Copenhagen & Noma: A Non-Foodie’s Dream
My wife and I do not consider ourselves among the foodie class. We grew up on the East Coast in places where cheesesteaks and pizza are the norm. We avoid taking photographs of our food for our social feeds, choosing to consume rather than admire. Our families have the same approach; while we may enjoy food, we rarely plan our lives around it or travel for it. Which is all the more strange that my mother would ask us to travel nearly halfway around the world for a meal in Denmark to celebrate her 60th birthday.
It would be a return to Scandinavia for most of us, after our first trip there six years ago. Just months before I met my wife and fell in love, my mother fell in love with the charms of Copenhagen. And for a once-in-a-lifetime celebration, she could only think of one restaurant worthy of the trip: Noma.
Our adventure did not start with an airline lounge or a foggy approach into coastal Denmark. It began on the computer. Four of them, to be exact. At 1 a.m. in early January. To get reservations at Noma, and thus to plan the rest of the trip around our meal, required the luck of the draw as Noma’s reservation system opens at 10 a.m. local time Monday morning. I sat in front of my desktop computer, my laptop, my wife’s laptop, and my iPad hoping one of them would be randomly assigned a low number.
Awarded spot 45 (jackpot!), I waited six minutes to enter the Noma reservation system. Booking larger tables on weeknights is easier at Noma, especially during Easter week when Scandinavia’s major cities go into hibernation. Reservations secured, the e-mail to my family went out at 1:19 a.m. and I went to bed.
Arriving in Copenhagen three months later was an austere event. Low gray clouds surrounded the coastline as the long Scandinavian winter hung on a few more days. Inside the sterile but modern airport, we cleared passport control and Danish customs without even a question inquiring about our visit. I guess my wife’s blonde hair and my commitment to muted clothing tones helped us fit in.
The train from the airport into Copenhagen’s central train station was fast. In less than 15 minutes, we arrived in the heart of one of Europe’s most underrated cities. High ceilings and dark steel belied a welcoming interior, and from certain angles it felt as though we had transported back to the early 1900s. We slid past the famous clock in the center of the station (for decades before text messaging, Copenhagers met “under the clock”) and took a look outside. Our luggage clanked as it rolled onto the cobblestoned sidewalk and across the street to Denmark’s most iconic hotel, the SAS.
Now known as the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Copenhagen, the SAS was originally designed by architectural legend Arne Jacobsen for the eponymous airline in 1960. Its sleek, modern design is a hallmark of its era, with one room (606; ask to see it in person at the front desk) maintained from the original décor.
Our first stop in Copenhagen was lunch with my family in a desperate attempt to get on the local time by forgoing sleep. We had reservations at Kanal Cafeen in the heart of the city, craving traditional Danish smorrebröd, or open-faced sandwiches. Mom got the best view, of course, looking past us to the water’s edge through a cozy window tucked three steps underground. Our server was almost a Danish cliché: tall, blonde, and well versed in English. His jokes had us at ease as the very popular café began to fill for lunch.
The house recommendations were simple: order lots, stick with what you know, and make sure someone orders the herring. “It’s an acquired taste for Americans,” our server told us gleefully as my father literally took the bait. Soon, we were surrounded by 15 plates of Danish roast beef, egg, lamb, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and, of course, herring. Each sandwich was a meal in itself, so we resolved to try a little of everything, as complicated and messy as sharing this amount of food might be.
Though it goes against the rules of fighting jet lag, we decided next to take advantage of Copenhagen’s burgeoning coffee scene for a caffeinated pick up. We snagged lattes and world-class Americanos from Lagkagehuset, a Scandinavian chain known as much for coffee as incredible baked goods. It was here I was introduced to the Flodeboller, a chocolate-covered meringue/marshmallow confection often rolled in toasted coconut. Ordering on sight, I learned later that Flodeboller (or Kokosboller, as it is named in Norway, where my obsession grew later) is a common Scandinavian treat with many variations.
The rest of our afternoon found us taking in the tourist hotspots of Copenhagen in rapid-fire succession. We started by walking the Stroget, a shopping avenue downtown, then taking the train to Oesterport. From here, it was a scenic 20-minute walk to “The Little Mermaid” statue inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story. We snapped the obligatory tourist photos and then opened our maps to plot a waterside course that took us south to Amalienborg, Denmark’s royal palace. Photo opportunities were aplenty here in the palace’s sprawling courtyard where King Frederick V is immortalized in statue and the Danish Royal Guard stands at attention. One guard appeared to be messing with my wife and me, marching toward us wherever we went. His interest (and accompanying machine gun) was a little unnerving at first, but we laughed about it over drinks later.
From Amalienborg, we headed farther south to Nyhavn (pronounced Noy-haun). Though slightly too touristy to boast the same authenticity you might find in smaller villages, Nyhavn is postcard central for its incredible canal and multi-colored homes and restaurants lining the water. We grabbed a table (and a blanket) outside, ordered a Carlsberg and a Chardonnay, and settled in for some of the most fascinating people watching of the trip.
