Monday, June 14, 2010
Copenhagen or Bust
Let me be clear – I like Copenhagen. I like Denmark. I like the Danes. I like the fact that it’s a joy walking around the city, a joy meeting people, a joy using the efficient mass transportation, a joy touring the canal by boat, etc. etc. In fact, the New York Times recently proclaimed the Danes as the most joyful people on the planet. With the prices in Denmark, I’m not exactly sure what they are so joyous about. Maybe they got to eat in all the good restaurants that I didn’t during my recent visit. That must be it.
Unfortunately, my stay in Copenhagen from a dining experience was pretty much a bust. No, I did not make it to René Redzepi’s Noma, the recently rated best restaurant in the world. The closest I got to Noma was when we passed it on a boat tour and the guide explained how one must reserve two years in advance. So I was one year and 350 days late when I called and ended up on a waiting list. So sue me. Maybe this is all for the better – a look at Noma’s menu leaves cause for pausing, with items like biodegradeable grain and smoked musk ox cheek. No sense trying to reserve again for two years hence. Chances are Noma will have been displaced from the top spot to number 3, 4, or worse, and who wants to eat in the 3rd or 4th best restaurant in the world anyway? Everyone knows Avis and Hertz – does anyone care who is no. 3? Case closed.
The Noma experience was pretty typical, even for mere 1-star Michelin restaurants in the capital. I tried the way, way, way over-priced Formel B, The Paul, Krogs Fiskeresteraunt, among others, only to find them all fully booked. Another disappointment was the more affordable smørrebrød (open sandwiches) landmark, Ida Davidsen, a family run business that comes highly recommended. I trekked out to the restaurant for lunch one afternoon, navigating a couple buses and a couple maps, only to learn at the door that they could not seat poor old me because they were filled. When I got back to my hotel later in the day, I checked my restaurant list and next to Ida Davidson I found I had written ‘must reserve!!!’. Doh.
Well, I had to eat, so my aspirations lowered, I did end up with a few good experiences, if not especially memorable. First up, and what turned out to be the highlight meal, was a seafood place in walking distance from my Mayfair Clarion Hotel, Kødbyens Fiskebar, a modern, converted warehouse in the hip meatpacking district, where one can sit at one of the 20 or so scattered tables, at the ample bar, or at the circular aquarium. I chose the bar and chatted up the bartender/server, who informed me that the soft shell crab sandwich I had seen on their online menu was not on the current menu because of supply issues. This was the one offering they imported frozen, but being Baltimore bred, I would take a soft-shell crab sandwich any way I could get it. I settled for a couple glasses of Maker’s Mark to console my weary traveling mind, and opted for a trout tartare entrée, and a baked cod main dish. Both were excellent: the tartare had a crunchy element to it, which I learned from the bartender was spent grain, similar to rye. Denmark does bread and does it well – the accompanying basket of dark breads was addictive. The cod came accompanied by artichokes with truffle powder and salsify (long roots), as well as a small bucket of boiled potatoes. On the surface, Fiskebar comes off as laid back and casual, but there’s obviously someone making an effort in the kitchen. (In fact, there are two kitchens: a cold, raw seafood kitchen, and another responsible for the hot dishes.) When I settled for an espresso when I ordered a post-meal latte, the waitress graciously comped it. Dinner for one, with a couple drinks and free coffee came to, by Copenhagen standards, a relative bargain at 55 euros, although part of that included a 3 or 4 euro charge for using a foreign credit card. With the euro crumbling, the Danes are veritably gloating with their bloody kroner, but my advice is ‘Get with the program!’ so that I can travel without having to do little currency conversion equations in my mind all day long.
I know it’s a piece of garbage, but I had in hand during the trip a 2010 edition Copenhagaen Berlitz pocket guide. One of their recommended restaurants in the Radhuspladsen district was Passagens Spicehus, described as ‘the place for Nordic food.’ I telephoned and reserved a place for one. Only when I showed up, the restaurant that I found was a Japanese venue, where I was informed that Passagens had closed shop four years ago! So, in essence, the folks at Berlitz apparently either don’t visit the venues they recommend, or simply assume that they haven’t changed in four years. Moral of the story: do not buy the Berlitz travel guides.
