Romaine lettuce is usually an afterthought, hardly the focus of a salad like its glitzier lettuce siblings Little Gems and mizuna night be. It almost seems romaine lettuce gets the adrenaline pumping like iceberg lettuce.
Then after you’ve sampled around a bit in the restaurants of Copenhagen’s New Nordic cuisine generation that swept the city off its feet a few years ago and now the rest of the world is striving to replicate, much like molecular gastronomy beforehand, you’ll never look at any ingredient the same way again. Whether the ingredient is a plant or animal, in the hands of these champion foragers and visionary chefs, fungus, moss, and ants are all ripe for the picking. And little did you know, they pack sensational tasting rewards.
About to turn two years old, Copenhagen’s tiny New Nordic bistro Relae suffers a bit from an unfair bloated image by the media. At its heart and what it intends to be, is just that, a tiny, charming bistro that is affordable and warm, while creating thought-provoking plates with exciting techniques and ingredients that best represent this ruggedly beautiful part of Europe. Green strawberries, elderflower, white asparagus, lamb from havervadgard all make appearances on Relae’s recent menu, proving, not that it needs to be proved, that raw ingredients from Denmark are more than herring.
What is unfair now for Relae is that it has acquired such publicity because it resides in the same city as “the best restaurant in the world” that diners from around the world descend upon Copenhagen and eat at Noma and at Relae and expect similar experiences. Whether it’s because they are both in Copenhagen and leaders of the New Nordic cuisine movement or because Relae’s chef and owner Christian Puglisi was a sous chef at Noma prior to opening Relae, nobody can really say. Having dined at both restaurants in back to back days recently, there really is no fair comparison. Relae’s four courses are not trying to be the marathon, life-changing event that is a meal at Noma. The service style and cconcepts behind the cooking are similar. Then the line needs to be drawn.
While the U.K.’s Restaurant Magazine has anointed Noma indeed to be the world’s best restaurant now for three consecutive years, this year Relae was named the 75th best restaurant in the world. I won’t go into debates as to what constitutes being one of the “best” restaurants in the world. Leaving Noma the day before, I would have no problem giving them the gold medal. Leaving Relae, I was still waltzing with joy from the sensational elderflower and rhubarb based dessert to conclude the meal. Still, it would be very hard to be convinced that Relae, as a whole restaurant, can make it so high on such a list. That’s not their goal either. For what their goal is to provide top end gastronomy in a personal, homey bistro, they absolutely succeed at.
The thirty year old Puglisi’s terrain is a massive, laboratory of an open kitchen next to the entrance of Relae, where a couple of steps lead you from Jaegersborggade into the subterranean lair with about three round tables for four or five, then another ten or so tables along the room’s street side perimeter. Natural light floods in from the room long windows, countering the more somber exposed brick posts, bare wood tables and chairs, and the low hanging laboratory evoking lights. Everyone seems to be in a jovial mood, here for different reasons: in one seating you could find young couples on second dates, couples having what must be a 40th anniversary dinner, successful business meals in suits, and a group of four local guys dressed for later pub hopping. And of course, the world traveling food tourists. Relae strives to be a neighborhood spot for the locals, not some world restaurant competition contestant. Judging by the celebrations and laughs and smiles of the evening, it certainly is pivotal in this neighborhood’s fabric.
The Jaegersborggade, across a canal from central Copenhagen, used to be one of the dicier streets of the city, in the Nørrebro neighborhood. Thanks to a hyper local culinary revolution on the street, in large part to Relae, the two block long street is one of the finest, heavily concentrated stretches of food and drink you’re likely to encounter anywhere in Europe. Across from Relae is Relae’s wine bar Manfreds & Vin, the perfect spot for an apertif glass of wine before dinner at Relae, or just have dinners at Manfreds anyways. Further along the street you’ll find one of the world’s leading coffee roasters and home to champion baristas, The Coffee Collective. Pick up an espresso, cross the street, and pick up extraordinary brownies and bread at Meyers Bageri, the flagship bakery of a burgeoning mini empire from Noma co-founder Claus Meyer.
Puglisi crafts a pair of four course menus each night for 355 Danish Kroners (an absolute steal at $59 USD), with a couple of special additions to start, such as herbs and pistachios to snack on, or some toffee or chocolate to finish the meal. At least three quarters of the tables seem to go forth with the matching wine pairings. The pairings are the same price as the actual menu, one of the rare times you will ever see such a thing, a comment on what a bargain the food menu is. The menus share a second vegetable course and the same dessert. The meat menu and the vegetable menu differ with the first course and the third (the main) course. A “cheese” course is optional prior to dessert, more on the quotation marks in a moment.
