By Steve Poses
When we first met, Christina told me how much she’d loved her travels in Scandinavia, a region I’d never visited. Finally, last summer, we made the trip together, visiting Reykjavik, Copenhagen and Stockholm. Of the three, Copenhagen was our favorite stop, every bit as charming as it had sounded in her fond recollections. In fact, I would now rank it among my favorite cities worldwide.
Initially settled by Vikings in longships, Denmark is a seafaring nation. As we know, geography is destiny. With its surrounding waters, temperate climate, flat arable land and rain sufficient for agriculture, this country has enjoyed a generous harvest of food from sea and land. That natural bounty could be one reason why the 2019 Worldwide Happiness Report ranked Denmark #2 – after Finland and before Norway and Iceland. (Our United States ranks #19 for anyone keeping track at home.)
The city of Copenhagen itself, located at the junction of the North and Baltic Seas, is thrilling in ways that only waterfront cities can be, with winding canals, boats and bridges. Home to 1.2 million Danes, including 800,000 within the municipalities that make up the city, it’s about two thirds the size of Philadelphia.
Christina and I arrived in late June, which is perhaps the most ideal time to visit. Dawn’s early light gets going a bit past 4 a.m. and the sun bids a final goodbye as 11 p.m. approaches. That’s nearly 19 hours of natural light. Given that the reverse occurs in January, it’s no surprise that everyone seems to be outdoors during summer, giving the city a spectacular seasonal vitality, and no doubt contributes to their #2 ranking in the 2019 Worldwide Happiness Report.
I’d wager that happiness also correlates with great restaurants. It was Noma, opened in 2003, that introduced the world to elevated Nordic cuisine. By 2010, Noma was named number one among San Pelligrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Today, Noma is ranked second and Geranium, another Copenhagen restaurant, is ranked fifth. While these lists are always relative, it’s worth noting that Copenhagen does seem to set a standard.
Securing a reservation at either Noma or Geranium requires both deep pockets and a long planning horizon. But it’s not necessary, because Noma has already left a long and lasting impression on the local culinary culture as its chefs have gone on to open their own establishments and its food has inspired countless other menus in the Modern Nordic cooking tradition. This cuisine is acutely seasonal, befitting of a country with long summer days and long winter nights. With little natural diversity and a short growing season chefs have emphasized both foraging and preserving to keep flavors interesting. Indeed, Noma has produced the definitive Nordic Guide to Fermentation. (People once asked how we could give away our recipe for beloved Commissary Carrot Cake. My response was that if they saw how involved it was, they would instead decide to buy it from us. I bought the Noma Guide with every intention of becoming a first-class fermenter, only to discover that it is way too involved for me!)
It’s exceedingly easy to dine in Copenhagen as an American, as culinary tourism here has become so popular and most people speak English. The following is a brief description of the restaurants we most enjoyed—all very different yet memorable. To get the best feel for each, I encourage you to visit their websites. Better yet, I encourage you to visit this beautiful city and enjoy them in person.
Like many other cities, Copenhagen has turned its post-industrial Meatpacking District into the hip epicenter of a diverse food culture, and it includes one of the city’s great seafood restaurants. With no reservations, we were offered bar seats, which we happily occupied. Our perch provided a panoramic view of the packed dining room that spilled out onto the sidewalk on this beautiful summer evening. While we waited for assorted oysters, we sipped wine and tore into a generous wedge of crusty bread with seaweed-infused whipped butter. Raw fish used to be the domain of Japanese sushi bars but now is ubiquitous in restaurants across cultures. Our raw choices included simple brill and more complex scallops, cucumber, mild horseradish and nasturtium. We followed this with apple-cider steamed mussels with herbs and double cream. Next, squid cut to look like a bowl of noodles and redolent of parsley, served with pickled kohlrabi in a roasted veal and chicken dashi broth. We also enjoyed white asparagus lined with a Danish take on the culinary trinity of sweet (brined shrimp), sour (rhubarb) and salty (caviar).