One of the kind chefs at the Japanese spot, upon learning that I was looking for some traditional Danish cooking recommended a small restaurant a couple blocks away next door to the Waterloo strip club, Frida’s. The menu didn’t appeal to me, so I ended up eating a couple doors down from the Gentleman’s Hollywood strip club, across from my hotel. In Copenhagen, when you ask for directions, be sure to ask for the nearest strip club, otherwise people won’t know what you’re talking about. The restaurant was the Frk. Barners Kaelder, which had all the aura of another Copenhagen landmark, though definitely not of the strip club variety. There I started off with the herring platter, which promised three varieties of herring ‘according to the cook’s mood.’ Well, it turned out that the cook was in a pickled spice (chili and cinnamon), mustard, and pickled onion kind of a mood. The ample portions of the three herring varieties were accompanied by small dishes of diced onions, capers, and solidified dripped fat. I dipped into the dripped fat, thinking it was horseradish or something like that and nearly regurgitated. When I asked the waiter if he didn’t think that maybe a bowl of solidified dripped fat wasn’t exactly on the Surgeon General’s most healthy foods list, he simply shrugged and mentioned how butter and smoking are bad for you, too, so what are you gonna do? My main dish wasn’t as intriguing – a large grilled skate fish, with a bowl of boiled potatoes, the latter of which seem as obvious as salt and pepper shakers on the Danish table. Barners has a nice terrace, but you guessed it, it was full, so I settled for a table in the quaint interior. Nothing quaint about the rather motley crew of fellow customers. At the table in front of me was a joyous, bearded Dane brandishing a blood red Satan t-shirt with the caption, ‘God is busy. Can I help you?’ The bill, including a couple glasses of wine and that hideous credit card fee, came to 55.50 euros.
Also noteworthy was the inexpensive lunch at Kaelder 12 bistro around the corner from Ida Davidsen where people like me without a reservation at Ida’s are exiled, a knowing nod from the owner upon entry. An interesting selection of smørrebrøds, and they come recommended from the folks at Ida’s, who eat at Kaelder’s, as I was informed by Ida’s joyous host who had turned me away. The priciest meal came at the expense of dinner at Els restaurant at the end of the famous Nyhavn strip of cafes, restaurants, and bars, and a few steps away from the Kongens Nytorv square, where I was accosted outside the Danish Royal Theater (Det Konelige Teater) by a dapper gentleman trying to unload a couple tickets for the evening’s performance of My Fair Lady. I was tempted, but as far as I am concerned, there was only one fair lady and that was Audrey Hepburn who, alas, is no longer with us. You can check out Els’ offerings at their website, as there was nothing much that memorable about my meal, other than the restaurant’s charming 19th century décor. Here again I opted for the herring platter entrée, and I was mildly amused to find that Els’ chef must have been in the very same mood as Barners’ cook, what with the identical selection of three types of herrings. At Els, I finally mustered up the courage to order a half bottle of wine – a S. African Shiraz, Cape Tranquility. As is true throughout Scandinavia, the wine prices are outrageous. Count on about $100 per bottle. Blame it on the economy, 100% plus restaurant mark-ups, import costs, whatever, you’ll do better simply ordering a couple akvavits with your meal. The bill at Els, for two three-course meals and the half Shiraz, totaled 140 euros. Finally, one of my more enjoyable meals was a casual lunch on the narrow glass-enclosed terrace at the Dansk Arkitektur Center's Dacafe overlooking one of the canals. I started off with an interesting terrine, followed by a very tasty open-faced grilled chicken sandwich. Lunch for two, with a couple glasses of wine came to 53 euros.
There’s more, but this should give you a flavor for Copenhagen dining. With better advanced planning, there appear to be some hidden culinary treasures in the city. My guess is that with a little effort, you can make out much better than I did. So much for the North, time to set the compass for the south and return to the Valencia region of Spain, where the the Riojas are plentiful. . . and cheap.
Den Hvide Kodby
tel. +45 32 15 56 56
FRK. BARNERS KAELDER
tel. 33 33 05 33
DANSK ARKITEKTUR CENTER
tel. 32 57 19 30
Store Strandstraede 3
tel: 33 14 13 41