Ladies and gentleman, what follows is my sole complaint about the food in Copenhagen: The desserts at Noma were a trifle postmodern for my taste. That frigid, subzero semifreddo which dissolved into sweet nothingness inside my mouth, was thrilling on first bite but it felt like novelty by the third, and the poached pear sitting next to it was a tad acidic. The dish was innovative, yes, ambitious, perhaps revolutionary, but it could have been sweeter. At least for me.
Thus concludes the negative portion of my review.
And there would be no need for negativity if not for the mains at Noma, which were, as the Danes would say, utrolig (incredible). In the more than three-hour gustatory journey that preceded the dessert - during which my virgin taste buds experienced such earthly wonderments as porcini dust, sea buckthorn leather, Norwegian wild duck, pork fat emulsified with apple aquavit, Swedish truffle (yes, there is such a thing), and powdered seaweed (yes, there is such a thing) - I tasted three dishes that I would characterize as life-changing, including an absurdly delicious egg fried in hay oil and drizzled with smoked cheese, an oyster gently steamed to a perfect medium rare (why are oysters always cooked to well done?) and the finest onion I have ever eaten.
The man seated to my right was in full agreement about the onion. It was served whole, its roots not only intact but dipped in batter and fried. He took a bite and in a Newfoundland accent proclaimed, "That's the best onion of my life."
The onion-lover was none other than Jonathan Gushue of Langdon Hall, who is one of the better chefs working in Canada. Gushue was the reason I was at Noma. Specifically, it was his bread chef, a 28-year-old from Hanover, Ont., named Matthew Duffy, who did an internship at Noma last summer.
What you may not know about Noma is that it's nigh on impossible to get seated there. Last year, it was ranked the best restaurant in the world and it is currently taking reservations for May. Which is to say, unless you know a bread guy from Hanover who interned there, good luck getting in.
If the news that the best restaurant in the world is in Copenhagen surprises you, it shouldn't. Copenhagen is the birthplace of what's known as the New Nordic Cuisine. This soft-spoken Scandinavian capital is the world's hottest food destination. Name a hot food destination - Catalonia, the Basque Country, New York, Sao Paulo, Moscow, Paris (which hasn't been hot for decades) - Copenhagen is hotter. Even the soccer stadium has a one-star Michelin restaurant.
Our tour began on a snowy Sunday in late November. Not three hours after the plane's wheels touched down on an ice-fringed Danish runway, I experienced my first New Nordic moment. It was a piece of pork, and there wasn't much new about it: a heritage breed of pig raised in a heritage style, lightly spiced and grilled. Yet it was among the most memorable pieces of pork I have consumed, expressing a porky savouriness I'd never before experienced.
New Nordic moments kept coming. In the days to come, I would eat the best hot dog of my life (see Andersen Bakery below), sample 10-year-old apple and plum cider vinegar aged in eight different kinds of wood, eat thinly sliced grilled veal heart, smoked fish and chips, and uncountable slices of epically good bread, all of it made from 19th-century varieties of Danish wheat. (Retro wheat is big in Denmark right now.)
Copenhagen has undergone a culinary revolution. I mean that literally. Danish chefs and foodies routinely begin sentences with the phrase: "Before the revolution…" The revolution they are referring to is the creation of a document known as the Nordic Cuisine Manifesto. It was signed, in 2004, by 14 top Danish chefs. You might think of it as a culinary version of the 10 commandments. Lines include: "To express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics we wish to associate with our region," and "To develop potentially new applications of traditional Nordic food products."
If it sounds the scripture of the eat-local movement, it is. But take note: Denmark has taken the concept of eating local and added several zeroes to it. Eating Danish isn't about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions or about pride of place. It's about flavour. After decades of importing Italian truffles and French foie gras, the country is on a mission to find out how it tastes.
The answer is Denmark tastes good. Noma, which receives reservation requests from around the world on a daily basis, has proved that point. But eating in Denmark is about so much more than Noma, which gets too much of the credit. (Something the kitchen staff at Noma are quick to point out.)
Consider Claus Meyer, a man who can claim as much credit for the state of food in Copenhagen as anyone. Meyer is a self-described "food entrepreneur." In the early 1990s, he was struck by the poor quality of Danish food. "The bread was shit, the restaurants were shit, none of the farmers had attitude," he says. He wondered, why in a society as wealthy as Denmark would the food be terrible and the children unhealthy?
Meyer's first move was to take over the canteen at Copenhagen Business School. He now employs more than 400 people in a gastronomic empire that includes a restaurant and food emporium called the Claus Meyer Deli restaurant (order the Danish-spiced duck confit), a Danish fruit supplier, a catering company, a chain of bakeries, a chocolate maker and Noma (Meyer is a founder and part owner). That 10-year-old apple and plum cider vinegar I mentioned? Meyer brews it in the old carriage house behind his home.
But Claus Meyer is hardly an eccentric in this town. His friend Katrine Klinken, who has published 20 cookbooks and is head of Slow Food Copenhagen, has a grain-milling machine in her own kitchen. In that very same kitchen, I sampled seaweed aquavit, which you might think of as New Nordic Cuisine's greatest noble failure.
Or consider the bakery Bo Bech. It is so fussy about quality that it makes only a single type of sourdough bread, which it ferments for four days before cooking it in its own brick ovens. Similarly, at Andersen Bakery, hot dogs are made with organic pork, placed inside a light multigrain bun and arrive topped with organic ketchup, crispy onions, mustard from the island of Bornholm, pickles and homemade remoulade. An Andersen hot dog costs $9, and it's worth every kroner.
If there were a single Danish restaurant I could airlift to the end of my street, it would be Kodbyens Fiskebar, which translates roughly as "fish bar in meat town." In some ways, the place could not be less Noma-like. The atmosphere is ultra-casual, the cuisine in no way veers toward the molecular, and the waiters look like Danish hipsters (which is to say, extremely good-looking hipsters).
But Fiskebar shares the apparently countrywide obsession with ingredients. Gushue didn't get past the first entry on the raw menu before ordering 48 oysters. (He once ate 90 in a single sitting in San Francisco.) The best came from Limfjord and were almost as wide as pizzas. Gushue downed one and said, "Sweet. Amazing mouth-feel. Not too briny. I've never had an oyster that meaty." He followed with razor clams with fennel and herb cream, and trout tartar with spelt seeds, mustard and capers.
The restaurant's owner, a bearded Dane named Anders Selmer, walked over to say hello to the apparently ravenous foreigners. The waiter dropped a dish of turbot fried in seaweed butter in front of us that Gushue described as "the best piece of fried fish I've had in 20 years." As we ate, Selmer told us that just 10 years ago, it was actually hard to get good fish in Copenhagen. "Denmark," he said, "has always been a fishing nation, but the best fish was exported."
That, of course, was before the revolution.
Mark Schatzker is author of Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef.
Special to The Globe and Mail