Restaurant 108 $$$
Low on the long list of Restaurant 108’s accolades is the Steve & Christina Award—this was our favorite of the Copenhagen restaurants we visited. Restaurant 108 is located in a former warehouse, adjacent to Copenhagen’s quintessential outdoor food mall alongside a wide canal. High ceilings accommodate dramatic blown-glass light fixtures surrounded by a suspended flock of dangling little white birds. Large windows and the late-setting sun provided an abundance of natural light. The setting is tailored without being stiff—sort of like pressed cotton khakis. Menu highlights included sweet peas covered with a cloud of shaved granita; tartare with ramson (a wild garlic leaf); perfectly seared fish topped with an avalanche of feathery herbs; and shaved white asparagus. As with all of these Copenhagen restaurants, the wine lists feature numerous interesting wines by the glass generally not seen in the United States.
Pate Pate $$
Our planned visit to Tivoli Gardens, the sprawling vintage amusement park a block from our hotel in central Copenhagen, did not anticipate its lack of dining options for two travelers with high standards. Possessing passes that enabled us to come and go, we opted for a short Uber back to the Meatpacking District. We landed at its oldest establishment, Pate Pate, for an immensely satisfying Spanish-French dinner. The friendly, raucous, lived-in atmosphere seemed to reverberate with the accumulated pleasure locals and visitors have enjoyed here over the years. (Take note of the collaged walls of quirky illustrations as you enter.) Our meal included well-charred octopus with paprika, olives, chorizo and mashed potato; half a grilled avocado on cauliflower puree, brown butter, sumac and dukkah (the Eastern Mediterranean blend of nuts, seeds and spices); and a risotto with summer squash, mushrooms and hazelnuts.
Iluka is an aboriginal word meaning “near the sea” and reflects this eatery’s singular culinary focus, courtesy of an Australian chef with Noma pedigree. Central to this stylish storefront in a lovely old Central Copenhagen building is an open kitchen, which allows for quick turnaround of sparkling fresh seafood. Great crusty bread and creamy butter are de rigueur in today’s best restaurants and Iluka’s comes from the Hart bakery’s hearth. People sometimes ponder what they would like as their last meal. And while I do imagine a charred, well-salted steak or the comfort of a mound of spaghetti with meatballs I have to say mine would be uni—the orangish roe of the sea urchin. At Iluka, the uni was from the nearby Faroses sea and served with grilled bread. Next, four perfect slices of lightly cured salmon were served with only a lemon for brightness. It is unusual to see herring on the menu of a modern Danish restaurant with serious culinary chops, so as a matter of curiosity we tried their version—house-cured, chopped and seasoned with finger lime and herbs. No regrets. We were at the peak of sweet green pea season and Iluka featured them with fresh fava beans and chanterelles in a mussel sauce. A trio of lightly breaded oysters came with a scoop of oyster-infused cream accompanied by lovage and samphire, an ocean succulent similar to sea beans. A sweet ending was provided by rhubarb, pink peppercorns and cream.
Two other Copenhagen highlights
There is much to see and do in Copenhagen. It is an eminently walkable city filled with waterside parks and a cityscape dotted with spires. But if you do go there, be sure not to miss the following:
This wonderful museum, located twenty miles north of the city on the Oresund Sound in Humlebaek is an easy train ride plus a fifteen-minute walk from the station. Named for the wife of its founder, the Louisiana stretches across landscaped acres dotted with modern sculptures, including two monumental Calder mobiles overlooking the Oresund Sound. Among the impressive modern holdings here is one of the world’s largest collections of Giacometti, housed in a glass-walled gallery with a pond as the backdrop, but the temporary exhibitions are also notable.
Tivoli Gardens Opened in 1843, Tivoli Gardens is the second oldest operating amusement park in the world. It is located across from Copenhagen’s central train station. Best known for its wooden rollercoaster, the park is loaded with rides for adventurous adults to small children. As Christina and I are neither of those, we strolled through and marveled at the verdant gardens and ornate vintage architecture. Though magical, it was nothing like the Magic Kingdom. Returning after our dinner at Pate Pate, we caught the sound and light show on the lake before a short walk back to our hotel.