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Greetings from…Copenhagen!

Copenhagen, Denmark, what an intriguing and important city in the world’s gastronomic landscape. The city itself is truly unique. There are dashes of Scandinavia intertwined with the quirkiness of Portland, Oregon, the flatness of the Midwest, the individual pride and creativity of San Francisco, and momentary flashes of New York and Tokyo subways at rush hour when you see a Copenhagen bike lane around 5 pm.

This is a city built on two islands (Zealand and Amager), within a stone’s throw of Sweden to the point that Malmö is essentially a branch of Copenhagen (or vice versa depending who you ask), yet Copenhagen certainly does not have the strict, orderly manner or the sparkling, Monte Carlo-esque cleanliness of that country to the north. Copenhagen resides on two islands with more man made islands to go with that. Copenhagen is a city where 55% of its residents commute by bike. On one street in Copenhagen’s Norrebro neighborhood reside not just one of the city’s best restaurants, wine bars, bakeries, and coffee bars– they are all among the world’s best in their genres. And they are all within two blocks on the Jaegersborggade.

Kødbyens Fiskebar

Copenhagen has two islands and it also has two main canals, along with various other tiny canals. It’s Venice without the classic elegant architecture. It’s Amsterdam without the orderly city planning. It’s hard not to get lost in Copenhagen. Those two canals are excellent landmarks– the larger canal separates the center of the city from Christianshavn (the man made island where Noma and the stunning opera house can be found), while the other side of the city features a set of smaller canals that serves as the unofficial morning jogging route for locals.

Of course, Copenhagen is home of the Little Mermaid (she wouldn’t want to swim in these canal waters…), who is indeed petite compared to Venus di Milo, for sculptural comparison. It is home to arguably the world’s greatest amusement park, Tivoli Gardens, where “amusement” has not yet been lost on corporate greed. Copenhagen boasts several excellent museums, especially the NY Carlsberg Glyptotek next to Tivoli with its terrific French impressionist collection.

Copenhagen is one of the world’s leaders in environmentally friendly products and ideas, with its imposing bike lanes being the most obvious evidence of that. One feels the same in Copenhagen when bike-less as you might in Los Angeles without a car.

All of this and Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital only has a population of just under two million people. It may be an important European capital, but Copenhagen is not a striking power à la Paris, Vienna, Rome, et al. (more…)

Restaurants: Noma, Copenhagen

The pair of pine tree branches partially hides the caramelized spears of snow white asparagus, as if this image was deep in the heart of a far-off forest from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. The moment is pristine and clear. A flurry of pine needles off the branch lay alongside the asparagus on one side, while a forest green pool of pine and green asparagus sauce counters the pine needles. They work in unison on this edible canvas. The tender white asparagus is dipped into the sauce, followed by a roll in the needles.

Asparagus and pine is the humble name of the most startlingly simple masterpiece on a 27 dish marathon of masterpieces at Copenhagen’s famed restaurant, Noma. The dish centers on the perfectly, gently charred white asparagus. With its hyper-seasonal and local focus on ingredients that every restaurant opened in the past ten years claims to possess, but that Noma takes to a stratospheric obsessive level, the chef delivering the dish to the table informed us that we will in fact be the final service of white asparagus for the spring-summer white asparagus season. One more day and the asparagus would be merely mortal. The asparagus and pine twist and twirl together in various forms—each alone, each together in the sauce to bathe the lone asparagus. A dollop of crème fraîche is added tableside, the one element of the tableau not related to asparagus nor pine (the white color does not disturb the winter white-green spring theme, however).

Pine needles may be one of the more peculiar seasonings you’ll encounter. Basil may conjure images of Tuscan country sides, while pine needles transport you to Christmas. The somewhat minty freshness from the pine nearly numbs the palate initially, like a Szechuan peppercorn is wont to do, then subdues it for the filet-mignon-like, tender, white asparagus to re-capture the focus.

Asparagus and pine is a work of art. Noma is, as it has been compared to many times, a ballet, telling a riveting story full of comedy, drama, romance, and grace.

Asparagus and Pine

It’s never easy to be the best. Nobody likes you, but everybody envies you when you’re number one. It’s even harder to be the best restaurant in the world, because everybody will have a separate opinion as to what constitutes the best restaurant. “Foodies” worldwide will claim that their neighborhood bistro is the world’s best, or that it is absolutely ludicrous that Mugaritz or the French Laundry are not “better” than Noma, as if it’s possible to really say if “Hey, Jude” is the better song than “Let It Be.” At least in sports, the team that wins the Super Bowl or the gold medal is the best. Debates will ensue, but the champion is the champion. (more…)

Restaurants: Relae, Copenhagen, Denmark

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. (more…)