The opera house on Holmen Island has a restaurant on the top floor.
The opera house on Holmen Island has a restaurant on the top floor.
Bjorn Thunaes

Copenhagen Dining: Beyond Danishes

(By Bjorn Thunaes)
Sunday, March 11, 2007

On a recent trip to gray, wintry Copenhagen, the last thing my wife and I expected was to be wowed by a restaurant. We'd figured that the Danish pastries would be eye-openers, and we'd anticipated being happily sated by the open sandwiches. But a meal that left us shaking our heads in amazed delight? That was not on the original itinerary.

Despite enthusiastic recommendations from Americans and Danes alike, I'd worried that the four-year-old, rustic-sleek restaurant Noma might prove to offer too much high concept and not enough good eating. Its admirable mission is to use only seasonal Nordic ingredients and to apply traditional and advanced cooking techniques, along with a great deal of creativity, to teach an old musk ox new tricks. Sounds good in theory, but dishes with names like "potato puree and malt soil" can raise doubts.

No fear: The chef possesses taste and skill, as was immediately clear from the bar snacks we had with our house-brewed beer -- crisped skin of fish and chicken, little fried shrimps and fish, and homemade versions of crisp bread flavored with herbs and seaweeds. We ordered the seven-course tasting menu. All but one of the savory dishes were centered on seafood and vegetables, including leeks, monkfish, langoustines, wild mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes and excellent black truffles from the Swedish island of Gotland. The one meat course was tender, slow-cooked venison.

Oh, yes, that potato puree with malt soil: The "soil" that topped the mashed potatoes was sprouted grain that had been roasted to near blackness; it had a sweet earthiness.

On our arrival in Copenhagen, our thoughts were fixed not on Gotland truffles but on smorrebrod (literally, bread and butter), the iconic open sandwich of Denmark. Friends had recommended Cafe Sorgenfri for an authentic local experience. The former tavern (it had been keeping sailors properly drunk for a century and a half before adding a smorrebrod menu about 50 years ago) is full of atmospheric good cheer. We ordered the variety platter (marinated herring, shrimps, roast pork, a pork croquette, a liverwurst-like pâté, chicken salad and cheese) along with fried marinated herring. Evidently, a hungry Dane can engulf all of this by himself, but it truly was plenty for two. The shrimps were bland and the chicken salad insipid, but everything else was full of flavor, notably the herring and the crisp skin of the roast pork. Bread (stick with the black variety) is served, yes, with butter, but also with delicious pale brown lard garnished with pork cracklings. Great fun, especially for lunch, when the joint jumps.

Another good central option for smorrebrod was Leonore Christine, an oasis of gentility on the brash street Nyhavn. For an afternoon snack, we enjoyed our three classic variations on herring (regular marinated, spiced and with curry sauce) and pickled tongue served with freshly grated horseradish.

We had planned our trip around a couple of performances at the Royal Danish Opera. One of these took place in the brand-new waterside opera house on Holmen Island, which contains a top-floor restaurant for pre-theater dining (ticket holders only). For opera house food, it was good, although only one prix-fixe meal is offered, with no choices. Our meal consisted of a not altogether successful lobster consommé with Jerusalem artichoke mousse, followed by perfectly cooked beef tenderloin with an intense, rather old-fashioned red-wine/veal stock reduction. We shared an excellent cheese plate for dessert. Ask for a table along the perimeter of the glass-walled building so that (daylight permitting) you can enjoy the views of Amalienborg Palace and the entire city.

The other food group we were eager to explore was Danish pastry, which the Danes call Viennese: wienerbrod. Forget the dense, clammy disks you robotically grab with your container of morning coffee. When eaten freshly baked, this is high-class pastry: gently crisp on the outside, light and flaky within. There are many varieties, but lots of them include almond paste or other nuts, jam or eggy custard; others are topped with poppy seeds. The best we had were at the Konditori La Glace, which has a particularly nice tea room, and at the Hotel d'Angleterre, where you can have Danish pastries as part of afternoon tea. A full tea of sandwiches and pastry is about $40 -- not cheap, but the atmosphere is relaxing, and, if you reserve a windowside table, the people-watching on the square is as good as it gets. Indeed, we witnessed Queen Margrethe pass by in her carriage, accompanied by dozens of uniformed horsemen. In general, high-quality pastries cost about $5 apiece; if you pay much less, you'll get much less.

Copenhagen has a lot going for it. It is quiet, compact and full of good museums. It was nice to find that it is also full of good things to eat.

-- Edward Schneider

· Noma, Strandgade 93. For the seven-course tasting menu, figure $180, including wine and a pre-dinner drink.

· Cafe Sorgenfri, Brolaeggerstraede 8. About $40, with draft beers and aquavit.

· Leonore Christine, Nyhavn 9. About $40 with beer.

· The Opera Restaurant, Det Kongelige Teater, Holmen Island. About $75, including wine.

All prices are per person and include tax and service, although a small tip is not inappropriate.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company