With Meyers Bageri on the same block, there must be something special about the water on the Jaegersborggade with the quality of the bread there and baked by Puglisi. It’s the perfect sourdough, with a strong hint of wheat. It’s impossible not to sop up every drop of sauce with this bread. Puglisi should open a bakery too on this street. With all of the bread you end up eating from the pot it’s cooked and served in, the dinner is really five or six courses.
Puglisi is actually known more for his vegetarian compositions. However on this early July night, you would have had a tour de force meal on the meat side. The vegetarian options were fine, sometimes underwhelming. I wanted to love the combination of bitter green, unripe strawberries with an even more bitter pile of buttermilk “snow,” accompanied by a few sprigs of cress. Together, everything was refreshing and subdued. Nothing stood out and don’t dare eating the buttermilk snow on its own.
On the other hand, thinly sliced tartare of lamb from havervadgard was brilliant, combining the Southeast Asian pungent funk of dried shrimp paste with the Nordic purity of dill. Equally exceptional for both menus was last of the spring asparagus. The spears get finely diced and served in a dense mound with mint and the added crunch of sunflower seeds.
The meat entree was one of those masterpieces where you have a watershed moment thinking how food can reach such textures and tastes, and that a special chef is behind this meal. Humbly called chicken wings, Puglisi presents the tenderest of sliced chicken livers, thighs, and hearts under a pale veil of thin white asparagus ribbons. Butter adds richness, anchovies add some fascinating umami to the equation. I don’t remember the exact technique I was told how Puglisi achieves this velvety texture, but vaporization is one element. The moistness effect is the same as many chefs employ parchment paper to do for fish. It’s the chicken that steals the show, the meat almost melting into the sauce. Even anti-liver advocates at the table were swooning.
And boy does Puglisi have a way with asparagus. The only slight tweak would be to somehow add some color to the white on white on white plate appearance.
The vegetable main course centered on the largest head of romaine lettuce you will ever see, next to a vividly green nettle puree and solidified egg yolk shavings atop the romaine “filet.” There’s not much to critique on the dish. It was exquisite to look at and very fresh tasting, but lacked any of the excitement of prior dishes. The romaine even found some smoky flavors to evoke a southern collard greens dish with the tender texture of a rare steak. But really, the dish should be cut in half and used as a starter of a side. A few bits are all that is needed.
Now, that cheese course is something else. Instead of a hunk of cheese or two, molecular gastronomy steps in with fresh goat melted and served as a pool of cheese sauce with a parsley sauce. The romaine dish was a wonderful idea that couldn’t fully make it to the big stage. Here, yes the goat cheese was fine, but the melted aspect took away any enjoyment of the cheese’s texture or taste. The dish really seemed to be a parsley cream dip for the excellent bread. Sometimes innovation is wonderful, as it is in most cases at Relae. Melted cheese is not one of them. It does a disservice to the cheese. Perhaps better as a starter, this really was just a vehicle for the bread.
Elderflower and rhubarb for dessert is also quite the innovation, but this time absolutely flawless. Elderflower comes in many forms for a sort of make your own ice cream sundae. There is elderflower infused crushed ice with elderflower cream, mixed together with dehydrated rhubarb and sweet caramelized oats. A few elderflowers are sprinkled over the top. Together, the combinations thrill. Dessert doesn’t get better than this. Chocolate is nothing compared to elderflower and rhubarb I guess.
The wine pairings are spot on, especially the 2009 Panier de Fruits from La Coulee d’Ambrosia, from France’s Anjou region in the Loire Valley, paired with the chickens. I wasn’t crazy about the sweet 2011 Blonde from Andrea Calek in the Ardèche somewhat covering up the floral notes in the dessert. The wine itself was terrific on its own saved for post meal lingering.
It’s the other non food related aspects of Relae that sometimes hit the wrong note. As celebratory as the crowd is, the servers and chefs delivering the dishes seem glacially unemotional, only smiling when they’re confused about something you’ve requested. As unemotional as the servers are, the chefs show even less pride in these dishes they should be incredibly proud of. Relae takes a page from Noma’s service book with the chefs delivering the dishes and then explaining in Harvard level detail the background of the dish, its preparation, and the story of the ingredients. At Noma, the chefs are smiling, laughing, and presenting as if they are talking about their own children. At Relae, the task seemed to be a chore.
Like the melted cheese course, having napkins and silverware in a drawer at the table for you to set the table yourself is an efficient, fun idea that also seems a bit tacky in the shadow of such accomplished cuisine.
In the end, the attempts at informality don’t hold down the genius of Puglisi’s cuisine on display. Everybody is having a great time these days on Jaegersborggade. Even if the servers and chefs strike you as too tense and your cheese was melted, the chicken wings and elderflower and rhubarb dessert lift your spirits up the stairs and back out into the Copenhagen night for more celebration.