Our first day of sightseeing complete, we taxied back to our hotel, showered, and met in the lobby on a rigorous schedule maintained by my father. We were in Copenhagen for one purpose: Noma. Lauded as the best restaurant in the world by nearly every guide that matters and boasting a prestigious two Michelin stars, it was the only place worthy of celebrating Mom’s 60th.
Dressed in business casual (Noma’s relaxed vibe is both surprising and differentiates it from its fine dining brethren) we taxied across town and were let out in front of a subtle brick building. Our maître d’, a charming Aussie, let us inside and the entire staff paused their work to present themselves. Instantly I noticed what makes Noma so special. Head chef and nouveau culinary legend René Redzepi waited patiently as my sister needed two awkward minutes to pry off her jacket and gloves. Then he shook her hand and we were seated as the staff jovially headed back to work.
As is standard at Noma, we were having the seasonal tasting menu with wine pairings. We began with a crisp, dynamic French champagne and what was announced as, “berries and greens soaked in vinegar for one year.” The pickled local fruits and greens were deliciously soft and not at all overbearing, reflecting Noma’s seasonal, farm-to-table approach to food. As we were early in the season, there were less fresh options available. Noma had prepared for this by pickling a stash of last year’s best choices.
The berries and greens were followed by fermented wild plums and wild beach roses, one of the most inventive food items I have ever tasted. Set in a circular, Frisbee-style mold, the combination of sweet from the plums and bitter from the fermentation balanced each other, with the sweet eking out a slight victory. The dish defined Noma’s dining experience—local, seasonal ingredients crafted in ways not seen anywhere else.
And it was only the beginning. We progressed through our menu with wine pairings from across the globe. While there was a slight French bias to the pairings (proximity to France will do that), we were never left craving our favored California Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Pinots. The wines grounded us between the old world and the new, with an Allez Goulons sticking out as a particular winner.
Seven courses into our experience, we arrived at what for me was the superlative seafood experience of my life, the fresh langoustine. “Fresh,” of course, is a relative term, but in this case it meant our langoustines were still moving as the exposed meat was still attached to a twitching head on the crustacean. My sister and wife were panicked. My father, mother, and I dove right in, rewarded by a taste (augmented by black ants and seasoning) that transcended all prior seafood in experience, taste, and freshness. The omnivore in me had awoken, and after a few minutes of indecision (and Instagram videos), the others finally took the plunge and agreed. We were immediately re-coursed with a perfectly charred monkfish liver, soft and crispy all at once.
Two particularly special treats closed out dinner. The “vegetable flower,” a black, vegetable-based creation that defies category and has the consistency, coloring, and anise taste of licorice, appeared on our plates. Tentative at first, I soon savored the chewy, flavor-filled morsel, scanning the plates of my family for more (none were available, sadly). After the best seafood I had ever tasted, it would have been hard to match that enthusiasm for any other course, but our last savory dish hit the mark: roasted bone marrow. An avowed bone marrow fan, I happily add marrow to any dish for Sunday roasts year-round. Noma’s transcended. It was simply the best food I have ever eaten. My mouth lingered on the fat-like morsels left in the bone for maximum flavor, and I cleansed my palette with a striking white from Italy.
Dessert was an equally inventive affair, with “forest flavors, chocolate, and egg liqueur” following “a dessert of bitters and hazelnut oil.” The chocolate-focused second course felt like an Easter basket for children of the forest while the egg liqueur was an eggnog by any other name, with a silky, sweet taste and mouth feel. Mom also received a creamy, chocolate cake for her birthday, and we ordered filtered espressos to chase down the sweets.
Despite being bombarded with courses, we still felt light and airy as we circled the table, each of us toasting to Mom. In a way, such a life-changing meal was appropriate for the woman who had the most impact in each of our lives.
The evening should have ended here, but it did not. We were invited to a waiting area and served our choice of local schnapps. Chef Daniel emerged from the kitchen, relaxed with an American accent. By chance, he is from our hometown in Virginia and began his career at my sisters’ high school. This coincidence netted us a private tour of Noma, from the kitchen we saw during dinner back to the surprisingly ordinary grills used to prepare several of our dishes. Daniel took his time with us in the private offices/chef’s dining area upstairs, answered our questions, and reminisced about his time back in Virginia. He has been here for years, and although Noma feels like a flat organization, we could tell he is a senior, respected member of the team.
Leaving with our menus and memories as souvenirs, we returned to our hotel and fell blissfully asleep. Did that really just happen?
After a day to recover from Noma, our final evening as a family in Copenhagen was spent at Tivoli Gardens, the world’s second-oldest theme park and the inspiration for Disneyland. While the parallels to Disneyland are obvious, there is a quaintness and simplicity to Tivoli that we rarely find in American theme parks. Tivoli boasts more than a dozen authentic Danish restaurants and many more craft stores plucked out of central casting. I looked over to my mother, who stood in awe of Tivoli’s giant storybook stage and realized the past two evenings were exactly what they were supposed to be. Denmark carries a reputation for wonder and simplicity, and for Mom, being here was a chance to go back to a time when she was young and in awe of the world around her.
Of course, what we all know that mom does not is that we were standing nearby in awe of her.
Tak, København. Thank you, Copenhagen.