appallingly bad in the eyes of the world. That the richest nation on earth has millions of children going to bed hungry seems beyond their comprehension (and mine). But if you are young, passionate, and hungry like Alex, Emily, and Christopher, America seems refreshingly alive and creative and unfettered. From a public policy perspective, Denmark kicks our butt. From a personal freedom and aspiration perspective, we remain the promised land. Our server at M&B talked proudly about the restaurant, but then added, “But to really see what’s possible with food, one must go to New York!” To see what’s possible….
And we spent much of the weekend thinking American policy makers should go to Denmark to see what’s possible in terms of creating a well-run, sensible, just, and positive society. Maybe we can do an exchange program with some of our leaders. We’ll take some smart, Danish technocrats and we’ll give them Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell. No…..they are way too nice to take those guys. We’d never do that to Denmark.
Speaking of nice, everyone we met was super friendly and warm. They have a bit of that initial Northern European reserve, but it takes only a moment of conversation and a smile for that to melt away. But they do have one strange fixation: the cold. We took the train on Sunday to the remarkable contemporary art museum, Louisiana. Louisiana (not sure about that name, but not a Cajun in sight) is perched on the edge of the sea and with low one story, mid-century Modernist linked by glass walled walkways, it offers one of the most beautiful settings imaginable. The big exhibit there was called Arctik and it is all about….well, the Arctic. There were huge paintings of snow and icebergs, sound installations of ice breaking up and falling off glaciers, a video of a guy walking ahead of an icebreaker, Eskimo artifacts, and a stuffed Polar Bear. The Danes were eating this up and we were left a little perplexed (I was tempted to say the exhibit left us cold….). The textual accompaniment was very poetics and mostly came down to “the Arctic reminds us of our insignificance.”
It only occurred to us afterwards that maybe the Arctic is to Scandinavians what the Great West is to Americans, a platform for our central myth of individualism, adventurism, conquering nature (and the unconquerable generally), and captivating to urban dwellers who will never likely see it as their forebears did. It helps explain the crazy people we saw swimming each day in the frigid waters of the river next to the hotel. And the bicycling in all temperatures. Must explain their ruddy complexions. Anyway, we came away convinced that the ideal host gift at a Danish party must be a bag of ice and a snowball.
We left Denmark this morning for the UK, where we are taking a few vacation days and spending Thanksgiving with our daughter Emma. It’ll be 150 people for the holiday dinner, with everyone pitching in. I’ll silently give thanks for a wonderful weekend in Copenhagen, a city we fell in love with and could happily revisit again and again. In the meantime, Alex and Emily are coming to America in January and have promised a visit to New Hampshire. I’ve got eight weeks to invent a drink…